How Emma Smillie learned to say “I’m not okay”


Contrary to what Instagram would have you believe, the pursuit of health and wellness does not usually arise from a perfect and pain-free life. Rather, “wellness” should be defined by what it is in opposition to - pain, stress, imbalance - and it is in the embracing of those elements, rather than running from them, that a healthy life can truly be crafted.

A common theme we have discovered in our FloLab community is this realisation that something is wrong, and a desire to change it. And that is clearer than ever in the story of FloLab co-founder herself, Emma Smillie.

In part six of our #FriendsOfFlolab collaborative series with photographer Tara Shupe, co-founder Snezhana Kuzmina interviews her professional partner Emma Smillie to get to the depths of her journey towards becoming a coworking entrepreneur. In it, Emma reveals how she gave up the facade of being a constant “ray of sunshine”. Now, she displays her true burning flame for helping people borne out of her own pain and struggles.

Let's start off with how did you come to be in The Hague?

I moved to The Hague almost 2 years ago with my husband Drew. I'm from Edinburgh, he's from Glasgow and we came to the Netherlands for Drew’s job. At that point Drew had been working with Heineken for 12 years or so in Scotland, and out of the blue, his boss said; "There might be an opportunity. Would you be up for moving to New Zealand for a year?" We were like, "Oh my God, yes, yes, yes!”. Our whole world turned upside down and two months later we landed in Auckland. After 11 months, the project was coming to an end and they offered Drew another contract, this time a 3 year one in the Netherlands. So we moved straight from New Zealand to the Hague in June 2017.

How do you feel about living in the Netherlands, especially in comparison to New Zealand?

I love the Netherlands and I love the Dutch!  I love how direct they are. I love how no-nonsense they are. I even love how rude they are sometimes, I find it really funny. It's amazing to experience a culture who are so much closer to being fully self-expressed. British culture is the opposite of that, people rarely say what they actually mean.

Compared to NZ, the two countries are so different. NZ is SO Beautiful! And a little rough around the edges, some would say dated, but it is such a really special place with amazing people who are proud to be Kiwis. Here in the Netherlands people are also so patriotic which is nice! Things are much more modern and together, I don't know, things just work. It’s really refreshing.

How have you found the expat life? That must come with its own sort of perks but also trials and tribulations.

Drew and I feel so lucky to be living the expat life here and are so grateful for the support we have had from Heineken. I would say the perks are that you get to see other countries, experience other cultures and really grow as a person. That being said, it's really challenging. Packing your whole life up and moving abroad is really stressful and can bring up a lot of issues which weren’t there before. Especially for the partner of the person who has been offered the opportunity. It can put a lot of strain on a relationship.

For the partner who doesn't have a job, often they have made sacrifices to come here and feel like, you’re dropped in a country where you don't know anybody, you don't know the language and you don't understand the cultural differences. You can feel a bit lost. But I think that if you decide to use the opportunity to work on yourself, eventually you will start learning exactly who you are, what makes you tick and what you need to work on. If you do that you will find your tribe, or that's my experience anyway!

I don’t feel like I have to pretend that everything’s okay anymore.

Do you feel that you're a more worldly person now? Can you see yourself going back to Scotland and slotting right back in?

I definitely see myself as a more worldly person now. I appreciate people for their differences and am less judgemental. It's funny because I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere. I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit or an odd one out. I don't know, I always had this real longing to belong to something, whether it was a cause or a group of friends. Like when you're at school and you want to be a part of the cool crowd, that was very much who I was for a long time.

If you had asked me a year ago if I would ever move back to the UK I would have said “no way!”. Now though I feel, if I was to go back to Scotland it would be fine because I could expand FloLab with an Edinburgh branch. Then I could still do what's in my heart and be me.

Has that feeling of not belonging changed now?

Yeah, it's definitely changed. I've genuinely found my tribe now. I'm able to exist a lot more loudly than what I was doing before. I think that before coming here and creating FloLab, I was just still latching onto things and holding onto being part of things that actually really weren't for me at all. I just didn't have that confidence to be able to stand up and say, "This is not what I want," because I didn't really know what I wanted either. But now I do.

You've worn many hats over the years. Can you tell me about your career history and where you are now?

There certainly have been a lot of hats! How much time do we have? Haha.  I didn't have the best time at school and really didn't know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to get out of school as soon as possible.  Home economics was my favourite subject and I absolutely loved cooking. So I left at 16 and went straight to study Culinary Arts with Management at college. I did a 4-year apprenticeship and loved the buzz of creation and being part of a fast moving team. Even if it was seriously hard work!

