How I learned to deal with freelance anxiety

I thought I might write a post about imposter syndrome, as this is something that affects so many freelance editors, sometimes to the point where they no longer feel they can function. But then I realised that imposter syndrome isn’t something I’ve often been troubled by in my editorial career. I’ve nearly always maintained a firm belief that, twenty-something years ago, I had the good fortune to stumble into a thing I could do well, and that I could justifiably charge people money for.

What I have suffered from, at times, both in my in-house positions and as a freelance editor, is crippling anxiety. Anxiety that I have done something wrong, or let a client or employer down. Anxiety about the sheer volume of work that needs to be got through. Anxiety that work will dry up. Anxiety that could wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and wouldn’t let me rest again.

The NHS defines anxiety as ‘a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’. In my first few years working for myself, I suffered from this almost continuously – but I think at the time I didn’t realise how much it was affecting me. It’s only now the work-related anxiety has largely dissipated that I can appreciate how destructive and debilitating it really was.

But it has gone, and I thought it might be useful to write about how I helped to make that happen.

Acknowledge

I’ve always been a worrier. Even while I was at school, there were certain days of the week that would fill me with dread because of a particular lesson, or a teacher I didn’t get on with. I used to tell myself that it might be Thursday, say, but realistically I would probably still be alive at the end of it. And then it would be Friday, which would be better. I didn’t have a name for the generalised dread that gripped me, or the feeling that my guts had melted.

Later, in my first publishing job, I was at one point given a lot more responsibility for a project than I was being paid for. I was earning very little, but I used to work long hours and sometimes even weekends, because I felt that if I didn’t, the whole thing would come crashing down and it would be all my fault. Really this was a ridiculous hyperinflation of my actual importance, but that was how it felt.

When I started freelancing, and for a good few years afterwards, I suffered from this feeling again, this gnawing sense of threat. I tried to approach it by not allowing myself to look down (like a tightrope walker, I thought), but actually I was looking down the whole time, terrified that I would run out of work and therefore money. There was no safety net, and while this blessed me with strength and boldness in one way, it was also genuinely scary.

One thing that helped was to be able to give the anxiety a name, and say it out loud. It meant that it wasn’t some internal defect that was specific to me; a character flaw. It was a rational reaction to a situation, even if a reaction that I needed to be able to manage if I was to thrive in the long term.

Stop thinking like an employee

I came to freelancing after ten years of full-time employment in publishing, and it took me a long time to develop the mindset of a business owner rather than an employee. At first, a lot of the work I was doing was in fact for my most recent employer, and so they and I both operated on the assumption that in a way, I was still at my old desk, only it was now a couple of miles away. I was still at their beck and call during office hours, and sometimes out of them too, even though I was also doing other work, for other clients.

This couldn’t be sustained. I used to feel vaguely guilty when I was away from my desk, still bound by the 9–6 routine. It took me a long time to break the psychological link between work and a sense of obligation to some shadowy higher power.

Learning to say no helps with this, as all freelancers must do from time to time. Learning to set boundaries. Learning that I don’t need to explain myself to anyone, or apologise, or fit all my working hours to suit someone else’s, as long as the work I am contracted to do is done. This doesn’t mean I don’t communicate with clients, because I do – that’s really important – but it can be on my terms as much as theirs.

Engage

One thing that has been essential in my evolution away from letting anxiety dominate has been to engage with the wider editorial community. This works on many levels. When I was feeling anxious that I had turned in a piece of substandard work (as can happen, for all sorts of reasons), or was facing criticism, or was anxious that a client was overstepping boundaries to the detriment of my personal life and the bottom line, or was worried about a looming gap in my schedule, or was simply feeling that it was all too much, I could turn to editorial friends and colleagues for reassurance and advice, or sometimes just diversion.

My engagement has gone beyond simple membership of an organisation (the CIEP), and has meant that I have also been involved with it over the years in positions of varying responsibility, both voluntary and paid. The benefits of this have been not only to make myself known to others, and develop friendships with them, but also to give me confidence in my own abilities and strengths beyond simply editing text. Working alone, on various documents, with email often the only contact with clients, you can start to feel as if you have no other worth, and that is extremely anxiety-making. Engagement with the community is a powerful way of countering that.

