Ban.do Founder + Mental Health Advocate Jen Gotch is On A Mission to Help You Feel Better
Health. Wellness. Mental health. It's all top of mind right now, as we are struggling to fathom the impact of a global pandemic on our lives — both in terms of physical health as well as all of the social and psychological implications. But the truth is, mental health is something that should be top of mind ALL the time, and it's thanks to champions and advocates like Jen Gotch that we are working our way slowly but surely to a culture where it's not taboo to talk about feelings, even the hard ones. In fact, Jen wrote a book on this very topic! Dubbed The Upside of Being Down, this piece of required reading is part autobiography, part self-help book, and couldn't have come out at a better time.
"After a lifetime of struggling with mental illness, I have learned that the especially difficult times are precisely when you have the greatest opportunities to learn about yourself, your mental health, your brain, and your body. They are gifts, wrapped in lessons that feel like pain and failure, but I promise if you look at them as gifts, they will eventually reveal themselves as such." - Jen Gotch, excerpt from The Upside of Being Down
Anjelika Temple here, Chief Creative Officer + Co-founder of Brit + Co, and longtime fan and friend of the amazingly raw, real, and relatable founder of ban.do, Jen Gotch. I first met Jen five years ago when I showed up at the ban.do Penthouse, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to meet and interview a fellow pinnacle of all things fun, creative, and colorful. In a matter of minutes, I was struck by Jen's power to let someone into her world. Fast forward to the present, and Jen's recently released memoir does the very same thing: lets people into her world.
Read on for Jen's thoughts on how she and her brand have evolved since
that first conversation, what it felt like to sit down and write a book, and her advice for getting through the tough days. I can tell you firsthand, her book and her insights will *definitely* help you feel better, less isolated, and on the road to optimism.
Anjelika Temple: Crazy that it's been legit five years since I kicked off this series and interviewed you. Before we get into your book The Upside of Being Down, give us a quick update on how you and your brand have evolved over the last few years.
Jen Gotch: Wow. I just re-read that article and after doing so, I'm not even sure how I can properly explain all the ways in which ban.do and I have evolved - but obviously I am going to try. For me personally, the last few years have been ripe with change. I hit some record lows with my mental health, I went through an amicable divorce - but a divorce nonetheless, I launched a podcast, became a mental health advocate, tackled a 30 plus year struggle with generalized anxiety, went back on medication for my Bipolar, embraced my spiritual side, wrote a book, bought a house and let my hair grow out (obviously the most impactful of all haha).
Professionally, and specifically in regards to ban.do, I led the charge for our brand's mental health advocacy through the launch of a necklace collection we created in collaboration with Iconery. I completely changed my relationship to work by creating boundaries around my personal life, consciously not overworking by identifying that excessive busyness can actually be very unhealthy, and empowering others to make big decisions (instead of feeling like it always has to be me). My title at the company has not changed, but my days look a lot different than they did five years ago. When I finally committed to writing the book, we all very quickly realized that the endeavor would consume a lot of my time and brainspace. So my involvement in the day to day decision making changed, which both allowed others to step up and really flourish (I joke that things got incrementally better as soon as I left a meeting) and gave me an opportunity to pursue the book. It also gave me the brainspace to be a visionary for the future of the brand, which is really where my strengths lie. The necklaces were part of that and were also a big part of ban.do actually being able to make a pivot a few years ago. I had been not so quietly hoping for several years that we could evolve to become more than just the "fun" brand.
Although I love that people associated us with fun, I just knew we were built for more than that. So we set out to start the slow but conscious evolution of our brand from being "serious about fun" to "existing to help you be your best." We focus on holistic betterment (mental, physical, emotional, professional) and continue to encourage joy in our community through our products and content.
AT: As a founder whose personality and life experience are so clearly tied to the brand, what made you feel confident about taking the leap into products that support mental health?
JG: I allude to it a bit in my answer above, but as you might have guessed, my personal evolution encouraged a similar evolution in the brand, for the exact reason you state. Although I am not ban.do and ban.do is not me, we are forever tied and there are reflections of each in the other. So again, as I started to see how impactful the conversations I was having personally and on my own social media platforms were effecting change, I knew that I wanted those same opportunities for ban.do. The trick is certainly that it is easier to pivot and evolve as a person than it is for a brand. Admittedly, coming out of the gate with necklaces that said "Anxiety" and "Depression" was a little surprising for some, but I don't regret it. It popped the bubble for us as a brand and sped up the process of getting to a place that I really felt like we belonged. It has allowed us to donate over $130k to Bring Change to Mind, a non-profit organization that works to destigmatize mental illness.