Unfortunately, I had to quit my career as a chef because of health problems when I triggered dermatitis. My dermatologist at the time said, "Look Emma, you're very lucky this has happened to you." I remember thinking, "Fuck you. I'm not lucky. This is ruining my life." Very dramatic. He said, "You're very lucky this is happening now when you have no dependents, you don't have a family, you don't have anything really to worry about. You can retrain in something else." So that’s what I did. I went back to college to study Health & Safety then made my transition into corporate life. I worked my way up the corporate ladder but the main issue for me in that career was isolation. I was either away from home all week, driving all over the UK surveying or delivering training courses, or I was working from home alone all day writing up reports. There were no such things as co-working spaces back then and I really missed being part of a team. After ten years I decided I was done and needed a drastic change.

So I went back to college again and studied Learning & Development and got a job based in Edinburgh.  I really enjoyed delivering training courses and got a lot of energy from the interaction with people all day. What I didn't like was having a boss breathing down my neck at times and being told what to do. It's been a recurring theme in my life actually so it's no surprise really that I eventually became an entrepreneur, is it? Haha.

First I became a freelancer, which was so much - being my own boss. But then I overworked myself, taking on too much when the work was there and afraid of when it might dry up. So that led me to look for ways to make more money so I started a side hustle as a distributor for a skincare and nutrition company. They had really amazing products which completely cleared my dermatitis for the first time in like 12 years, it was like a miracle to me! So I thought, "Wow, this is how I get out of everything. I can just do this for a few years, make my money and then that'll be me done." It wasn't like that at all though. I loved the people, I loved the events and I loved delivering training and coaching people. But despite how much I enjoyed it, I just couldn't make the business work for me.

I did that business for 4 years and honestly, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I learned so much about myself and about business. I never got a degree in school which I used to have a real hang-up about, but that was my degree in sales, networking, marketing, coaching and personal development all rolled into one and really helped me discover my two greatest passions in life; people and coaching. I absolutely love helping people to grow and develop so now I am a coach and support people who want to make big changes or are going through similar life challenges as I have.

Burnout and autoimmune illness comes from doing things that you don’t care about, being out of alignment with your values and ignoring parts of yourself that need to be expressed.

Would you be open to discussing a little bit some of your healing journey?

Yeah, sure! My health challenges have always been a bit of a mystery. When I was 20 I had a bit of a disaster and triggered contact dermatitis on my hands.

The first thing I found out I was allergic to was rubber, and I wasn't wearing PVC or latex bodysuits at the weekend so it wasn't exactly a problem to avoid it. However, it was really painful and led me to quit my career as a chef which was very upsetting.

My skin was reacting badly to things I was handling, and then even to the gloves I was wearing to protect them. Over the course of 12 years, I never found a solution to it. It was always a problem. My hands were always very painful, itchy, dry, cracking. It's always been a major feature in my life. It really led me down a path of becoming very much a victim and becoming very bitter inside. People would meet me and be like, "You're such a ray of sunshine" but inside I was raging.

Then when Drew and I were in New Zealand I started to feel really unwell. The process of packing up our entire house and then flying over there was easily the most exciting and stressful period of my life. I just remember being in this haze of stress. I actually couldn't even function, I couldn't think straight, was really forgetful and struggled to make decisions. It was an intense time.

By the time I got to New Zealand I was just like, "Oh my God, I'm in New Zealand. This is amazing." I was kind of swept away by that excitement. Drew and I lived a great lifestyle in New Zealand. I was getting up at 5 am every morning, working out three times a week, cooking food from scratch, clean eating, all that. On the surface, everything was great, but I'd put on loads of weight despite the healthy lifestyle and would find myself in the middle of the day bursting into tears feeling such crazy anxiety and fatigue for no apparent reason. I would go and sleep on the couch in the middle of the day and sleep for four hours. I felt really confused not understanding what was wrong with me and ashamed I wasn't able to achieve all the goals I had set myself.

It's no surprise that all that underlying stress started to eat away at me. I didn't realise it at the time, but I think I was actually burning out from the moment I landed in New Zealand but I just kept numbing it, just like I'd been numbing the skin problem stress.

It wasn't until a doctor friend of mine spotted I had a ‘goiter’ which is a swollen neck and suggested I get my thyroid hormone tested that I eventually found out I was suffering from an autoimmune disorder called ‘Hashimoto Thyroiditis’.

I had lots of physical signs which I just hadn’t noticed; my skin was itchy and dry and I had spots, like acne, which was completely weird. I had a really puffy face, big puffy eyes, and these are all telltale signs of thyroid problems. As with all autoimmune disorders, traditional medicine does not know what causes it. The theory behind Hashimoto's disorder is that the body starts to attack your thyroid, but many believe that periods of intense stress can also trigger it. The doctors had always said my skin issues were caused by stress which used to really infuriate me. I felt like they were just saying that because they didn't know what had caused it and couldn't help me. I just didn't like identifying as being a ‘stressed’ person. It felt like weakness so I dismissed it. But now when I look over my life, I can see that I have been under chronic stress for a lot of it and I became very good at never dealing with the stress, or processing my emotions. I just buried it deep. It wasn't until I started working on myself, through the personal development I did through my business that I started to open up all the unprocessed emotion.

