The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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Picture this. You’re contracting at a client’s site, or working on a project which demands closer-than-usual collaboration with your client. There’s pressure to deliver something and very little time or support to make that happen.

Put simply, you’re outside your comfort-zone of eating Prosciutto ham on a see-saw, coworking or wherever you usually hang out to work at your own pace. It’s unfamiliar territory and your amygdala knows it.

Squirting adrenaline into your body like a vascular drip full of angst, your heart races, things get a little bit funky under your armpits and your gut jumps about like a perpetual roller coaster with zero fun and all the screaming. Nightfall brings scant respite; if you do slip into unconsciousness your panicked mind rouses you frequently, alert and afraid something dreadful is about to happen.

These are the hallmarks of anxiety and its bastard love-child depression. And one in four of us (in Britain) will experience these symptoms over the course of a year.

As a freelancer the triggers are myriad, you might be:

  • scared of failure or letting people down
  • working in a lifeless office alongside drones with principles at odds to your preference for joy and freedom
  • worried people think you’re flawless because you’re the hired expert with a duty to know everything
  • working to impossibly high standards or deadlines

Whichever items resonate with you in this far from comprehensive list of (largely my own) neurosis, these stack up to increase stress in your freelancing, kill creativity and reduce your ability to concentrate. That’s the antithesis of the human freelancer ideology.

Yet confusingly, fear of and anxiety about the unknown are there to protect us from danger and ensure our survival. When mortal threats were more immediate and abundant, it paid off to feel on edge when you suspected something might leap out and scoff the fuck out of you. And in context, like chasing a mythical monkey around in dark, foreboding forests of north America (that’s another story), fear makes sense. Because there it’s an acute, short-lived sensation – especially once you give yourself demonstrable evidence that there’s nothing hungry and hairy lurking in the bushes.

Unfortunately these primitive instincts are maladaptive in an sterile corporate office. And triggers that your amygdala mistakes for threats are more nebulous; like some throwaway remark Nigel made in a particularly tense strategy workshop or a looming, completely arbitrary, deadline to publish an annual report no one will ever read.

So this post is about practical steps you can take to mitigate, reduce or even beat the symptoms of anxiety as a freelancer. Let’s begin with immediate action for stressed and anxious freelancers.

1. Try the 7/11 breathing technique

For a quick calm-down breathe in for 7 seconds, then out for 11 seconds. It takes a few minutes to take effect but it really works.

2. Be mindful

The sensations you feel are often made worse if you try to resist them. Instead, experience them but don’t judge them or get frustrated. Engage your frontal lobe and rationalise that they’re just chemicals coursing through your body.

3. Remember it will pass

This isn’t forever. You’re human and these are temporary, biological responses to perceived danger. You aren’t ill and you certainly aren’t alone.

Now onto some longer-term techniques for stressed and anxious freelancers.

4. Tune into your internal narrative

What are you saying inside about the situation you find yourself in? If it’s “let’s see what happens”, the alternative would be:

I’m in control, this is a breeze – I’m going to nail this (and even if I don’t I’m still fucking brilliant).”

Uncertainty breeds fear and anxiety (just chat to any UKIP voter) and if you’re not committed to doing something about an approaching obstacle, that’s more uncertainty.

You increase certainty by deciding either way (quit or commit), in fact that’s half your battle won. Then you can get on with dealing with the consequences of your decision and sorting shit out.

5. Bullshit

I’m reticent to put this one in, yet it’s how many people seem to cope with uncertainty and risk (as opposed to mental health problems): they adopt a demeanour of calm control and don’t let uncertainty bother them. Perhaps it’s just an outward manifestation of number 4 above. That doesn’t mean it’s OK but it clearly works for people who cope, otherwise they’d stop spouting it.

6. Tickle yourself

I don’t mean frequent your intimates like an overzealous uncle at children’s party. I mean listen to, and amuse yourself with the crap some people come out with to kid themselves that soulless servitude isn’t so bad: “you’ve got to go where the money is”, “ah well think about the money”, “I’ve got no choice” etc.

These sorry cunts have to live this nightmare every single day; you’re just here for the duration of the project. Remember you always have the option of jibbing out and returning to your comfortable existence of knitting chorizo doilies or whatever else puts you in a more congenial mood.

7. Get the inside track

This is especially useful when it comes to unachievable high standards or deadlines. Catch someone’s ear and ask them how things really work behind the scenes, because you can be sure a business’ culture is nothing like they purport it to be.

On one particularly taxing on-site project I got chatting to a lowly grunt about the looming deadline who revealed:

Don’t worry, in all five years we’ve been here we’ve never once met a planned deadline yet.

The problem was that I took their deadline as fact and made myself ill trying to meet it, when what I should have done is regard it for the total bollocks it was.

Be calm: less monkey and more human

The most effective way to deal with your mental health is to take responsibility for it, that means developing coping mechanisms, adapting your lifestyle and building in ways to speedily recover. Besides, you have an innate ability to modify your behaviour based on what you learn – that’s the human part of your brain. And you use it to beat its arch rival, the fear evoking, shit-flinging amygdala.

The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

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