As far as the overall response, I was reminded that the topic of mental health can be very triggering and understandably so. It's another reason why it is so important to continue to open up these conversations - so that we can all feel comfortable and informed on the topic. Initially, the necklaces were met with both positive and negative responses and myself and the team learned from both. It was pretty scary to know that a decision I made could upset so many people, but the first batch of necklaces sold out in hours, so I knew we were onto something. We evolved our communication so that the intention of the necklaces was more clear and also identified that the weight of the topic means that it will always have the potential to upset people regardless of how delicately you treat it. I feel confident that we are doing it for all the right reasons.
AT: You've become a sort of poster child for mental health advocacy. When you first put yourself out there on Snapchat, and then subsequently Instagram, was there a specific moment when you knew you'd struck a chord? How did it feel?
JG: I've always been very forthright with my mental health struggles, I just didn't always have Instagram as a platform. So there really wasn't one moment, it was more like a series of moments that eventually made it so clear that what I was doing was having a positive impact on people. I think of it as a responsibility in the best way possible. I love that my natural means of expression is something that can make many feel seen and understood while also removing stigmas. How cool is that?
AT: And now you're an author! Tell me more about the inception of The Upside of Being Down and what inspired you to write it.
JG: I've always wanted to write a book, and probably around the time of our first interview was when I was really starting to consider it. I even started to write a business book with some friends who wanted to get into publishing, but it didn't get very far. The woman who eventually would become my editor, Lauren Spiegel, had also reached out to me around that time and over the next several years would tap me every so often to check in. Because I was so involved in the day to day at ban.do, I wasn't able to see a way to do both (and I certainly would not have been able to - that is now proven). But the idea sat in my mind and then in 2018 when Lauren approached for the third or fourth time, the timing actually felt really perfect. I had started to feel more comfortable in the role of mental health advocate and the team at ban.do had grown in a way that made it possible for me to step out and write.
AT: What was it like sitting down and starting to write? Tell us about your creative process.
JG: Awesome and awful. I was not prepared for how difficult it would be. I read books about writing books, I talked to friends who had written books, I talked to strangers who had written books - I was overwhelmed. In the beginning of the process, I spent a lot of time going through photos and old journals and interviewing my parents, but it was over a year after Lauren and I had agreed on moving forward that I actually started to write. So the process was probably less of a process and more of an exploration of many processes. In the end, the words came when they wanted to come and that didn't always match up with when I wanted them. I learned a lot about acceptance, resistance, and the limitations of my own brain. I learned about failing and asking for and receiving help. In and amongst all of the writing, there was a tremendous amount of personal growth and evolution.
AT: Describe what getting into the creative flow with your writing felt like. Frenetic? Calm and meditative? A mix?
JG: The creative flow was something that oftentimes felt inaccessible. I certainly had days where I churned out thousands of words and then weeks of nothing. So it was all of the things you mentioned - from meditative to absolutely disrupting - emotionally crippling to the point where I fell down to my knees and literally prayed for it to end. My editor suggested at one point further into the process when I was clearly struggling with focus (as I was still going into work and had just given up the podcast) that I find some solitude. That led me to a stint in the desert - one that would be life-changing. I had an awakening there in so many ways and although I did not get the amount of writing done that I was expecting, I got so much more. My time there set me up for success, which doesn't mean it made it easier, just different and more manageable. Less crying and praying. It was so impactful that I ended up buying a house out in the desert, something years before I had vowed I would never do again after losing my house to foreclosure in the early days of ban.do. It remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.
AT: How do you hope your book will make people feel?
JG: This was my goal for the book (that I mention in the introduction):
My goal with this book is to share my story—of growing up and finding myself and success and failure and self doubt and family and dancing and eating and aging— because it probably isn't that different from a lot of people's stories. We all eventually live some version of that narrative. Life happens— and you look at it and you learn from it or you don't, and you enjoy it or you don't. And I hope for readers, that the book helps them skip a couple of these chapters in their own lives (specifically the darker ones), and that they walk away with increased self-awareness, strong emotional intelligence and a feeling that they are not alone.
I let that intention determine every decision I made. It was the filter that every word passed through and now that the book is out and people are so kindly sharing with me how the book has helped them, I feel like I actually achieved what I set out to do which truly feels amazing!!
AT: So many parts of your book resonated with me, especially right now as we're in the midst of a totally unexpected global pandemic. Everyone is dealing with new and different levels of anxiety as well as what some have described as collective grief or depression. As a lifelong optimist, what advice can you offer people who are experiencing some of these feelings for the first time?
