Episode 3: Understanding and Overcoming Founder Loneliness with Vassia Sarantopoulou

Feb 21, 2023 | podcast | 0 comments

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You can find the full transcript for this episode at the bottom of this page

According to a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 50% of CEOs struggle with loneliness struggle with feelings of loneliness of their job. Although we don’t know the specific rates of loneliness amongst founders, I’d venture to guess that the rates are even higher. Loneliness is prevalent amongst entrepreneurs, especially in the fast paced, high pressure world of startups. You’re often working alone, and even when you have a team you might feel pressure to show up as a polished and perfect leader for your team members. 

Not to mention the fact that many founders don’t have prior experience as leaders so the new leadership role may compound the feelings of loneliness. As a founder it’s likely you’ll at times find yourself feeling isolated and that no one understands your vision or your struggles. 

Founding a startup is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do and adding loneliness on top of that makes it more challenging than it needs to be. As our guest in episode 3 shares with us, loneliness is a natural human emotion, but there are steps you can take to combat loneliness as a founder and ensure that it doesn’t affect your mental health.

“Loneliness by itself is normal, it’s a human experience meant to be felt by human beings, but being too long in loneliness is what prolongs and perpetuates even more emotional and mental burden.”

Vassia Sarantopoulou is the Founder, CEO and Head Psychologist of AntiLoneliness, a company offering mental health services in The Netherlands and also worldwide. She is also a Mental Health Educator, promoting Inner Peace, Mental Strength and Healthy Relationships with others and with our Self.

Through AntiLoneliness and her team of psychologists, she offers individual, couples or groups sessions to those who struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, burnout, loneliness, relationship issues, transition/change, expat life. She is trained in (Group) Schema Therapy and Emotionally Focused Therapy, among other approaches (CBT, ACT, CFT), and she is a member of NIP (Dutch Institute for Psychologists), ICEEFT (International Center of Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy) and ISST (International Society of Schema Therapy).

She is an advocate of a life without mental health stigma, with an abundance of kindness and with an undying openness to self-awareness and self-growth, and that’s what she promotes through her services and online courses, and also through her collaboration with universities, companies, and organizations.

What You’ll Learn in this Episode:

  • How Vassia defines loneliness and what she sees as the antidote 
  • The personality trait that can increase feelings of loneliness 
  • Why founders are more likely to struggle with loneliness 
  • Moving away from the leader who “has it all together,” to an alternative model of leadership that can help combat loneliness
  • The relationship between loneliness and mental health struggles
  • Actionable steps founders can take to combat loneliness and care for their mental health 
  • How to decide between getting a therapist or coach if you’re looking for professional support

Find Vassia Online:

Resources Mentioned on the Show

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Schedule your free discovery call HERE.

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Disclaimer: The Founders’ Fears & Failures is for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes only. It is not meant to be used for personal health advice and should not be construed to constitute personal or professional consultation or guidance, or to replace medical or mental health treatment. The opinions expressed by this podcast, including the podcast guests, are not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of a medical or mental health provider regarding any questions or concerns you have about your medical and/or mental health needs. If you are in crisis, please visit this website to find a list of suicide hotlines around the globe. 

Episode Transcript:

Melissa: In today’s episode, we’re diving into an issue that plagues many founders, but which is seldomly talked about – loneliness. Anyone who has been a founder will tell you that it’s often a rewarding journey. It can also be incredibly lonely. The pressure to succeed the long hours and the constant uncertainty can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Not to mention that founders often don’t feel like they have anyone to talk to about what they’re going through, or they feel like they need to keep up the facade of the so called perfect founder.

Today’s guest is a psychologist, founder of a group therapy practice and the loneliness expert will be discussing my founders are more likely to experience loneliness, how loneliness can contribute to burnout and other mental health struggles, and the small actionable steps founders can take to combat loneliness and proactively care for their own mental health. Vassia Sarantopoulou is the founder, CEO and head psychologist of AntiLoneliness, a company offering mental health services in the Netherlands and also worldwide. She’s also a mental health educator promoting inner peace, mental strength and healthy relationships with others and with ourselves.

Through AntiLoneliness and her team of psychologists, she offers individual couples and group sessions to those who struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, burnout, loneliness, relationship issues, transition and change and expat life. She is an advocate of life without mental health stigma, with an abundance of kindness and with an undying openness to self-awareness and self-growth. And that’s what she promotes through her services and online courses, and also through her collaboration with universities, companies and organizations.

Hi Vassia, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. We’ve been connected on social media for a while. But a few months ago, you shared something on LinkedIn that really caught my eye about the struggle of loneliness at the top or loneliness amongst leaders. And when I saw that, I immediately knew I wanted to invite you on this show, because this is something that founders struggle with so much. So thank you for being here.

Vassia: Thank you very much for your invitation. And this is one of my favorite topics, loneliness. And that’s why I also named my company AntiLoneliness. I want to talk about this topic. It’s the elephant in the room, nobody talks about it, then it’s not only about as we think elderly people being alone and suffering from loneliness, it happens for everyone. Teenagers, young people, divorced single mothers, people who are grieving, people who change country and they are all by themselves in the new country. And founders. Of course.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I hear what I hear you saying that it’s a kind of a human phenomenon.

Vassia: Yeah, it is. It is difficult, we don’t talk so much about it, it means that we are staying more time in the struggling alone. So it becomes bigger, it becomes worse. Loneliness by itself is normal. It’s, it’s part of the human experience. It’s a human emotion meant to be felt by human beings. But being too long in loneliness is what perpetuates and creates even more burden, emotional, mental burden for us.

Melissa: I love hearing you say that, because that just comes back to so much of why I wanted to start this podcast is just having some of these conversations that we don’t have enough, right, because it’s so hard to struggle already. But if you’re struggling in silence, and you feel like you’re the only one. But you know, you know, as a psychologist, and I know with my background in psychology, that just creates so much more pain.

