Written by Dylan Gerstley

The value in vulnerability

Kind, positive, and reserved, Sean Elliott is quick to recognize and appreciate all the blessings in his life. Growing up in Erie, PA, Sean enjoyed what he called a normal upbringing, with caring parents and three older brothers, before starting his accounting career with KPMG in Philadelphia. On the surface, Sean was doing well, but below the surface, a storm had been brewing.

“If there’s one thing I want people to get from my story, it’s that it’s ok to ask for help and it’s ok to talk about things,” shared Sean. “Counseling and therapy have been the biggest transformational thing for me to get back on track and get out of the rut I was in. If you’re struggling, if you’re not feeling like yourself, if you have lost someone, go talk to someone because it’s going to help you.”

Though Sean is an ardent advocate of talk therapy now, he wasn’t always keen to sit down with a mental health professional to share his problems. But through new connections, open conversation, and the courageous desire to feel better above all, Sean opened his mind and began a journey of transformation and triumph.

A devastating diagnosis

When Sean was in his junior year at Penn State, doubts over his career choice started to creep in. To add to his challenges, Sean got a call that would change his life forever and set the stage for the biggest hurdle in his life.

“My mom was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, which turned into full-blown Alzheimer’s, and she was only 57. It hit me really hard, just not knowing what it meant, how it would work moving forward, what the future would look like. There’s so much we still don’t know about either condition, and it was a time filled with questions, but no answers.”

The diagnosis left its mark on Sean. He developed a much higher sense of anxiety and went through periods of depression as he struggled to enjoy college while simultaneously grappling with an uncertain role in his mother’s care.

“There’s a bit of a misconception that Alzheimer’s only affects memory, but that’s just the start,” Sean described. Before the diagnosis, Sean’s mom was goofy and charismatic, able to get a laugh out of anyone. “But the condition completely changed her personality. She became more reserved and lost her capacity to live the life she always had.”

Very suddenly, Sean’s father and brothers evolved from a husband and sons to caregivers and helpers, all while he was pursuing his degree over 200 miles away, unable to be home with his family. His friends grew increasingly concerned and pushed him to seek help.

“I had a couple of close friends who I’d confided in that I was struggling, but didn’t tell them why,” shared Sean. “They said, look, we think you should go talk to somebody, there’s counseling services for you on campus, but I immediately resisted it. I know, looking back, that it was the stigma that was holding me back. I felt like I was strong enough and didn’t need to talk about it. I even said I was talking about it with friends and family, but in reality, I was bottling everything up and internalizing it.”

An inflection point

Sean continued to battle high levels of stress and anxiety after graduation, in addition to the guilt of not being home in Erie to help care for his mom. This feeling of not helping enough compounded as he moved to Philadelphia to begin his career some seven hours away from his family.

“I just felt like I could have been doing more. I should have been doing more,” explained Sean. His father was in his mid-60s and recovering from his own health issues. “It was too far to go home for a weekend, so I spent all my vacation time going home whenever I could. And I wanted to be there, but going home in itself was tough. Seeing how much more my mom had lost every time I was back home was a punch to the stomach. I loved my mom so much and it was just eating at me all the time.”

Though Sean tried to buy into the support for his career from his family, the long hours of working in public accounting began to catch up to him. He connected with a colleague who shared her experience of talking with a counselor and how it impacted her career. After she recommended a therapist, Sean took the plunge that he had avoided in college and started regularly attending counseling sessions.

“After three years of refusing to acknowledge my problems, I started counseling, so me waiting only delayed the inevitable,” Sean said. “Talking to someone doesn’t have to happen because of something tragic. I hope it’s not the reason you talk to someone. There are many times throughout life, especially growing up and during transition periods or new phases, where talking to someone is just smart. Sometimes you can’t see the forest from the trees and getting that outside perspective is helpful in your relationships and in your career.”

The talk therapy slowly shifted Sean’s thinking and helped him grow more confident and assured in his decision making. “It can actually be very freeing to have this person who’s objective, who’s trained to listen and whose job it is to listen. They want to care for you and help you, that’s what they’re for. And they don’t have a bias. And you don’t have to worry about them knowing anything you’re struggling with or that is bothering you, they’re just this person that’s going to listen and help you.”

