My System for Emotional Self-Management

I spoke with an entrepreneur recently who described founding her startup as the loneliest of jobs. Elon Musk, somewhat more dramatically, said that “starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass.” Running Robin’s Cafe was the loneliest job I’ve held. It taught me a lot about my own emotional management, which has made running companies since somewhat less difficult. 

Regardless of whether you are building a business, trying to get better at managing a tough situation, or starting something new, I approach emotional management in two stages: avoid the spiral and incremental growth. 

What is the Emotional Spiral?

Throughout the first few months of running Robin’s Cafe, I lived in a state of overwhelm. With everything that needed to be done, there were nights that I’d finish cleaning the cafe after midnight and then sit alone in the dark, too tired to go home.

That’s the emotional state I call the spiral. A state of overwhelm, of being upset about being upset, where it is impossible to make forward progress or to plan ahead.

How to Get Out of an Emotional Spiral

Recognize the spiral

During the worst moments of Robin’s Cafe, I often called my best friend and complained that I wanted to close the business. She would remind me that I could, in fact, walk away at any time. 

The reminder that I wasn’t stuck – that I had the ability to shutter the business –  allowed me to step outside of my emotional spiral and move forward slightly less overwhelmed.

I’ve described bystander apathy, the cognitive bias in which we assume someone else is going to take action. Just as the solution to bystander apathy is to remember that it exists, the path out of an emotional spiral is to recognize it. Simply identifying a spiral can serve as a heuristic to take action.

Take Incremental Action

One block from Robin’s Cafe is another cafe called Stable Cafe, which has been around for a decade and functions seamlessly. On my bad days at Robin’s Cafe, I would compare my business to Stable – and berate everything about my own small operation.

It is tempting to focus on goals and aspirations that are far out of reach, but the consequence is feeling bad about where we are. We amplify that which is at the center of our attention. Being stressed about being stressed results in even more stress! Take some small positive action to build momentum.

Begin by taking one small step in the direction you want to go. 

Take Any Small Step

Sometimes you don’t know what the right next step is. I didn’t know how to start a cafe! As I’ve written about in How to Conduct an Effective Interview, I had to interview a lot of professionals and then take some action. When you are in a spiral, take some action. 

Don’t attempt to solve everything in a single moment. Put one foot in front of the other. Make each step as small as possible. If you try to do something dramatic, you are more likely to fail and resume your spiral. 

Adjust Course As You Go

Think of a sailboat leaving San Francisco for Hawai’i. You don’t leave the coast, point the ship towards the Hawiian islands, and then stop navigating. You’ll get off course. 

The best way to navigate is to adjust course as you go. The best time to adjust your trajectory is while in motion. 

There were a lot of difficult days building Robin’s Cafe – moments of panic, overwhelm, and loneliness. The businesses I’ve built since then have gotten progressively easier. There are still incredibly hard moments, of course, but I don’t stay stuck.

I have more mental and emotional fortitude, better habits to avoid the spiral and to get out quickly. I hope this framework will help you do the same.

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