Preface: Some people have expressed concern over my social media posts in 4Q2021. I believe there are two forms of social media: Best foot forward (brand driven) and total transparency (personal). While social media tends to be our hi-light reel and not our blooper reel, I have always tried to be transparent – since the days of the Xanga blog – so that people can see the full journey – the good times, the bad times, the sad times. I do keep some things private but overall I try not to project just the good times. I am not a hero or a protagonist. I am flawed.
2021…Just Give Me a Loaded Gun…
2021 was a hard year. I’ll start there. I was slowly realizing I needed to take better care of myself and set some boundaries as ‘my own boss’. Self-employment looks all well and good – until it’s not – and I’d been self-employed running my own company since 2009. My company has done everything from helped run a film company to presently supporting Ukrainian refugee rescue efforts where lives are being saved each day. Prior to that I always had a side hustle going such as music marketing or computer repair. Things were about to change. My personal and work life were becoming a bit much to handle in the year we called 2021.
In 2021, I had some family issues, home issues, as well as changes in my work situation. The family issues won’t be discussed here but in terms of work, I did have everything from my HVAC, crawlspace insulation, to my water heater fail, I had to travel 2-4 hours each day just for office space and internet. I had some slow pays and no pays as well as proposals I poured my time into that went nowhere. Work location was probably the biggest issue. Before the Covid-19 Pandemic I could use malls, McDonalds, and other public places but after the Covid-19 Pandemic most of these places were closed, limited seating, or in consistently open. There is no high speed internet available where I live. The stress was building. I could have used a vacation.
I had not had a vacation in 10 years. I’d tried some stay-at-home vacations but they failed. I still have not. I’d been told people didn’t understand how I managed that. Truth is I hadn’t managed it – very well. I still have not and hope this fall to take a vacation for the first time in 12 years. My last vacation was in 2010 to Ft. Wayne, Indiana where I got to go to the Doctor WHO store, WHO NA. I had business in Wilmore, KY at Asbury Theological Seminary and just kept driving north to Indiana to take a few days off before some other stops on a big business trip that had me in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, and Los Angeles for conferences and film shoots. But back to this past year…and a new word for me in business: boundaries.
Boundaries are often described as the ability to say ‘no’ when someone asks you for something but it’s much more complex than that. For me setting boundaries meant a few more things. It meant establishing my boundaries as business policies and communicating them to clients. I couldn’t get frustrated or feel violated if someone broke a boundary they did not know about. So I made sure to establish the boundaries. Then I tried to communicate them via a company memo and email before standing back and hoping they would work. It wasn’t as clean cut as I’d hoped during the 2021 holiday season. But first I had to make some changes.
The first thing I did was make some technical changes. I separated out my work email and personal email to entirely separate platforms / apps. This insured that I wouldn’t open my work email accidentally and if I did open it, I was making a choice to open it – and I had to take ownership of that choice. I made sure it was only on the web and on my Ipad, not my Iphone. I communicated to clients that all work email needed to go to the work email address since many clients are also friends. This also separated my business with them as a customer of theirs as well, so my inquiries as their customer were separated from their inquiries to me as a service provider. The harder part was yet to come though: communication boundaries.
In November I took a first shot at setting communication boundaries. I wanted to limit contact about business from clients for a week during Thanksgiving. This ultimately failed. I thought I’d done what I needed to in terms of communicating boundaries and believing they would be respected once communicated but they were not. The same happened in the 2 weeks of Christmas and New Years. What I found was the clients who paid the least expected the most and violated the pre-set boundaries while the ones who paid the most both understood the boundaries and respected them. I also found many of them had boundaries of their own.
I also consulted some successful business owners who had both progressed further than me in the business life cycle and seemingly had establish boundaries. They confirmed several things for me. They confirmed that business owners can cut off on vacations as long as they let their clients know ahead of time, they confirmed business owners can have personal / business boundaries, and they confirmed that I hadn’t totally lost my marbles. It was good reassurance as the trauma conga line as it were was taking a toll on me.
The Trauma Conga Line…When Murphy Shows Up…
The trauma conga line is where trauma befalls you like a row of dominoes going down. It’s where Murphy shows up and whatever can go wrong for you will go wrong. By the time one reaches this point, the trauma conga line just seems never ending. It’s not one drip that cracks a boulder as a Chinese proverb goes, but it’s the never ending series of drips that causes the boulder to crack. It wasn’t one client texting on New Years Eve, it was the entire year finally causing the boulder to crack with that single text. I set the boundaries because I knew I was close to breaking. I knew I was close to pulling that trigger. I was desperately trying to protect myself and save my own life. It was like losing everything, everyone, and every dream turning me from an entrepreneur into a total wreck one drip of water away from total decimation.