Vassia: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you need more time to recover after that.

Melissa: Definitely. Yeah. Well, before we jump into the topic, I’d love for our listeners to just hear a little bit more about you more about whatever you want to share with us about your life as a psychologist, entrepreneur. I know you love travel, so maybe about being a world traveler. Whatever you want to share a bit more about.

Vassia: Well, I’m a psychologist coming from Greece, but living now in the Netherlands, the last nine years I have been citizen of the Netherlands and recently I got the Dutch nationality. That’s something I’m very proud of, because it enhances my feeling of belonging. As I say with loneliness it’s very important that we actually see what makes us feel lonely, and sometimes when you live in a culture and you don’t feel that you belong, it feels lonely. So for me becoming that citizen with that nationality is was part of my defeating loneliness. I’m also not a very typical Greek, I don’t like feta cheese, and I don’t like olives and

Melissa: Okay, I didn’t know this about you before.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah, I’m not very typical. And also, I don’t like very warm weather.

Melissa: Okay, so the Netherlands is a good spot for you.

Vassia: Very good spot, very good spot. So the Netherlands was also the place that I started my own company, AntiLoneliness, a mental health company. We’re offering mental health services to our community, but also online. And it has been like, six years already that I have been growing this company and I have been experimenting with my creativity. And it started as a solo practice. But now it’s a practice with 15 other psychologists. And we also have a platform with online courses. And it keeps expanding. And that’s something that I enjoy very much. So to answer your question about the experience as an entrepreneur, I wear two hats. One is the psychologist and the other one is the entrepreneur and sometimes these two plus, because they’re two different personalities.

Melissa: Yes, I can understand that definitely.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah, definitely. But I exploring and experimenting with both of them has been very rewarding journey for me.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think you’re right, they can clash. But I also think it puts you in a unique position to be able to bridge the gap between the two. Right? And so you know, the listeners here are entrepreneurs, many founders of startup companies. Also, I’m certain that there are people listening who are founders of companies similar to yours, or who are the, you know, founders of companies that are providing different services, working in the healthcare industry. And so, yeah, we could probably do a whole show just about the clash that you mentioned.

Vassia: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Let’s keep it for another time.

Melissa: Yeah, we’ll have to get you back on here about it. But I do want to say I’m so curious about can you tell us a bit more about what inspired you to focus on loneliness and name your company AntiLoneliness?

Vassia: I was looking for a name, first of all, for my company, and I didn’t want to name it Vassia Sarantopoulou Counseling. Because for me, that was, of course, more self-centered, or it was, you know, my practice, okay, but it didn’t have a mission. It’s I think, since we’re talking about founders and leaders, for this category of people, the mission is more important than the person, the fact that they’re changing something, or that they are talking about something and bringing more awareness about something is more important than who is doing it. So for me, it was not about who am I, but more about what I want to talk about. So I was trying to think what it is that we, all people, experience. And then I came up with loneliness. Nobody is exempt from this, nobody is excluded for that. And I was like, yeah, I need to talk about loneliness. Even though I’m treating people on depression, or anxiety or divorce or relationship issues. They all feel loneliness while they’re experiencing their anxiety, depression, divorce, or relationship. We all feel lonely when we are struggling.

Melissa: I just wanted to say I love that because also, I think in the mental health field, like loneliness isn’t talked about enough. And so but we all know it right. We all we’ve all experienced loneliness. And so I love that you just kind of pinpointed that, oh, no matter what specific kind of problem I’m treating loneliness will be a common factor amongst everyone.

Vassia: But for a long time, loneliness has been a taboo, people would not dare to say I feel lonely. Yeah. And especially now with social media. We feel that we should, we must, be connected. If you dare to say something like “I’m feeling lonely,” “What’s wrong with you? Just go out and meet friends, you know, what’s wrong?” So it’s more about having a date or having a friend but it’s not like that it’s more complicated than this.

Melissa: So maybe we can dive into that then. What is loneliness exactly?

Vassia: Loneliness is the feeling of not being connected, emotionally mentally connected with other people. And you can see now the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. You can be in a room with 100 people and feeling lonely. You’re not alone, but you’re feeling lonely, because you’re not feeling connected. It is possible that this can happen. And it is also possible that you are all by yourself, but you have this fulfilling feeling of connection. with yourself or with others, and then you don’t feel lonely.

Melissa: Yeah, but I hear you saying it doesn’t have to do with how many people are around you?

Vassia: No, that’s why I use the feeling lonely and the being alone. One is the feeling. And the other one is the being. So sometimes we confuse it. And when we can, when we say I’m feeling lonely, it means that I am isolated, or I don’t have somebody around me. But that’s not the case. There are people that I see my practice, and they are in relationships, and they are feeling lonely, even though they are together. 24/7, especially with a pandemic, when you have to be with your partner 24/7. There were so many people coming out and saying, I cannot do that I feel so lonely, so disconnected with that person.

Melissa: Yeah, it you’re making me think so a lot of the times what I see kind of common recommendations for founders, if they’re experiencing loneliness, is to get a co-founder or network. And what you’re saying is, that’s not enough in most cases.

Vassia: Well, that’s not enough. Yeah, because you have to find a connection, but a meaningful connection, somebody who understands us who gets you who has your back. So loneliness can be even not connecting. But it’s also the lack of support, I don’t have anybody to understand me and support me. I feel lonely in my struggles, I don’t have anybody to share my struggles, and to have somebody not just nod their head and then go, but actually say, “tell me more. I’m listening, I’m here for you.” So that’s the and due to loneliness, we also have this feeling of not belonging. So that’s something for example, that I have seen in people that they’re working in areas that what they do is not so easily understood by the majority of the people. So for example, people who are working on data science, climate or technology or bioscience, they can’t just go in a group of people and say, “Well, let me tell you what I’m working on…” We will not understand anything. So the feeling that I don’t belong, I cannot say what I’m working on. I cannot say my ideas, I can only talk only to somebody who has done the same thing or similar things are working in the similar environment. So that I feel that we two belong. That’s when loneliness is being lifted.

