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A Mental Health Conversation: Two Unique Experiences From Our CEO and Marketing Manager

May 10, 2022

Dear Reader,

A couple of months ago, we conducted a short study checking in on respondents’ mental health. We found that many reported experiencing struggles and that these feelings sometimes fluctuate over time. The responses collected were anonymous, but that doesn’t take away the weight of how powerful the voices are.

With May being Mental Health Awareness month, we revisited some of those insights from the study. It inspired us to write from our own experiences and use our platform to share our stories with others. This is a topic of conversation that is valued by our company.

In this piece, we have combined two essays written by our CEO, Rasto Ivanic, and our Marketing Team Lead, Balbina De La Garza. No two stories are the same as is clear here. But one thing rings true across both experiences: mental health awareness is important and necessary to talk about, especially in the workplace. Oftentimes we churn ourselves over the daily tasks and suppress our feelings. And sometimes we fear that our colleagues and managers won’t care about our personal struggles. We hope this changes, but for now we can lead by example.

We hope the vulnerability experienced here can shed light on this topic and open the door for conversations around supporting and listening to one another. If you or someone you know would like support at this time, you can always contact NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) at info@nami.org or call 1-800-950-6264.

With love and support,

The GroupSolver Team

Rasto’s Story

I don’t remember exactly when the idea of mental health started registering with me for real, but it was probably not until COVID became our new normal. Before then, mental health was something of a 3rd person concept that registered as a sense of compassion and sympathy for someone else, for someone with real struggles. Someone, for whom the internal fights, demons, insecurities, tragedies, disappointments of breakups or being less than good enough bubbled up to the surface. It had nothing to do with me.

The events of the last two years changed my perspective of mental health, putting it into recurring if not persistent focus. No longer seeing it as something distant and observable through a telescope, mental well-being suddenly dropped into the front and center of my sight. It was suddenly right under my feet where I could not only see it with my own eyes, but where I could touch and feel its immediate presence.

I imagine that we experience our own mental health awakening in our very own unique ways. The part of my life story, the proverbial final straw that made me start paying attention to my own mental hygiene was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Having grown up about 100 miles from the Ukrainian borders in the communist Czechoslovakia, I remember the one true and real fear I could not shake as a child was a possibility of another great war. The anxiety of a nuclear conflict was pressed into my brain from the day I could remember walking into kindergarten doors, and it didn’t stop until the Velvet Revolution. I don’t have many memories from being a little kid, but some of those earliest memories I do have revolve around the news and the fear. The war in Lebanon, Iraq vs Iran, martial law in Poland, whispers of Prague Spring, assassination of John Lennon, the February Revolution, WWII and the defeat of the Nazis by the glorious Red Army.

All of those half-hazy memories – by now just short snippets of TV imagery wrapped in a loose wrapper of feeling of awe – have come rushing back when Putin invaded Ukraine. Coincidentally, it all happened during my first visit to Slovakia after two long COVID years. A surreal memory of heading to our office in Kosice together with two of my best friends and GroupSolver cofounders on a wintery freeway. Alternatively listening to the news in stunned silence and talking about what may be next, we wondered whether all the promise the world has given us since the end of the cold war would end up being just that – dissipating hope that missed the mark.

By now, the two years of COVID stress have slowly started to also turn into a memory, but it would be foolish not to recognize the strain they left on my mind. Interestingly, and surprisingly, up until now, I have felt that I have withstood the social isolation well. It helps being stuck at home with the 3 people you love the most and working at a startup that has a built-in office culture where we all genuinely like each other. But still, the office banter is different on Zoom, and there are no dart breaks with Charlie and Bryce…

With that said, COVID or not, without that stupid act of egotistical and cynical aggression against Ukraine I would probably not be writing this article about my mental health. My daily dose of mental scramble that is inherent in the life of a startup CEO would have been (I think?) under control by my usual routine of Friday pizza baking, weekend trail running and an occasional epic century solo bike ride. But the balance I have been carefully nurturing and taking for granted turned out to be pretty thin cushion after all.

Suddenly, there are more days when I dip into my emergency mental reserves. When I wake up in the morning feeling drained and not ready to go. I feel on the edge, my fuse is shorter. Any small setback at work feels like a fundamental and massive problem. Supporting my coworkers and my family feels like an effort. Questions start popping up whether it is time to pack it in and take one of those barista jobs at Starbucks (because I am sure those are completely stress free).

What now? I am pretty used to hitting curve balls, and not much really has phased me until now. I tend to consider everything to be fixable and I view problems as things to be solved and learned from. My belief in separating successes (and failures) in business from successes (and failures) at home is fundamental, but the mental framework I have built is stretched. Current confluence of events and circumstances is testing my grit, and it is pushing the limits of my endurance. It has challenged my baked-in optimism and we-can-do-it-ness that I must deliver to my team every day to keep the ship steady and moving toward the horizon.

With all that said, I consider myself very fortunate that I can write all of this and feel OK about it. I am lucky to be able to say that for me, writing this is therapeutic. I have the support system of people whom I trust and who watch out for me. They catch me, and I let them pull me back when I feel like drifting away. I receive love, not judgment. Still, not everyone has a support network like I do. There is a lot of mental health stigma out there and not enough of understanding.

