No matter how often the word authentic gets wielded these days, a noticeable stigma still stubbornly persists around openly discussing any of the mental health issues we might face as online service providers. As the lust for digital nomadism continues to rise, most remote hopefuls still harbor the concern that, as in a more traditional work environment, to make anything so untidy obvious will damage their credibility, and make it difficult to endear the clients to them they’ll need to grow their business.
Hannah Dixon, the creator of the famous 5 Day VA Challenge, is not one of them, however.
Hannah directly refutes this idea both in her courses and online community. Over the last year, she has strived to position herself as a steadfast advocate for being more transparent about your very human experience—constructively, of course. Rather than skirt over the reality of the issues she faces, or unpack them for dramatic effect, Hannah chooses to speak candidly about her clinical depression and anxiety. Her posts have been known to include pictures of her still in pajamas, chin to knees, in the smallest space she can fit in, after not having left the house for over a week.
Did she still meet all her deadlines in this uncomfortable position? Absolutely.
So then, why give everyone the behind-the-scenes?
“As humans we are in this strange space where our level of consciousness is rising,” Hannah says. “Yes this sounds super woo, but it’s true. People are changing. The way we think about ideas is changing. The way we think about ourselves is changing, but what is really slow to change is taking responsibility for our messes— that being our trauma and all the horrible stuff going on in our lives, which no one is immune to. I think it’s important to talk about it in a responsible way that doesn’t just breed negativity and isn’t just like purging to pass it off for someone else to deal with it. Or using it as an excuse. Yes, it can be a legit excuse, but it’s not like I ever use it to get out of doing the work or meeting my responsibilities. What I do instead is say here’s what I’m dealing with right now, here’s what I’m doing to fix it, and I hope this helps you, rather than, here’s all my shit, now leave me alone for awhile.”
Understanding how to share the nitty gritty of your experience constructively is tricky, though. Many people find it easier to just roll with the stereotypical digital nomad veneer, soaring through life from beach to beach with only a laptop, a Mai Tai, and a circle of tan, fit friends, who never seem to sit down or stop laughing.
Or, if they don’t, they hop on at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, ranting and raving at length about each and every setback or strife without thinking through how useful what they’re sharing is—both for them, and the people they’re hoping to read it.
The middle ground, she admits, is much harder to navigate.
And yet finding her own way of doing so has been an essential part of how people worldwide have come to connect with her and what has allowed her community to grow organically. Refusing to evade the reality of these issues has given her an enviable level of comfort in her business; she knows that if she has to reschedule a livestream or training occasionally, she can admit she was having an anxiety attack, and didn’t feel like being visible then, rather than having to invent an excuse, or worse, appear lazy and inconsistent. This sincerity has allowed her to foster closer relationships with her students, clients, and co-creators, and sits at the core of her success.
Hannah believes addressing these issues is necessary now more than ever to counter this perception of the dreamy digital nomad life with a more realistic, nuanced version. She resents the popular glamorization of the lifestyle and how often people downplay how uncomfortable many parts of it can be. In her VA Starter Kit Inner Circle community, she often discusses the profound loneliness it contains; how she deals with feeling nervous in a new place when her girlfriend isn’t around and has to figure out how to navigate getting what she needs without speaking the language; what it means to feel like she has never has a place to call home or a steady group of friends around in person to connect with.
As part of her VA training, she helps her students learn how to set boundaries so they know how to manage expectations with their clients from the beginning. “It was imperative for my mental health to learn how to say no,” she admits. “And I still hate it. I mean, really hate it, you can’t imagine. I have always been a people pleaser and used to go above and beyond, no matter what the consequences to my stability were, rather than turn someone down. I think a lot of people who become VAs tend to be people pleasers, so I try to help them understand how much better it is to have this moment of unpleasantness, rather than agreeing to something you don’t want to do, and coming undone in the process of trying to keep up with it.”
In order to be able to build a business you love, you have to accept your limitations so you don’t promise more than you can deliver. Otherwise, you could find yourself ghosting messages, scrambling to tie up the loose ends with weak excuses, or simply miserable six months later without knowing exactly why, and wondering why you bothered to quit your day job. For this very reason, she has a reminder set on her phone that goes off every two months with a single question: “Are you happy?” It forces her to slow down and evaluate if, indeed, she is happy with her clients, current projects, the people around her, and the location she’s in at the moment.
And if she’s not? It’s time to start switching things up so she doesn’t spend the rest of the year like this.
“It’s our responsibility,” she says. “We need to do away with these sort of traditional roles of withholding and create a new way of working together. A more honest and human one. People are so afraid of being seen as negative when they talk about something unpleasant they’re going through. It’s just not true at all. When you share responsibly, you deepen your connection to the people around you. For me, a lot of learning how to do this came from therapy. I know everyone thinks they need a life coach these days — and some people do, sure — but good old fashioned therapy still has a place. Seeing a therapist has helped me to learn to be more matter of fact in how I express things, no matter how tender they are.”
Hannah is grateful to have found her current therapist during a recent stay in Medellin; a woman who, while not nomadic herself, works especially with people who are are, and offers both in person and remote sessions. Unfortunately though, she says, finding people like her isn’t as easy as it should be. A cursory internet search produces limited results. Of the providers out there, many still struggle to be more visible without compromising their ideals or forking over a fortune for advertising in much the same way we do.
When I ask what ideas she has for how to expand these resources, a wild grin spreads across her face as though she’s been waiting for far too long to be asked it. “I’ve had this idea for a while now that I call the Nomad Health Summit and this is actually the first time I’ve been given the chance to talk about it publicly. The Nomad Health Summit would basically be a conference with a range of therapists and doctors speaking on everything from prescription drugs to different diets and how to manage them if you don’t stay in the same place all the time. All the information would be organized and saved on the site afterward so it would be easy to search through and find what you need. And of course, we’ll keep adding to it and updating it so that it continues to grow and answer what it needs to.”
Does Hannah see this happening in 2020?
“I would absolutely love to try and make it happen this year,” she says. “But a lot of it depends upon getting enough of the right people on board who share the same mindset so we can cover the full spectrum of concerns. I don’t want this to be the sort of conference you drop into and then forget about afterward. I want everyone who attends to leave feeling like they’re part of a community, to have a sense of relief that they’re not alone in any of this and now have some resources to access when they feel something isn’t quite right, no matter where they are in the world.”
Interested in being a part of the Nomad Health Summit? Reach out to Hannah at email@example.com for more information on how you can get involved.