Melissa: Okay, yes. And that makes so much sense. In the context of founders and leaders, they often are working on something so unique. Any other reasons you think that kind of there’s more loneliness at the top more loneliness amongst leaders?

Vassia: Oh, yeah. Now we go very specific. Yeah. So the first thing that comes to my head when I’m thinking about leaders is that they are holding an idea, a vision, they have visualized, something that nobody else has seen before. That by itself is lonely. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody else has gone there. They are holding the torch in the darkness. Nobody else understand they are they’re keeping a fire inside them. But no one’s not gets this fire. It’s when you start explaining your big idea. And people are like, wow, this is nice. And then when the conversation ends, they go about their life. They watch their TV,, they pick up the kids, or they just watch Netflix and you are still trembling, you know, with the excitement of your idea. That’s so different. They don’t get it.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah. So there’s kind of like loneliness in being the innovator and being the visionary.

Vassia: The visionary, exactly visionary. Another reason why leaders are feeling more lonely is that they have to be on their toes all the time. They’re holding this idea, but also they’re holding this responsibility. They’re responsible for this idea. They’re responsible for other people. If there are people working together with them, they cannot relax. When a member of your team says “I want to take a day off,” you know, you don’t even question about that. But a leader cannot give themselves a day off. No, I have to do that. I’m holding something really big here. I cannot take a day off. So that’s not only lonely, but also exhausting, right?

Melissa: Yes. Okay. Yeah. So then we get to the kind of the different factors that come into having that role as a leader right, that may be the overworking yourself combined with loneliness. Is it is a dangerous combination.

Vassia: Yeah, absolutely. And considering that the leader also needs to takes to take big decisions, and they’re holding this responsibility alone, that can feel like a very heavy burden for them. I’m all alone in this. And I, it’s not that I’m being punished to be alone, I have to, there’s no other option I have to be alone, I am the leader of these, I am showing the way.

And that’s another reason why they’re feeling lonely. They are giving the example. They are inspiring other people, they not only have to produce a product or a service, but they also have this task of inspiring others, they feel that they cannot let go off, you know, they cannot let go. They have to keep negative feelings. They have to show that they keep it together, that everything is going well. Even though inside them they’re feeling so stressed, panicked, uncertain, all these things that keep them inside them. And they have to show to their team. Everything is okay, things are going very well.

Melissa: Okay, yeah. So that they really can’t show up as a human being in a lot of ways.

Vassia: Yes. Yeah, exactly.

Melissa: Well I know in one of the things I saw that you shared on LinkedIn, you talked about a different kind of leadership that you think can help to combat loneliness. And I remember it had something to do with letting yourself show up more as a human being, can you share more about it?

Vassia: Yeah, I think I think it’s what we call the old school leader than the new school, right? So the old school was more like, keeping the facade and showing that I keep it together. And I am only here to, to show that things are going well, and I cannot show vulnerability, and I cannot show weakness, and I cannot make mistakes, even though it’s obvious that I making a mistake or that I will do some mistakes. Still, I have to show to other people – No, I knew that already or you know, I pretend I didn’t know or that it was your fault. So that was the old school – not admitting mistake, failure, vulnerability or weakness. Was that inspiring? I don’t think so. Maybe for some, or maybe it was not sustainably inspiring.

Melissa: Yeah, what is the distinction?

Vassia: Yeah, because the moment that you see your leader holding, because you can see that they are holding all these emotions, or pretending even though they’re struggling, they’re pretending that they’re not, already, you’re taking them down off the pedestal already, they’re not so much of a leader for you. They are not showing how to be human. And then we go to the new model, which is when we try to show to our team, when we try to be vulnerable, and showing that vulnerability doesn’t mean weakness, but vulnerability means strength. It means learning from our failures. It means learning from our mistakes. It means we are growing as a team through our conflicts. We don’t need to avoid the conflicts, we can go through that. It means that we can change our mind even though I started going that direction on that product or that service with that name. For my company, for example, I can change my mind. And I can say, Well, I figured out now that I know more or I know better, I figured out that I need to go that way. Are you coming along? So that’s where people around us learn through that kind of leadership.

Melissa: Yeah, there’s something I’m hearing too, as you’re talking about this, that kind of that new type of leadership might actually help fight loneliness within companies, too.

Vassia: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Melissa: Because there’s nothing worse than feeling…tell me what you were going to say.

Vassia: Yeah, because you’re including other people. The first model was about exclusion. I’m here, I’m keeping everything secret. My struggles or my challenges and keeping this as a secret, you know, very well kept. While the other says, Well, I can also share something with you. It’s useful for you. We’re not becoming friends with our team members. That’s also not possible. But you are also becoming more connected with them to the level that this relationship allows you to do. Here is a struggle and here’s what we do, we struggles. And I also want my team members to come and say what they’re struggling with. I’m not being an advocate of secrecy and exclusion anymore. But I’m being the leader of real connection, authentic connection with the people who are working together with me. And they understand how difficult and challenging and struggling it is. And with understanding how challenging it is, they can also get part of my vision, the one that we said in the beginning that it’s difficult for other people to consume.

Melissa: Yeah, so when you’re also sharing the struggles that come with carrying that vision and executing that vision, it sounds like that combats the some of the loneliness too, right, because your team members can start to fully see the full picture of it.