Confront

The thing I have felt most anxious about since starting out on my own has been lack of work. In practice, this has rarely transpired; I am usually as busy as I want to be, and this is not by accident. It has been by confronting the basic issue – that work might run out, and that terrifies me – that I have been able to put myself out there and find more work, and then more, in the areas that interest me, for clients who respect and value me. In this way I am grateful for the anxiety, because it has not just made me feel terrible but it has also directly powered my business.

Don’t compare

While I will always advocate engaging with other editors, this too can be a source of anxiety if you’re not careful. For a long time, for example, I found it very hard to deal with hearing of colleagues who were booked up for the next six months, or even a year. This is because while I tend to know what I am doing, roughly, for a month or two in advance, I couldn’t claim to have all the work I need lined up for more than a few weeks. Many clients book me fairly last-minute, and I’m OK with this. In fact I quite like the element of chance, of knowing that if something really tempting comes along, more often than not I can say yes please to it. But my relatively empty long-term schedule made me feel inadequate, and in turn anxious, until it dawned on me that I wasn’t comparing like with like. Some editors do have the type of clients who are able (or organised enough) to wait six months for their time. In the areas I work in, mostly I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I’m less in demand, or a lesser editor. It’s just a different model of working. Learning to let go of that seemingly small thing slayed a great chunk of the anxiety.

Shut off

In my next post, I want to write more on setting boundaries, for yourself and others. But probably the biggest contributing factor in my learning to manage work-related anxiety has been finding effective ways to shut off. In the old days, I might have had a few drinks. These days I have healthier and cheaper ways to temporarily rid myself of work concerns. Always walking, to and from school if nowhere else. Sometimes running. At the moment, painting. Cooking. In happier times, going to the beach or roaming in the hills.

Working less (in terms of hours counted) always seems to result in actually working more, I’ve found. More effectively. More efficiently. More lucratively. And all of this means less anxiety.

Perspective

Perhaps sadly, depending on how you look at it, the thing that finally blasted away the last vestiges of my work-related anxiety was getting divorced. I wouldn’t suggest this as a solution in most cases, but one thing it taught me was that I could worry a lot less about work (because I was worrying so much about other things I didn’t have time), and still get it done to the same standard. The point is, work in itself is not the most important thing, even if it does often feel that way. Now I try to remember that in more positive ways, and hold on to that ability to keep a necessary distance from my professional life.

Take time

As with so many things in the life of a freelancer, all this can take time. In my case, it took years, but I did get there. I still care deeply about work, and work hard while I’m doing it, and want to make my clients happy, but it doesn’t all define me in quite the same way it once did, and that’s healthy. I’m sure many people would achieve the same outcome much more quickly.

10 Comments on “How I learned to deal with freelance anxiety”

  1. Liz I am struck with how worthwhile you are and your openness is so helpful. I can only add that in the highs and lows of my career I was always the same person. When encouraged I achieved but I could also travel down to the lowest opinion. Knowing that I relied on being valued made me aware that I got the best out of others when I valued them in turn.

  2. I don’t know why (and I really hope it’s not a socially acceptable form of sadism), but knowing other people feel a bit like I sometimes do, buoys me a bit. Then when somebody lists it all and breathes a bit of sense into it, like you have, it makes things more manageable.

    1. That’s good to hear, Riffat, thank you. I think that’s why I do it (plus maybe I just like banging on about things that are slightly too personal!).

  3. I almost felt you had written that piece just for me Liz! Very revealing to find that I’m not unique, not as useless as I thought, just as worried about the next piece of work as anyone else… once you find you share common worries and concerns, everything kind of settles into calm. Thank you, I will read your future comments with interest!

  4. Liz,

    I was struck with several things, but the one that hit home — as something I remember being difficult to get past — was flipping the mindset to being the boss!

    If I needed to do something at 2:35 p.m. on a Tuesday – not work-related – I tended to look over my shoulder (almost literally!) to make sure I wasn’t going to get in trouble.

    Well, THIS boss didn’t care if I decided to run an errand at 2:35 and work late to get the work done I had scheduled that day!

    By the way, I have a blog post in my ‘non-overwhelm’ series about shutting the biz down at least one day a week. It amazes me how many people freak out at that, but then can’t figure out why they’re so tense all the time. Ya gotta take a break.

    And the CEO won’t mind if you do!

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