People like me who have the privilege and power to speak and do something about mental health can’t be silent. We don’t talk nearly enough about our own mental struggles and how they affect our well-being. Perhaps we are afraid to be vulnerable and allow others to see us as being in that position, being weak. We live in a pressure cooker doing more and doing it faster and we never turn it off. But how much pressure can my mind take before the pressure finds its way out – in whatever shape or form it may be? I know I have my own limit, even if I can’t see where the breaking point is exactly.

I think that recognizing and talking about mental health is the first step to finding that pressure valve I need – that every one of us needs. The next step is finding the courage to actually use it and allow some of that pressure to get out. I don’t know if there is any magic formula that works for any single person. I don’t even know how well my own pressure safety valve works. But I do believe one thing from the depth of my heart: building support systems and safe spaces to have conversations about mental health is a good start.

Balbina’s Story

For as long as I can remember I’ve had the fear of not being good enough. In my head, I have this recurring image of myself walking on a tightrope trying not to fall off. The spotlight is on me, and everyone I know in my life, from family to friends to coworkers, are in the stands below watching me. Most days, I hold my balance and gracefully walk across the never-ending line. I feel confident, prepared, and proud. I have no doubts of my capabilities of whether I am enough or not. I get praise, but I don’t let it get to my head. I am wise, but not calculating. I just keep on moving on, excited about what’s next… most days.

But admittedly, some days are shaky, and I begin to slip. I get nervous knowing the crowd below me is watching my every move. Are they cheering for me or waiting for me to slip? I start to doubt whether I am a fraud and simply have been lucky to get this far. Or worse—I let a rude comment and judgement get to me and ruin my momentum. I feel the crowd’s glares as my heart races, beginning to tremble. My foot slips, I almost fall, but I am still holding on to the tightrope. I continue to feel anxious that all eyes are on me. I begin to doubt that I will ever get to the other side of the tightrope and whether I can do the walk better next time. Do better next time. Like there’s no way I can “prove” that I am enough, and this is the end of my stunt…regardless of how foolish or illogical it may sound. Suddenly this image in my head of an expert rope walker or even an accomplished acrobat, that was once so grandiose is shattered into a million pieces on the floor. Quite frankly, I don’t always know how to pick those pieces back up and climb on again to that rope. Yet I still try.

This image of myself balancing through life on a tightrope has always been there—from the elementary school playground to my college dorm halls. Now that I am fully immersed in my career, I sense these haunting whispers taunting me about my insecurities more than ever. Because the reality is that I feel things very heavily (for better or for worse) and I wear my heart on my sleeve. And these tendencies manifest in different ways. Perhaps it’s me turning into a proud mama bear watching my teammates grow in their roles and get praised for their successes. Or perhaps it’s letting that proud feeling crash due to what feels like an unnecessary judgement from a colleague. Or the late-night anxiety, wondering what harsh slack message I might wake up to the following morning that might sting. I feel like I always need to wear boxing gloves, just in case—an internal battle that I am continuously navigating.

There’s no question that I have a lot of work left to do in dealing with my emotional well-being experiences have also shaped me into being a better manager and colleague, despite all the negative. A perfect example of this is how I communicate with my teammates on aspects that could help them improve and grow in their positions. One thing I believe in full-heartedly is providing each other feedback—positive and constructive (notice how I didn’t say negative). I do believe we need to give and take constructive feedback to get better—because let’s face it, nobody is perfect—but there’s a way to do it that’s effective without tearing someone apart or playing into their insecurities.

This skill of how to give feedback is especially important to learn as a manager (I continue to learn more about this each day). I have different personalities on my team, so I’ve had to adapt on how to give different folks feedback, how to best support them, and overall better communicate with them. I often think back to my personal experiences when I’ve been made feel lesser-than or disrespected by managers or colleagues. What did that person do? How did I respond? What do I wish they would’ve done differently? It puts things into perspective in how I treat my team. I would never ever want them to feel like they aren’t good enough, but rather, help them see how they can do even better than the great job they are doing so far. Of course, I am not a perfect manager and I have for sure made mistakes, but I am continuously learning and trying to do better based on my experiences.

Perhaps some folks have felt the same fear of losing balance on their tightrope of life—personal and/or professional. Perhaps others have not. If someone has not experienced a period (or periods) in their life where they have struggled with their mental health, I can see them thinking why can’t they just get over it? Is it really that bad? They’re being a bit dramatic, no? Honestly, I even struggle with these thoughts and gaslight myself when it comes to my own experience. The truth of the matter is that, like most things in life, “getting over” your mental health struggles is a lot easier said than done. It’s like telling someone who is having a panic attack to “just calm down” … it doesn’t work like that. Let me put it this way: we know how painful it is when physical wounds get reopened. It hurts, stings, burns. This is the same idea, but emotional. Your psychological triggers are pulling on your mental scars. But unless you’ve experience it yourself, it’s hard to fathom that.

In the grand scheme of things, I cannot complain. I fully recognize the privilege that I’ve had my entire life. But I also know that a lot of times, we belittle ourselves into thinking that we can’t feel out our emotions because our lives are generally “not that bad”. I don’t believe mental health works that way. We should acknowledge the good in our lives, but also react to the not-so-great feelings we experience. It’s really the only way to deal with it: by processing. We owe ourselves and others that much.

This fear of not being good enough won’t last forever. I know it. I might always be walking through life on a tightrope, but I am probably much more stable and graceful than I feel at times. I acknowledge that I must continue to put in the work to learn to live with my feelings, fight the negative thoughts, process them, and hopefully—one day—fully let it all go.

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