Vassia: Exactly, exactly. The leadership that tries to motivate other people only through positive affirmations and positive, you know, a positive image, can only take you that far. But the leadership that tries to motivate you only, or also, by showing you the struggles and the challenges, and the fallbacks, and, you know, transformations and their relaunches and all the stuff, that can also include other people, and then we feel less lonely.

Melissa: I love that. I love that. Well, because I love that you’re saying that not only is this what you recommend as a psychologist, but you’re also touching on the fact that you as an entrepreneur, this is how you lead your company too. Because I think there’s sometimes this misconception that psychologists we might just say what you should do, but maybe we don’t actually follow through ourselves. And that clash we talked about the psychology versus entrepreneur, it can be difficult sometimes to actually practice what we preach.

Vassia: Absolutely, absolutely is difficult. And I’ve seen it also in my journey. While growing my team. There were many times that I thought that my team knows what I’m going through or how difficult it is what I’m trying to do here. But then they had no clue because I never included them in showing, in seeing, my struggles. I never told them how what I do in my day, or how many things I’m juggling with. So only when I started having more often conversations, and we can let go of the façade, and of the perfectionistic you know, emails that we’re trying to project. When I also started sharing, you know, to them that I make mistakes, but here I am, I tried to correct it. And here I am, I also hired a coach because I want to become a better leader for you. And here I am. I’m taking responsibility only when I started having that conversations with them. We started you know, feeling more connected with each other. They knew more about me. I didn’t feel like the victim like oh, they don’t know how much I struggle. So everybody gets out of these positions the victim or the perpetrator and then we start having adult to adult relationships.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah. And you’re just really hammering home that that idea that vulnerability it sounds like is really the antidote to loneliness. Right. And we know I mean, well, we know, I don’t know how many people listening know, but you know. I love Brene Brown. I don’t know if you’re a Brene. Brown fan. But I love what she says and Brene Brown talks a lot about that about vulnerability is the pathway to connection. And I hadn’t, I hadn’t added in how if connection is the antidote to loneliness, vulnerability is the way that we get to combating loneliness.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah. Because the antidote to loneliness is connection. But again, meaningful and authentic, collective connection. How can we be authentic if we’re not vulnerable? How can I be authentic if I don’t tell you that remember, last year when I said this was right, well, I was wrong. That’s my vulnerability. And we cannot be vulnerable with other people if we’re still prisoners of our shame. If we still feel that I’m going to be ashamed, people will talk behind my back. People will not like me. This is this is this is ridiculous. I sit and say something like that. When we are held back by shame, we cannot be vulnerable.

Melissa: Yeah. And can you tell our listeners just what shame is because I think sometimes there’s confusion about like shame versus guilt and, and things like that.

Vassia: Yeah, guilt is feeling bad about what we have done. When we do something when we say something, while shame is when we’re feeling bad about who we are. So to use it in the connection with the example that I said before, I may say something that it may sound wrong, and I will feel guilty. But if I think that by saying that I will remembered as a “bad…” or you name it behind bad you can put any negative word, I will remember it be remembered as a “bad person”, then that’s shame. I will be remembered as a person who failed or as a failure. It’s different, I failed versus I am a failure, or as incompetent or as something is wrong with me. All these things are shame. It’s more about our personality, our sense of identity.

Melissa: Yeah, like there’s something very flawed with us as a person if we, if we’re vulnerable, like when we’re vulnerable, that’s our mind sends us this message that something is flawed with us.

Vassia: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And that’s why when we’re feeling shame, we’re always thinking that, Oh, what will people say about me? What will people think of me? Now, people will not talk to me or now, people will not want to work with me, because we think that this idea of us that they take home with it’s something that cannot change, it’s about our sense of self. It’s not about what we did, but our sense of self. They take this idea home with them, and they cannot change it. That’s what we think when we are chained by saying,

Melissa: Yeah, it’s like written in stone.

Vassia: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Melissa: Well, it’s so complicated, because so there’s a study out of UC Berkeley that says that 72% of entrepreneurs are affected by mental health struggles. So there are a lot of founders out there that are definitely struggling with mental health, whether they have a diagnosable condition, or they’re, you know, they’re experiencing stress to a certain level. They aren’t alone, right? It’s very normal and natural to struggle. But it’s there’s so much stigma around mental health. And I think even more when you’re in a leadership position. And what I hear you saying is that if you don’t talk about it, you’re going to feel more alone. And you might feel shame about it, too.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the implications can be, for sure, more complicated. Feeling lonely, as we said, It’s okay. It’s part of the game sometimes. And then we will talk about the antidote to loneliness. The first thing that I usually say is embrace loneliness, you are supposed to feel that there’s a part of your journey that will feel lonely. When I moved to the Netherlands, I was supposed to feel lonely. Of course, I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know anybody. I don’t have friends here. Of course, I’m supposed to feel lonely. But the thing the, the tricky thing with the acceptance is that it doesn’t make us feel bad about what we’re feeling, or about who we are and what we are experiencing. So when you allow yourself to feel lonely, yeah, of course, we’re supposed to feel lonely, then you can let go a little bit of the pressure. When we don’t do that the pressure becomes more, I need to work more, I need to find more…I don’t know… ideas, I need to find more founders or other people, more sponsors more funding, I need to work more always more, more, more, is of course impacting our mental health.

We don’t know, of course, that our brain is just a machine that has its own limitations. And we think that we can work for days, weeks, months, without any consequences. But that’s not the case. So eventually, we burn out. We get anxiety, depression, and this is only about the mental health. When we’re talking about relationships, also our relationships suffer. We don’t go out. We don’t see our friends so much. They start you know, these friend relationships start fading away. Our partner or spouse, they also have complaints. Our kids they feel completely neglected and ignored. So this is about relationships. And then we go to another area which is the work itself. Our productivity is reduced. We lose our focus. We don’t remember, our bain doesn’t work. We don’t remember. I remember I hear I needed to do something. But then what was it? Oops. So everything works the other way around. And confidence.