No one cared even when I conveyed where I was at. But I also had to understand that no one was going to care. My mental health was not their concern. Their business priorities were their concern. No one said “hey, are you okay, do you want to do coffee, do you want to talk about it?”. No one. I had to accept that my value to them was simply if I could do the job they hired me to do. But that’s part of being a service provider. You are needed.
Much of my life has been about being needed, not wanted but that’s part of running a service based company like I do. You’re asked to things where you are needed – if nothing is broke or nothing is needed, no one thinks of inviting you anywhere just for fun or company. You end up in a negative state because there are constant withdraws taking place but no deposits. That’s the life of a service provider. I get that. But in the same vein who’s going to look out for you? My daughter had a phrase she’d say to me when I’d try to express something to her I thought was of life lesson value: “nobody cares…nobody cares” – and she was right. Nobody does.
Who Cares? I Care.
I realized that no one was going to look out for me but me. Most people have their own business interests and their own lives as their primary concern and as such I could not expect people to be concerned or even care about me. I was ready to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger if another client violated my boundaries. I couldn’t get them to stop. I begged and begged. I just needed the voices to stop. I even told one if they kept texting I’d put a gun to my head and pull the trigger. I only disclosed my mental health issues to the clients who violated my boundaries. The ones who didn’t violate them are probably reading about this for the first time. But that isn’t the takeaway. The takeaway is this: at the end of the day I had to realize no one was going to look out for me but me. And I needed to actually just not hear the right thing to do but listen too. I’ve heard it put that listening is hearing a word and then taking action.
After the holidays I changed or ended the relationships with the clients who violated the boundaries and understood clearly that I had to take control of the situation we call life. The clients I kept are also the ones who believe in taking vacations, are unreachable during off hours / weekends and believe you can totally cut off if you are a business owner, even a 1-man business owner or single member LLC. That’s priceless. But that’s not for everybody.
I also understand that some clients need 24/7 support or support outside my boundaries and welcomed them to find other service providers. I made sure my boundaries are clearly worded in the onboarding process prior to client signing. This gives any potential client an off ramp. Being willing to take a loss of a client or potential client is part of the realization and part of the responsibility of being your own boss.
Being a Boss at Your Own Boss.
I had to realize that being your own boss means you need to also safeguard and protect your employees. In a one man company, that employee is you – or in this case my employee is me. In Corporate America I’d have never been treated this way nor would my employer have allowed me to be mistreated so I understood that two things were happening: 1) I was allowing myself to be treated this way and 2) As my own boss I needed to safeguard myself – from committing suicide.
I also realized that desiring to commit suicide can be a mental health issue but not necessarily a personal one. You have to be your own Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and figure out if it’s your job or your personal life causing the problem. It can be vocationally driven – there are plenty of business owners who have taken their own lives for business reasons and not personal. Either way though you have to figure out what help looks like – counseling, therapy, spiritual help, or something. I thought about spiritual help.
Living in the south (the buckle of the bible belt) professional therapy is not spoken of much in church – if not totally taboo all together and if present at all, largely given lip service in favor of ‘we’ll pray for you’ or ‘you life isn’t fully surrendered to God’ or some other equivalent words. I even reached out asking for a referral for a therapist twice – once I was told it wasn’t believed in and the other time I was just ignored. I finally got an answer after a follow up email but by then it was a bit late. I realized fast that what I needed would not be found in the church – it would be found by realizing I needed to take charge of me and not blame everyone else or seek help from a house of worship. The pandemic caused mental health to come to the forefront at some churches but it has just as quickly faded away. It’s something I would have to resolve on my own with both change in my own life and communicating with others.
Communicating boundaries and expecting them to be followed was not enough. I had to literally drop some clients, let some clients drop me, and accept a revenue drop in favor of my mental health. I had to take out two expensive loans I’m still paying down and ask for help for my cat home a little more often because installment payments on things to keep my cat home running were things I thought I could afford, decisions made when revenue was higher. But changing how I did business was the best thing I ever did. I started to feel better – I believe because I took control, truly looked out for my employee (me), and wasn’t afraid of the revenue drop. Things got better.
Revenue Down, Mental Health Up
Now in at the end of the first quarter of 2022 I can say that I haven’t had the desire to put a gun to my head due to work. My revenue is down 17% each month and things are a little tighter but I am doing much better with my mental health. The slate of clients I have now is cherry picked of people who largely understand that a work life balance is something that has to happen when one is their own employer and a responsibility that I have to safeguard. Money’s tighter for sure but so is my mental health.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.