How to Escape Startup Stockholm Syndrome

The only thing worse than being taken captive is sympathizing and bonding with your captor. But what if our captors are our own beliefs and aspirations?

A friend sent me a blog post that stopped me in my tracks. After reading Chip’s Wounded Entrepreneur post, I immediately went to LinkedIn to reach out to him.

His lived experience and deeply personal message resembled the lives of so many of the founders and entrepreneurs I work with. Touching upon the topic of suicide, that post was a wake-up call.

That’s the driving energy behind Founders Thriving. I wanted to create a space for entrepreneurs and founders to begin developing a healthier relationship between themselves and their companies. A place to build and grow your company but be happy doing it.

The Cult of Ourselves

We all need to begin addressing the cultish beliefs that make up the abusive relationships we so willingly endure with the companies we run. What these stories represent is how easy it is to be held captive by the companies we run; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Most entrepreneurs launch their endeavor with dreams F-R-E-E-D-O-M. Financial freedom, schedule freedom, and the freedom not to report to a boss.

At least those were their original north-star goals.

But ever-so-slowly we silently mortgage away that freedom until we’re caged in by the one thing we thought would free us from the trappings of a normal 9 to 5.

Then like many long-term hostage situations, we begin to bond and sympathize with our captor. Gradually abandoning the people who love and support us in our greatest times of need.

Vicious Cycle

Unfortunately, after launching startups for freedom, what usually happens is entrepreneurs slowly trade in these opportunities to assert our freedom for personal ultimatums: “I’ve gotta do this to [insert infinite to-do-list here]” scenarios. Before they know it they’re reporting to employees and investors, working more hours, and making less money than many of their own staff. #founderseatlast

Version 1.0 of our early programming usually has two hard-coded beliefs. First, putting ourselves first is selfish. Second, our self-worth is largely dependent on our net worth.

If we get good grades we’ll go to a good school. If we go to a good school, we’ll get a high-paying job. If we get a high-paying job, we’ll simply acquire everything we need to be happy.

Now layer on the toxic startup tropes of kill it, crush it, hustle, and struggle and you have a perfect recipe for an emotional or mental meltdown.

I can’t count the number of founders I work with whose goal is to “make their first million.” I call this the “Miserable Millionaire Fallacy.”

Rarely do these founders know where this thought comes from. It’s simply always been there. It’s like a hidden feature that was included in Version 1.0 and bug fixed and patched to fix our current life circumstances.

It’s not until they’ve gotten everything they dreamed of, and are still unhappy, that they begin exploring other means of happiness, purpose, and fulfillment.

Exorcise Exercise

One good way to assess this in yourself or an entrepreneur you’re working with is to have them visualize their company as a real person. Then imagine having an intimate and honest conversation with that person.

Are they kind, encouraging, and supportive? Or are they negative and condescending; taking every opportunity to remind you you’re an imposter?

When you use this personified entity approach and add a dollop of psychology you’ll find that many entrepreneurs begin to sympathize with their captor and have begun to develop deep feelings of codependency with their personified company.

When the company is successful, they are well. When the company is suffering, so do they.

The beauty of this simple exercise is that once an entrepreneur recognizes the pattern, the turn-around can be incredibly fast. The first step is acknowledging your company is not human; therefore it is not capable of taking actions for or against you or making you think or feel anything.

The second requires an acknowledgment that you are wholly responsible for your thoughts and the resulting emotions that come from those thoughts. Based on those two steps, it is 100% within your control to change the relationship you have with your company.

To unwind the default programming of our formative years we need to encourage founders to normalize new behavior and make it ok to prioritize their needs first; essentially, an upgrade to Founder Version 2.0. By prioritizing their needs above the needs of the business, their co-founders, and their investors, business owners regain the agency needed to heal the relationship with their business.

The mission of the MEA is to reframe midlife—from a crisis to a calling. And if that calling is to share your wisdom with up-and-coming entrepreneurs then let’s create a safe space to meet in the middle.

My dream is for Founders Thriving to help prepare those entrepreneurs to work with all of you. I believe that if we take care of ourselves first we can show up more fully resourced for our teams, our families, and our community. Then together, we can all Build Something Better!

If you know a business owner stuck in their own Startup Stockholm Syndrome or someone ready and willing to prioritize their needs first, please send them over to Founders Thriving and join the movement.

This post was originally featured on the Modern Elders Academy


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