Melissa:  So it all starts with drawing, trying to help yourself feel better. But it just creates kind of a downward spiral.

Vassia: Yeah, of course, because, again, we don’t understand that our brain has some limitations. It’s just a machine that you have to take care of, that you have to put some oil and that you have to rest, that you have to, you know, do annual checkups, in order for for that machine to work. In when we think that we have unlimited resources, mental resources, eventually what happens we said the burnout, but also what happens is that many people quit eventually, many people end up sabotaging themselves, they know that they want to succeed, they know that they want to ask more money, they know that they want more clients. And suddenly they find themselves with less. And that’s the self sabotaging that happens. I remember when I was on the verge of burnout, I realized it when I was waking up in the morning. And I felt that I didn’t like my job. I didn’t want to work. And that was for me, the eye opening moment. Wait, I mean, there’s something wrong here, I, I love my job, what’s happening here, something has changed. Something in the chemistry of my brain has changed. Because I used to love it, and I don’t want to stop loving my job. So when we don’t take care of our mental health, eventually, we are going to stop loving something that was our passion, was the only reason that we woke up in the morning.

Melissa: Well, what I love about you sharing your own experience with that, too, is that you know, even as an expert, right, and as so many different tools in our toolbox, like we’re all susceptible to this right? We can, I think it’s the danger of entrepreneurship, right? You can be so passionate about something that you almost get just it just kind of takes off on its own. And if you don’t check in with yourself, if you don’t prioritize your mental health proactively, you might find yourself like you did waking up one day and realizing whoa, I’m getting really close to burnout.

Vassia: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the trap of thinking that we are invincible. That’s not me. You know, Melissa can get a burn out, but not me. I’m good. I’m good. Thinking that this belongs to others, but not to us. Others can get mental health struggles, but not me. I’m good. I’ve never had any troubles in my life before. So I’m okay, I’m good. You used the word that I like, you used the word proactively. When you already collapse and you start taking care of your mental health, we already have a lot of damage control to do at that point. Proactively taking care of yourself. Your mental health, your physical health, even though you don’t actually need it.

Melissa: At that exact moment, right? 

Vassia: Exactly, because we think that we have to take care of something only when it’s broken. But that’s not the case. If it’s broken, it’s already too late. When you take care of your mental health before you need it before it’s broken, that’s the best thing that an entrepreneur, a founder and leader, can do.

Melissa: Yeah, yeah. You know, it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to start this podcast was because so many of the clients that come to me are second or third time founders. They’re people who have already had an experience founding a company and maybe the company was wildly successful, but they burned out. And they learned from experience, I don’t want to do that again. But as you said, there’s so much damage control by that point that we really need to help people to, to not get to that point, right? To learn from other people’s experience to take care of themselves before, like you said, before anything is broken.

Vassia: Exactly, exactly. And we need that, of course, because we want other people to be healthy, and we want them to be happy and to be satisfied with their life, but also to speak, the founder’s language, or the entrepreneur, or the person who has a fantastic idea – because the world needs their product or service. Because it would be a pity if we didn’t have the medicine to cure cancer, or somebody who will change, you know, online remote working, because they had a burnout. Ah, that would be a pity.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. I work with a lot of high achieving individuals. And there’s so much risk when your high achieving tip into perfectionism and burnout and so many other mental health struggles, right. And so, if we can help people through, you know, through this podcast through, you know, the work that we both do with clients, to keep them from tipping over into that zone, kind of the danger zone, the world is going to be a better place, right? Because like you said, we need these innovations. We need people to be successful and not just successful from a financial standpoint, right? But successful holistically.

Vassia: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, absolutely. And if you’re not successful… successful, it doesn’t matchThe word doesn’t match. We’re successful mentally when I say but it doesn’t match. Yeah, if you’re not well mentally, you cannot be successful financially, in the long term, maybe you will be lucky in the first year, second year, fifth year, you will make a lot of money. But that model is not sustainable, just being consumed by this hustle mentality by perfection is, by fears, by pushing, by all the stress and pressure that you put on yourself. That’s not sustainable. And of course, that’s why we have these huge depression rates that keep increasing every year. Anxiety and burnout, we’re all talking about that, because it’s not sustainable.

Melissa: It’s not sustainable. And I do think we’re starting to see a shift in the startup ecosystem, where there has been a cycle of people just it’s just, it is the hustle mentality, go go go grow your company, sell your company. And then I think that a lot for a lot of people is this fantasy, well, then I sell my company for millions, billions of dollars, and then I’ll go, you know, relax on the beach, then then I’ll recover from my burnout. Sometimes that’s too late. And, and so I do think I’m just seeing a lot more attention paid to mental health. And I hope that we start to see a more sustainable system coming up, because it’s just, it’s, it’s, we have so many bright founders out there. And it’s just not fair to them to crash and burn in the process of growing their companies.

Vassia: Yeah, I am gonna use what you just said, I am going to work, then I’m going to take a break. I’m going to completely, you know, burn myself out. And then I’m going to take a break. And I think that that is also one of the traps. The idea that we have misunderstood that you can have a very negative, anxious or stressed mindset for a year or five years. And then suddenly, the day after you can go on holidays and relax. That’s not going to happen.

Melissa: Yes. break break the myth apart forever. For our listeners. Why is that not possible?