So I was diagnosed with that in May 2016, then literally a month later I had to pack up everything and move to the Netherlands.

As soon as I landed I was like, "Right, I need some help." I started to really question what had caused it and what I needed to do to become healthy again. I've had to make major changes to the food I eat and my lifestyle as a whole, but the biggest work has been psychological. Working with a psychologist to unpick and process a lot of damage that was done many years ago. It’s intense but this is a great place to unfold all of that stuff as I am so supported by Drew and the other special people in my life who have been helping me.

How does FloLab tie in with your wellness journey?

I'm feeling so much better these days. I think mainly because I don't feel like I have to pretend that everything's okay anymore. I’ve been putting a brave face on for years. I'm now in a place where I feel really grounded and I’m doing something that I truly believe in and am very passionate about.

I do think that burnout and autoimmune illness comes from doing things that you don't care about, being out of alignment with your values and ignoring parts of yourself that need to be expressed. Creating FloLab has been one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.  It allows me to express all the different sides of myself that I suppressed for a long time. I can be creative, I can nurture and support, I can get out there and meet new people and express my extroverted side, or I can find a quiet corner somewhere and get on with whatever I am working on. All those different things.

So yeah, it's definitely tying in with how I'm feeling. I still have my autoimmune illness and lots of other things that I'm dealing with - just like anyone else, but I'm a lot more confident that I’m on a good path and just need to keep doing what I'm doing.

What does FloLab mean to you and how would you describe what we have created here?

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Work well

FloLab is an extension of your home, but the difference is that it's full of amazing people. It's a warm, safe space where you can do whatever you need to do to feel well or to feel good about yourself. If you want to get loads of work done, you can do that. If you are stuck and you need some inspiration, you can ask somebody for that. If you just want to be on your own and meditate, you can do that. If you're tired and you want to sleep on the couch, you can do that. You don't have to freak out about not being able to find something gluten-free to eat and you're really hungry because you can bring it and prepare it.

For me personally, it feels like a very safe space with people who understand what I’m going through. I think for many people with autoimmune, you tend to blame yourself because there has to be some reason. It can be a really lonely place. Even just getting out and meeting somebody and telling them what you're dealing with is extraordinarily hard because people just don't get it.  They're not necessarily sensitive or empathetic enough to just listen, give you a hug and reassure you that you will find your way. Not to mention that the community is full of professionals who can help with the physical and emotional effects of autoimmune illness.

FloLab is about bringing people together. I worked from home for almost 14 years which slowly decayed a part of my soul. So being with others who do understand lights that part of me up again. Whether you're an introvert or extrovert doesn't matter, all people need and crave connection. "Connection" doesn't even mean saying anything, it just means being with somebody. It's really important.

It’s so cool joining the dots up now to see how all of the challenges and experiences have led me to create a co-working space and community for people with all those kind of interests and needs, and bringing that all together. It makes me feel so grateful for it all.

“Connection” doesn’t even mean saying anything, it just means being with somebody.

What advice would you give someone who has gone through burnout, or recently been diagnosed with something they don't fully understand that is resonating with what you've talked about today? What would you say to them?

The first thing is to moderate your reading. It's too easy to fall down a rabbit hole seeking answers from Google, Youtube and books. It's great to get information, we all need it, but it's also extremely overwhelming and in my experience, it just leads to that cognitive dissonance where you're so confused you don't know what to do, so you do nothing. Or even worse, you do what's worse for you, which is usually the self-sabotage route. So moderate reading would be the first thing.

The second thing would be to connect with people who can help you, a functional medicine doctor, a nutritionist, a coach, a psychologist, an energy healer for example. These are all examples of professionals who have helped me in my own healing journey.

The third thing would be to get out and meet people who have been through the same thing that you are dealing with. Meetups, FB groups and communities.

The last thing I would say is to slow down and take the time you need to heal. Accept that you need to do something different to come through this and be prepared to learn what it has to teach you.

Is there anything that you want to finish up? Any final things you want to say?

What's just popped into my head there is don't sabotage your own happiness. I think one of the things that were always running in my brain was, "For God's sake Emma, look at your life. Living this expat life, you're very well supported, you have all the amenities that you need, you're living in a different country. You've got everything great in your life. You should be happy. You should be healthy. Everything should be great." I can already hear the aggression in that voice. You should, should, should. And that's bullshit because it just doesn't work like that. But one thing's for sure is that that voice is not helping at all, it's just sabotaging. Ask for the help you need and do what they recommend. Don't sabotage your own happiness. That would be what I've

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Snezhana Kuzmina