JG: I'm gonna give you a list in the hopes that you can find one or two or six things that resonate. I practice all of these behaviors and thought patterns as often as possible.
1. I would start by embracing realistic optimism. I'm talking about acknowledging when things are bad, accepting that, and moving forward with a hopeful outlook rather than a downward spiral. That way you can be grounded and prepared for the tough situations, but have the relief of being able to find an upside.
2. Take care of yourself, like really take care of yourself. Check in and ask, "What do I truly need in this moment in order to feel okay (not all better, just okay)?" Start there. We hold a lot of information about how to care for and heal ourselves. It will be easier to stave off negative thoughts if you feel balanced.
3. Recognize that the voice in your head is not your own. It is an ancient mechanism that existed to keep us out of danger (when humans were constantly in danger), but now that a lot of the life or death situations of early human life have dissipated, it tends to be overactive in an effort to keep its job. You DO NOT have to listen to anything it has to say. You can start by creating distance between yourself and these fear based thoughts and just observe them. Once you have that healthy distance you can actually start to push them aside, and eventually you will barely hear them at all.
4. Breathe. Focusing on your breath, even for 30 seconds, can change your mental and physical state. It's something you have been practicing your whole life, so you'll be great at it.
5. Get curious about what is going on up there in your brain. Read about what you are struggling with, and about ways to overcome it. Reading and learning will help you build self awareness and that is a very powerful tool.
6. Ask for help and accept help. Those are two things that are difficult for many of us, but you don't have to struggle alone.
AT: As an avid calendar user and time-blocker, I love your recommendation of booking "FUN" on your calendar. How does this come to life for you?
JG: In letting go of a lot of my irrational fears and anxieties and really spending the last few years investing in my own personal growth, my natural optimism has really risen to the surface. I call on that all the time and it allows me to find "fun" or more accurately "joy" in most moments. It seems to just organically be there for me whenever I need it. That said, taking care of myself, connecting with nature, prioritizing my relationship with my family and close friends have all helped me. But knowing that I have this joy inside of me that I can access any time I want or need has been the most impactful shift.
AT: For those of us looking for a combo of optimism, mental wellness, and realness, what books should we add to our reading list?
JG: I am a non-fiction book-aholic. So I have a long long list. Here are a few of my favorites…
This book is about your relationship with your thoughts and emotions. Essentially, it explains how to understand the voice in your head and why you react the way you do. It helped me a lot with my anxiety, among other things. The basic message is "don't worry be happy" but explained in a really interesting way. Like we can choose to be happy. Chapter 5 on infinite energy is amazing. Chapter 15 on the path of unconditional happiness is also amazing. Who am I kidding? They are all amazing.
Oprah told me to read it, so I read it. It talks about a shift in human consciousness. The basic idea is that we can eradicate negative emotions that are attached to the ego to help end suffering and conflict in the world. Incredibly interesting and insightful if you are ready to go deep and definitely helpful in dealing with emotions and a changing world.
This book blew my mind when it comes to every close relationship I have ever had (both romantic and platonic). It dives into the various attachment styles that are formed during childhood and how they affect adult relationships. I found myself saying out loud, "information I could have used yesterday" over and over again. Cannot recommend it enough.
Ruiz is a leading member of the New Thought movement, which is worth Googling. This book encouraged me to adopt my "I DID MY BEST" philosophy. This passage encapsulates it, "Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstances, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret..."
This is a very spiritual book. It will change your perception of what it is to be human. It's all about understanding your ego, your personality, and your soul.
She wrote this in 1955 while on vacation in Florida, but I still found it so relatable. It's a collection of essays in which she uses the shells she finds on the beach to connect to and write about topics such as youth and age, love and marriage, peace, solitude, and contentment. Really amazing book that can be read in one sitting.
AT: What are three tips you can give to anyone going out on their own from the ground up?
JG: Plugging into your passion and purpose is one of the most meaningful things you can do in your life. I have had the luxury of being able to do it many times, and I don't believe I am done. It is as emotionally powerful as it is draining. You have to make and respect boundaries for yourself so that you don't get lost in your work.
You can also ask yourself three questions:
- Why am I pursuing this project? Examine the emotional, situational, and financial reasons.
- Do I have a support system in place in case things go horribly wrong? At least one thing will.
- What's my plan? I would plan out strategic and financial goals for at least the first 6 months - something we didn't really do in starting ban.do but I know it would have been helpful.
Thanks to Jen for taking the time to chat with us, once again! :) May her words of wisdom help you through this uncertain time and far beyond. Get your copy of The Upside of Being Down right here, and check out Ban.do's Stay At Home Essentials Collection to feel supported, inspired and cozy.