Vassia: It’s not possible because if you haven’t practiced compassion, how can you be compassionate the day after your burnout? If you haven’t practiced, practiced enjoying what you have achieved during this year, how is it possible that you enjoy the day after? If you haven’t cultivated positive thoughts, a positive mindset? Celebrated moments, celebrated small wins not only the big ones, but also small wins instead of saying well that was not important. If you haven’t done that, how can you do it the day after? If you haven’t even noticed that there are people around you during these years, your partner, friends, if you haven’t understood the importance of relationships, and of having a healthy social circle, how is it possible that you’re gonna start enjoying that the day after?

Melissa: It sounds like yeah, there is this kind of misconception, like as though we had a light switch in our brain that like, Okay, you sell your company, and then just flip the switch and go on holiday mode. And, like you said, that everybody else will be waiting around and ready to join you at that point, too.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s very difficult to happen. And that’s why sometimes we say, I’m working a lot now, but then, in July, I will take a month off, or a week off, and I will rest. And you see that’s when the lie comes, either they the moment that they take their leave, they get sick, because eventually their body says, Okay, now we can let go, all right, we are allowed now to get sick. Either they get sick, or they sleep for the first, you know, five days so that they can recover. Or they keep thinking about their job, and about work. And they don’t know what to do with all this time that they have in their hands.

Melissa: Yes, yeah. Oh, that’s such a good example. I always think about when I was at university, it would happen to me every time like the end of a semester, the end of finals, right? I have been no, I was definitely in a hustle mindset at that point. Like I think many students are and it never failed the week after exams, I got sick. And and yeah, I think you’re right, I think it’s the exact same thing that can continue to play out in a career, especially if you are just pushing and pushing and going and going, and not giving yourself a chance to stop. Yeah, your body’s like finally, finally, I get to relax and get sick 

Vassia: Because all these mental health struggles that we’re talking about, including loneliness, they weaken our immune system. Body and mind, they’re connected. Just because you’re going through stress, after stress, after stress after stress. This doesn’t mean that it’s only in your mind, or it’s something that you have to mentally resolve. And then that’s it. It’s being stored in our body. And it’s going to come out one way or another sooner or later.

Melissa: Yeah, unfortunately, that is also a misconception about health in general, right? It’s like I tell my clients, it’s not like your head is just floating around by itself, like and it’s a separate thing. It is all connected. So let’s talk let’s talk about, I mean, we’ve already touched on a few kinds of things that people can do, right, like you talked about the importance of accepting loneliness, how else can people treat loneliness as a leader?

Vassia: The second, very important thing to do is seek for support. And support can be different kinds of support. It can be having a coach, for example, especially when you are on your first steps of being a founder and it’s so confusing and so overwhelming. And you don’t know the you know, the drill, or you don’t know where to put some priority. The coach is there to teach you systems, the coach is there to teach you a healthy mind. The coach is there, to take some of this confusion and to bring some more control and safety in all these things that are happening to you. Another thing that is very important that we didn’t say before, when you asked me why leaders feel lonely, is also the thing that many, many leaders, they never were never taught how to be leaders. They just decided to start a company.

Melissa: They didn’t plan on being a leader, right? It kind of got forced into it.

Vassia: So they don’t know the drill. They don’t know the steps. They don’t know about finances, they don’t know about marketing, they don’t know about business management, they don’t know anything about that. So that can make it very lonely just because I don’t know what is the world that I’m entering into. So having a coach and having a mentor is essential. I mean, I have a coach now but I say to myself so often why did it take you so long to have a coach? Why, why, why did you procrastinate so much on that? Because of course we think like yeah, you know I’m gonna figure it out it’s gonna be okay I will find it.

Melissa: I’m intelligent, I founded a company right of course I can figure this out.

Vassia: Yeah. Exactly, yeah, having a coach is only for those who struggle and who are weaker, but it’s not like this, no. 

Melissa: In the spirit of proactively taking care of yourself, right, it sounds like if you could go back in time, you would have gotten a coach earlier.

Vassia: Absolutely, absolutely. There’s nothing that I would have done differently…one thing that I would have done differently, is this, having a coach earlier on. That would have saved time, energy and money. Absolutely.

Melissa: I hear so often from people, from founders of startups, who are saying, you know, there’s the, there often isn’t enough money at the beginning, or do you know the money, it’s like, you need to use it very carefully. And a lot of people and a lot of founders are also working with investors, and so that they need to answer to the investors about how they’re using their money. But what I hear you saying is, getting a coach from the beginning is an excellent investment.

Vassia: Yeah, it’s an investment, it’s, which means that from not having the abundance, already, you’re giving something that you’re not even sure whether it will pay off. But it is an investment. Find a good coach. Find a coach that actually understands you, or maybe they’re even specialized in what you were doing. And for sure, it’s gonna pay off, even if you don’t have the best coach. Because once you get into this mentality that I, it’s okay for me to ask for help. The moment that you reach the ceiling of the collaboration with a coach, you will very easily go to the next one, and you will find the one that can take you to the next step. And then somebody else will take it to the next step. It’s fine, you’re gonna, you don’t have to, you know, it’s not a partner that you have to have forever. serves a purpose.

Melissa: I love that. Because I think that’s such an entrepreneur mindset, right? It’s just like, just try things right? Just and if needed, you can reiterate, you can pivot. And you could do that when you’re seeking out support as well, for a coach, or a therapist as well. I would love to ask you too – what, what are your thoughts about like, what kind of help people should seek out? Like, should they get a coach? Should they get a therapist? Do you have any advice you could offer listeners about that?

Vassia: For sure, having a coach is giving you more practical tools, steps for the future. A therapist would also be very important and very helpful, especially when you’re coming from a bad background of not being supported, being deprived of you know, emotional support. Having a very unhealthy, toxic mindset where you sabotage yourself only with your thoughts. You don’t need any help, only with your thoughts you sabotage yourself. People who have gone from trauma, and they, they don’t even think that they deserve success. They don’t even think that they deserve clients or money. And they are standing in their own way. So sometimes, yes, therapy might be the way to start. 

