The Founder And The Inferiority Complex

I’m a serial entrepreneur with an inferiority complex. I was diagnosed by an overly cheerful psychiatrist about a year ago as I was getting help for anxiety and depression, which were a result of this underlying disorder. This is how I’ve overcome it.

To start, there’s a difference between a healthy dose of doubt and an actual inferiority complex. The former is like a wise internal counselor providing you with handy life advice, such as, “That movie star doesn’t know you, and probably doesn’t want you to ask them out while they’re having dinner.” The latter is like having a nervous, yappy dog for an adviser, telling you, “They’re going to hate that report you spent days on, and every comment is actually about your intelligence, or body odor. Or both. Probably both.”

An inferiority complex can rob you of healthy relationships and eat away at your accomplishments. If you don’t deal with an inferiority complex, as with many mental health issues, you can find yourself in a downward spiral of unproductive behavior and self-recrimination.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about taking down my startup Altsie. Altsie was based on a new film distribution model that used bars and restaurants to release movies, screening them on HD projectors. People had a good time, and the truth is, Altsie was doing fine, as startups go. There were a few glitches, as you would expect, but audiences were growing in several locations and the quality of my films was increasing.

You don’t fall so hard without doing some serious personal introspection, or at least you shouldn’t.

Mental health issues manifest themselves differently in every person. For me, people’s attention can be incredibly painful, so much so that I feel drawn to destroy things I’ve created just to avoid potential judgment. To say this can set me back at times is an understatement.

I subconsciously sabotaged Altsie, putting obstacles in my own way: an unnecessarily pushed deadline, a phone call not made, money spent when it should have been saved, and saved when it should have been spent. The yappy dog kept barking — it thought I picked horrible films and needed a better website — and all I wanted was for it to shut up. And it did, finally, when I pulled Altsie down.

Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong. Was it the business model? No, that could have been optimized, but it was working. The locations I picked? No, I was in some of the most popular locations in town. Was it me?

Yeah …. probably.

You don’t fall so hard without doing some serious personal introspection, or at least you shouldn’t. I went to see a psychologist to get some help. Kicking my feet up on the leather couch, we dug through the mess of my subconscious, and let me tell you, it wasn’t a pretty sight. Mostly, it was embarrassing to find how I had internalized so many excuses for why my life was the way it was—why I felt the way I did.

I didn’t discover some primordial trigger event that explained why I kept stealing defeat from the jaws of victory — there was no abuse in my past, I wasn’t mistreated. Life had presented me with challenges, but everyone has obstacles and challenges. It was the way I reacted to these challenges that tripped me up. I was told that I had anxiety and depression and by not dealing with these problems for years I was making the issues worse. Where had they started? Who knows, but they weren’t going away by themselves.

With a tiny ember of knowledge about my own psyche, I created another startup. I wasn’t aiming for the stars with this product, I just wanted to make something people could use. Part of me knew that I didn’t really have my hands around my own problems yet, but another part of me thought that if I just got the right idea — if I just built the right product — I could skip the part where I actually worked on myself. I knew I had issues with anxiety, which was a big step.

And that should be enough, right? I get it! Let’s move on. We launched our new site, however, and my problems came roaring back. This time I was so bound up I couldn’t even tell people about the service I spent months creating. I froze, berating myself for weeks on end because I couldn’t do the simplest promotions, and things languished. Growth is not always straightforward. I thought that coming to the realization that I was causing my own problems would be enough, but it wasn’t.

Around that time, I went to see a psychiatrist. For the uninitiated: in mental health, going from a psychologist to a psychiatrist is like leveling up. In his thick German accent, my new doctor broke the news. “You have za inferiority complex!” He seemed rather pleased with himself, and who wouldn’t at $200 an hour? But he was right — this is where my anxiety and depression originated.

Does the actual diagnoses matter? Yes and no. It’s helpful because it lets me see patterns in my behavior, but it’s no silver bullet. I still have to work on the root of the problem. Biologically speaking, it turns out my amygdala is that yappy dog, startled into a flight-or-fight response at inappropriate moments, like when people pay attention to my startup. It’s actually a pretty physical process, and can be controlled with the right training.

But without that training, over time it wears me down and causes me to react in unproductive ways. It shapes the way I interact with the world, and the way I interact shapes my environment, creating a recursive loop that sustains the underlying issue.

Before, unhealthy scenarios would play out in my head for hours, if not days. Now, I can step back and watch my brain react, but I don’t feed the fire.

At the advice of the psychiatrist I started taking Escitalopram Oxalate, a serotonin uptake inhibitor. Taking a drug was enlightening because it manually shut down a chorus of negative voices in my head (a thousand yappy dogs). Until I took those pills, I was unaware how loud and constant those voices were. The most important thing the medication did was make me realize I didn’t have to live with that constant criticism, and it opened my eyes to the fact that many people don’t. Unfortunately, the medication also dulled my creativity and intelligence, and since I use these talents to make a living, I regretfully stopped taking them. For the record, I’m not anti-drug. If I could find a perfect concoction, I would take it. Until then.

With medication off the table, I tried other things. I knew that physical exercise tempered some of the symptoms, so I went overboard, training for and competing in a half-Ironman. I lost 30 pounds and I began feeling better (except for the shin splints). I started meditating at both a local meditation center and at home.

These days I rise at 5:30 to sit quietly, listen to my own breathing and gain some control over my thoughts. These exercises have trained me to see my brain react in real-time. Before, unhealthy scenarios would play out in my head for hours, if not days. Now, I can step back and watch my brain react, but I don’t feed the fire. Slowly, the flames are dying. The dog is shutting up.

The last thing I did was dig through the kitchen cabinets, gather the liquor bottles up, and toss them out. I stopped drinking, a decision that was neither straightforward nor easy. I don’t have a drinking problem, but alcohol makes maintaining mental health a little harder, and life is already tricky enough. It was a difficult decision — I like drinking. But I’ve found that my moods are more stable now, and my sleep is better. Good God, though, I miss Scotch.

I’m still trying to get my hands around my problems, but it’s a long, slow process. That’s doesn’t mean I’m going to stop and wait for everything to be perfect. I’ve got more projects brewing, and I’m trying not to repeat my past mistakes.

What I’ve learned, in the end, is that you need to treat your mental health like a startup. You just need a minimal viable product to get out the gate, from there you can spend time optimizing. You may need to bring in some experts to advise you. You will definitely be weaker in some areas than others. But if I hadn’t tried and failed at startups, I wouldn’t have learned what I needed to do right the next time, both in business and in health.