After over a year of regular sessions with his therapist, he decided to step away from public accounting and return to Erie to be with his mother. “I waited three years after my mom’s diagnosis to go talk to someone. And I wish I could go back and start my junior year of college again, because I could have approached finishing school, getting a job, starting a career, all that stuff with a much clearer head.”

Being more open, genuine, and vulnerable

The impact of talking and working through his feelings changed Sean’s perspective on dealing with and communicating emotions. It’s altered how he looks at relationships and has made him deeply value authentic connection.

“One of the great benefits of therapy for me has been that I am more willing to open up and talk about difficult things now. That type of vulnerability is important for healthy relationships and to me, being genuine with yourself and others is one of the biggest things. And when you open up, you’re being vulnerable, and giving the person you’re interacting with the space to connect with you on a deeper, more authentic level to build trust.”

This vulnerability, along with the courage to meet with a counselor, is something Sean feels was missing from his interactions in his late teens and early 20s. “I would definitely go back and change that as well, beyond just talking to someone sooner. I would open up to my friends more if I could do it over. It’s just that false thinking that I needed to sort it out on my own, that I had to be strong enough to handle it all myself.”

Coming back stronger

Sean’s return to Erie, in conjunction with his regular therapy, helped him return to his accounting career with a clearer head and increased confidence. Rather than go back to a role in public accounting, Sean searched for an opportunity that aligned more with his values before finding a home at Siegfried.

“The investment, effort, and focus on personal growth and relationships is just not something other firms are doing. Especially with the MY Journey® program, Siegfried stands out, and I’ve been exposed to so many fascinating and inspiring speakers,” Sean explained. “It really makes an impact on people, hearing other perspectives and spending time focused on your goals and dreams. The rhythmic approach helps engage people more and just like therapy or counseling, you get out of it what you put into it.”

The focus on reflection has become a large part of Sean’s life as he continues in his career and growing as a leader. He’s met more like-minded professionals and listened deeply to their stories before being inspired to tell his own.

“The focus on growth isn’t just career-oriented. People share authentic stories of real-life problems and how it’s helped them change and develop as a person and they share it because it could help someone. That focus on helping others and being authentic is what makes Siegfried so special.”

The courage to change

Connecting with others and taking the chance to step outside of his comfort zone has pushed Sean’s strong personal development. And his courage to confront his problems through counseling helped him sift through a myriad of emotions, talk things out, and lift the weight of stress off his chest in the hardest and darkest moments of his life.

“It’s been a really hard past eight years or so and counseling has consistently been a good way for me to shift my mindset and change for the better. After years of caring for my mom, she unfortunately passed away in September of 2020. And if I had the same mindset I had in college when this happened, I would have spiraled, thinking I wasn’t supposed to share those tough emotions of grief and depression, but now I know how important it is to talk through your feelings and confront your problems with a clear head.”

The tides and dialog around emotional and mental health are changing and Sean is relieved and excited to see how the movement progresses. Though Sean discovered more about himself and learned hard emotional lessons through personal tragedy, he firmly believes the practice of talking through emotions is beneficial to everyone, no matter where they are in their life or what problems they’re facing.

“I think that there’s a lot of advocacy and openness now for people to share their stories without feeling any stigma or judgement. I know I had a very supportive childhood, but there was still this messaging that you had to be tough, that you couldn’t show vulnerability, and I think that maybe works when you’re running hills at practice or something, but it can be a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with real-life problems. So, if you haven’t talked to somebody yet, start talking because you can, and it will help. It’s been the biggest transformation of my life and has changed everything for the better.”

#WorthMentioning

  • Sean loves cooking and trying new recipes across different cuisines, with one of his favorites being homemade curries. He also enjoys working out and is a huge sports fan. Sean is a fan of his alma mater Penn State, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Indians, and though he grew up in Erie, PA, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
  • Sean is an avid gamer and played Halo and Madden with his brothers and friends growing up. “I’ve got so many good memories from playing video games at sleepovers throughout childhood. I still love to play video games and have kept it up as a hobby to this day.” He even spent his lunch break in a digital queue to score the elusive Xbox Series X on launch day.
  • A fan of most music genres and eager to enjoy new sounds, Sean still ranks Kid Cudi’s debut album, Man on the Moon, as one of his all-time favorites. And he’s never seen Evil Genius, one of the craziest true crime documentaries on Netflix based on a story his hometown, if you can believe it.
  • October 10 was World Mental Health day, if you’re interested in resources on the campaign go to the official site with details around events and support.

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