I’ve also read while I was preparing for our interview, and I read that there are also support groups for founders. And I was like, Oh my God, that’s a fantastic idea. Because I knew about support groups. I’m also running support groups. Support group of founders – that’s a wonderful idea. Because you get to share the suffering, you get to share that, you know, guys, I’m struggling. Oh, me, too. Oh, finally, I’m not you myself. I’m not by myself. I’m not the only one. But also you’re not only sharing the suffering and the struggles, but also you’re creating accountability. You’re renewing the commitment that you have for your own goals. As we said before, many times when we struggle, we’re that close to quitting. And sometimes we do quit, we’re like, Yeah, I’m done with that. I will go back, you know, have my own farm and an easy and quiet life. But then being in a group like that, you get to see that also other people struggle and that already diminishes the suffering. And you get to see these people often enough so that they can remind you how useful you are, how valuable you are for the world. Don’t give up if you want support, we’re here, but don’t give up. We need you.

Melissa: Yeah, so it’s really combating kind of that shame and the loneliness and then also kind of getting a group of cheerleaders, right? Who really understand you and have been where you’ve been before.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I also, I also feel that it’s a nice idea to have a mentor. It’s like a coach, maybe somebody who hasn’t been there before. And they would like to, you know, to mentor you to teach you the tools that they have acquired. And another idea that I also read, and I thought that this was wonderful. And it’s something that you’re already doing. Start an interview podcast.

Melissa: I think it’s a fantastic idea. You’re saying, as a founder, start a podcast where you interview the founders?

Vassia: Exactly, exactly. Because you get to meet other people who are on the same field with you, you get to discuss with them, but also, while you’re learning from them, and while you’re connecting, which is the antidote for loneliness, while you’re connecting with them, you’re also spreading knowledge to the world, and you’re becoming more visible, which is already a very good marketing strategy.

Melissa: Yeah, excellent for your personal brand. And for could maybe help you with what you want to do after you’re done being a founder, right? If you want to take a break, right? Maybe, maybe the podcast is the next thing that you do.

Vassia: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be a podcast, it can also be a YouTube channel, right?

Melissa: There are so many, so many opportunities out there. But I love what you’re saying that it’s just it really, it’s at the heart of all of these different kinds of answers, solutions, is the connection, right? You’re connecting with people, and you’re meaningful, creating those meaningful connections with people who are similar or with a coach or therapist, maybe they don’t, maybe they haven’t been a founder themselves, but they’re trained to be empathetic and to go deep with you as well. And so I think that really creates a meaningful connection as well.

Vassia: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And also, don’t forget the connection to ourselves. And that is the that’s the second, let’s say, bunch of tips that I have for founders – what are some good practices that we can do in order to protect our mental health? What are the tips that can help us connect with ourselves? So something that I’ve learned also from my own coach is to practice journaling. Five minutes at the beginning of the day, and five minutes at the end of the day, just to establish focus at the beginning of the day, that this is where I want to focus today. And at the end of the day, to look back and see what went well. And what I want to change. These five and five minutes, they can be so essential for my whole day, and in the direction of my whole day can take.

Melissa: Wow, that’s it because it is, it’s quite small, right? It’s like a kind of a micro-self-care sort of thing. Five minutes at the beginning, five minutes, the end. I love how you’re saying to that it’s not just what you want to do better tomorrow, it’s focusing on what went well today as well.

Vassia: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I was listening to what was it like? Not a show, but it was an episode of Dean Graziosi. And he was talking about how people are asking him, tell me one secret how you became so successful. And he said, I don’t have, I don’t hold the whole, a big secret. It’s these small habits, these micro habits, your journaling, your routines that you have during the day, instead of you know, scrolling on your phone three hours, or Netflix three hours. What do you do? Do you read your books, your founders’, you know, books and entrepreneurial books? Do you exercise? Do you have hobbies? Do you take care of your mental health? It’s these micro habits that change where are you going to be in a year from now.

Melissa: Yeah, I love that because I do think so many entrepreneurs, especially founders of startup companies, they’re so pressed for time, time is so precious, such a precious resource. And so finding small things that you can do that work. And, and we so often discount it, right? We say like, okay, I have to go out and like run for one hour or I have to, you know, do 30 minutes of journaling. And like you’re saying you don’t need to do that, right. You could just find small moments throughout the day and be consistent with it.

Vassia: Exactly. It’s about creating routines. And you mentioned the thing about time. The truth is, and I keep reminding myself that. You’re going to be, you start at point A, and you’re gonna be at point B in a year from now. You cannot rush how fast you’re gonna go to point B. But you can make a difference on how you will be when you will reach point B. So in a year from now, you will be at point B. And either you’re gonna go there by alternating work and rest in a very balanced way. So you have work and rest, work and rest, and then you reach point B in a year, or you can decide to totally crush it, you know, the first six months and work like crazy. And then you’re going to need the next six months to just recover. But you’re going to be there in a year, you cannot rush that.

Melissa: I like that perspective a lot. Yeah,

Vassia: You have no idea how many things you will do in a year. Just by taking it slowly and focusing on your rest, and enjoying the process, you have no idea. Another thing that I also learned, and I think it’s important for founders, who want to protect their mental health and create these healthy micro habits. And the healthy mindset, of course, is to become familiar and comfortable with asking for help and delegating. I have a sticker in front of my computer, in front of me and it says, am I the only person who can do that? 

Melissa: What a good reminder.

Vassia: Yeah, everything that I do… because sometimes when you are an entrepreneur, and you have all these ideas in your head, it’s very easy to get absorbed into the nitty gritty, into the practical into the, you know, sending the emails or making the PDF or writing this or copy pasting things that somebody else can do for sure. So you can get exhausted and burnout only by doing these things that somebody else can do it, can do, and they take the burden from your shoulders. So learning to delegate can be an integral part of your growth, we cannot grow if we don’t learn to delegate, if we don’t, you know, hire a VA or somebody who can make this PDF without us working five hours on it while they can do it in one hour.

Melissa: And you know, I this I think is so important for our listeners, because what happens in a lot of startups is they grow so quickly. And they start off really like you know, maybe it’s maybe you’re by yourself, or you have your co-founders, and you are doing everything on your own. But as you grow, you need to also quickly start learning how to delegate because it’s an, it’s not sustainable otherwise.

Vassia: Yeah. True, true, true. Well, I hope I gave some ideas.

Melissa: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think we’ve been talking for a while now we have so many great, great things. I think this interview is just packed with a lot of really great takeaways. Is there anything more you’d want to share about treating loneliness, mental health struggles, shame, any of the topics we’ve talked about that you want listeners to take away with them?

Vassia: I think something that connects loneliness, being a founder, and leader, and mental health is sometimes perfectionism. It’s a mindset that keeps us all the time on our toes. We are not enough. We have to work more. We don’t allow failure. We are constantly ruminating over what we should do, what we should say, what we should have said, we are constantly busy with comparing ourselves to people who are ahead of us and how less we are. And of course, feeling less comes together with all the self confidence issues that we sometimes have. So sometimes working on this perfectionistic mindset can bring a big change in how we grow and how our mental health is taken care of.

Melissa: I love that. Yeah. It touches on how you said that, you know, can meaningful connection is so important. I can see like working on perfectionism really allows you to give yourself permission to connect and share and be vulnerable with other people. but it also makes me think of the part that you said about how we can be just by ourselves just with ourselves and not feel lonely. And I think if you can work on that perfectionism that can really help that feeling of connection with yourself.

Vassia: Yes, absolutely, yeah. Yeah both of them are very important. You know that’s one of the myths that we busted today is, which is, it’s not about the connection with others. It’s not that you miss others, you also miss yourself, you’re not a good friend of yourself anymore. You talk to yourself in a way, which is not quite helpful or healthy, and that’s perfectionism talking. And we need to do something about that.

Melissa: Vassia, before, before we end our interview, I do want to ask you one question that I’m asking all guests, and we already touched on it. But just what advice would you give your younger self at the start of your entrepreneurial journey? I know you mentioned working with a coach, would you add anything to that? Or do you think that’s your best advice?

Vassia: I think that would be my best advice. Which comes together with what we said ask for help. You don’t need to do it all by yourself. I’m working a lot with perfectionists and I have worked with myself as a perfectionist, and usually perfectionists believe that all or nothing. Either I do that all by myself. And I take the credit for whatever I do, or, yeah, it’s nothing. I didn’t do anything. If I asked for a little bit of help from somebody else. Well, the victory is not mine, I ruined it. So changing and working with this perfectionistic mindset that says, all has to be resolved by you. Or even, you have to do everything by yourself. It allows us to ask for help. So if I would go back to my younger self, I would say it’s okay to ask for help. It will not take away anything from your victory. Anything from your achievements. It’s yours. It’s fine. It’s yours. Asking for help is part of where you want to go with your success. Otherwise, it will take you more time, more energy, more money.

Melissa: I love that. Well, unfortunately, I don’t have any time travel machine so we can’t go back to tell your younger self that but I hope listeners will take that to heart. If they’re thinking about, you know, whether they need help or not, right? Just that message of the importance of letting yourself ask for help. And I love what you said that even though you ask for help, even though you lean on others, the success and the victories, they’re still yours. I like to say it takes a village to run a company. And I really think it does. And I think it’s very easy to get in that mindset of you have to do it on your own. And that’s not sustainable.

Vassia: No, no, no, no. Yeah. Well, I hope it will be helpful for them.

Melissa: Yeah, well thank you Vassia so much for being on here today and talking with us about loneliness and mental health challenges amongst founders and leaders. It’s been an awesome conversation. I really appreciate it.

Vassia: Thank you so much for the invitation. I enjoyed it very, very much.

Melissa: Thank you so much Vassia for being on the show today. If you want to get in touch with Vassia you can find her on her website at antiloneliness.com as well as on LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

As she mentioned on the show, perfectionists may be at higher risk for experiencing loneliness and mental health struggles. If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a perfectionist (or how much of a perfectionist you are), then take a look at the free guide available on her website titled “How much of a perfectionist are you?” You’ll find all of those links in the show notes. 

I hope you enjoyed today’s interview with Vassia on the topic of loneliness and mental health struggles amongst founders. As she pointed out, loneliness is a human emotion, and not something we can completely erase but we can learn ways to make sure it doesn’t negatively affect our mental health. 

I think loneliness is rampant amongst the startup world because too often we only hear the success stories of founders. So when you’re going through the inevitable tough moments yourself, you feel like you’re the only one and might even get to the point of telling yourself that something is wrong with you for struggling.

As Vassia mentioned, vulnerability is one of the antidotes to loneliness. The more we can share with others what we’re going through – the highs AND the lows – the less alone we’ll all feel. It’s one of the reasons why I created this podcast – to give founders a space to get vulnerable so that listeners can feel less alone and know that there’s somebody out there who has been in their shoes before. 

If you enjoyed today’s show, please share it with a friend, and even better, start a conversation with your team members about the issues we covered in today’s episode. 

I hope you have a great week – see you next Tuesday! 

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HI I’M MELISSA

I’m an executive coach for entrepreneurs who want to make an impact without sacrificing their mental health or relationships along the way.

I'm also a former therapist, host of the Founders' Fears & Failures podcast, and co-founder of the Location Independent Therapists (LIT) Community.

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