Freelancing and mental health

Note: I agonised over whether I should share this post at all, especially on my work blog – but I decided it is better to talk about these things. I also stressed over what to call it, but decided anything else would be a euphemism.   

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I haven’t done it before partly because I didn’t dare to admit weakness, and partly because I felt too inert to actually crank out the words.

For those who know me, online or in real life, that part about inertia might seem unlikely, I know. I run an editorial business. I mentor other editors. I have two children, and do my fair share of looking after them. I write short stories and novels in my spare time. I’m studying part-time for an MA. I blog. Sometimes I manage to vacuum the stairs. Heck, I even make meatballs from scratch. People quite often say to me things like ‘I don’t know how you fit it all in’, or ‘I don’t know where you find the energy’. I smile and shrug (or the digital equivalent), while secretly thinking ‘I don’t know either’ … and sometimes, ‘yes, but it’s nearly breaking me’.

Everybody knows that freelancing is hard, and I’m not complaining about that. It’s hard, but worth it. I can’t think of anything else I’m qualified to do that would allow me as much flexibility to be with my family and pursue my own creative interests. But running a business, year in, year out, takes its toll. It’s not the hours, which in my case are quite manageable. It’s the hunting down project after project, and doing every single one to the best of your abilities. There’s rarely a time when you can let your guard down – you feel a need to excel at everything, because if you don’t, you will lose out. And losing out means not being able to pay the mortgage or buy things to eat. Everyone slips up sometimes (I know I have) but still, you need to be performing as well as you can as much of the time as humanly – or inhumanly – possible, or you simply won’t have a viable business. If there’s one thing the world’s not short of, it’s freelance editors.

Being on your best behaviour all the time is exhausting, but it becomes a way of life, and if you’re not careful, you’ll apply it without thinking to all other areas of your existence, too. Everything becomes measurable. Everything becomes an opportunity to achieve. Everything becomes a chance to shine – and if not, then it’s a chance to fail.

My six-year-old son was talking to me the other day on the way home from school, about being given a certificate for swimming. ‘Are you proud of me?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m always proud of you.’ ‘But are you proud of me because I’ve achieved something?’ he said. Pigheadedly I mumbled on about being proud of him in general, all the time, and he kept pushing me to acknowledge that I was proud, specifically, of his achievement. In the end I gave in, but ruined the effect by adding that I would be proud of him whatever, and that achievement wasn’t important – it was him being happy that mattered.

This might say as much about my insecurities as his. The idea that I’m bringing either of my children up in a world in which ‘achievement’ is the thing to aim for at all costs makes me shudder. But then I realise what kind of example I’m setting them – and I have to take responsibility for this too. It’s not just society at large. It’s me, with my relentless pushing: pushing to keep things going, pushing to be if not always the best, then the best that I can be. At all times. No respite. No cutting myself any slack. Nowhere to go to hide from it all when it gets a bit much.

I suspect I’m not alone. Freelance editors are experts at absorbing problems and unobtrusively fixing them. We do it all day, every day. And we measure everything, and work out if we’re doing it well, and if it’s making us enough money, and how we can do it all better next time. Always this incremental drive for better. We can always be better.

My current jaded state has been made worse by environmental factors. Lingering winter, and associated lingering illness. Mostly terrible news, deteriorating over the past couple of years. People slugging it out on social media, which can be hard to avoid because I also find social media a positive and interesting addition to my life. All my friends being similarly worn out by the cold, cruel climate in which we seem to find ourselves. And in the UK we have a government intent on encouraging division, punishing the vulnerable in particular, and making everyone who is not part of the one per cent work ever harder, for less. Still, the harder we work, I guess the less energy we’ll have to resist.

To make matters worse, on a more trivial note, my grey hairs and wrinkles are multiplying. I took a selfie the other day in which I looked like the Emperor in Star Wars, I swear – and I try to be cool with this, really, but it can be hard. I have eyes to see the posters of women having their jawlines painlessly reshaped while contemplating my own sagging jowls in the hairdresser’s mirror. It can feel like everything’s on the slide all at once. (Oh great: now I’m aware of my own looming deadline!) And it shouldn’t matter, in a world in which so many more awful things happen than me showing signs of middle age, and realising that time’s getting on. But it does, a little.

As I write this, I have no clear answer, only hints of green shoots. I will keep at it, because there are people to look after, and I’m extremely lucky to have the work to enable me to do this. But I know I also need to look after myself more, or something will give. Allow myself permission sometimes just to sit and stare into space, or read without analysing, or watch without trying to find meaning. Be fully present on those walks home from school. Talk to friends, talk to other editors (the two aren’t mutually exclusive!). Go for a totally frivolous walk and not worry about all there is waiting to be done when I get back. Take proper time off. Get out and enjoy the spring – when it finally arrives.

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998 – and she needs to remember to take a break sometimes. 

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44 Comments

  1. Loved this one, Liz. Anyone who’s been freelancing for a while will identify with what you’ve sensed and shared here.

    I’m also a ‘relentless pusher’ (not the druggie kind) and it definitely takes its toll.

    We have to be constantly vigilant about giving ourselves a break from time to time; otherwise, we’re just grinding away until we die, and what the hell is the point of that.

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  2. Liz this is a fantastic post, true to form. and searingly honest. There are many things that will resonate with a lot of people. It is brave, yes, but not that brave, because what you are talking about here is not left field, and not inappropriately open, but touching, familiar yet somehow evasive: it is typical of you that you found the words – and such cogent and poignant words – to connect to the feelings.

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    1. Thanks, Howard (as you can see, I changed my mind about posting!). And you’re right, it’s not leftfield – themes common to workers everywhere, I’m sure.

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  3. Thank you for writing this, Liz – you have no idea how much I needed to read it after a rather fraught few months!

    It sometimes helps me to remember that taking a break in which you ‘do nothing’ is actually one of the most constructive things you can do. It’s not an absence of action; it’s quite the opposite – actively recharging yourself (even though it may look to the outside world like you’re simply lying in a darkened room, wandering in the park or staring into space!) This is what I try to remind myself when I’m reluctant to approve my own holiday requests, anyway!

    Good luck with ‘actively resting’ and living in the moment (and I’ll try and do the same…) 🙂

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  4. Thanks for writing this, Liz. The more of us who talk about and share what things are really like, the more likely we’ll be able to change them, make them a little better, and at least make the talking and the sharing the strength it can be.

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  5. Yup, yup and yup. So much relatable truth in here, Liz. I find I have to make myself carve out proper time to myself on a daily basis, even if it’s just ten minutes, otherwise I get completely frazzled. And the other day I was in the cinema and there was an advert for anti-wrinkle cream. ‘Your eyes shouldn’t show your age,’ the voiceover said. WHY NOT? WHY AREN’T WOMEN ALLOWED TO AGE? I found my inner voice raging. It sucks. Even if we take a stand, society will still judge us on our appearance, and trying to keep up with all this is just another burden that grinds us down. I’m trying hard to cultivate my ‘screw it’ mentality towards the things that don’t truly matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for posting this, Liz! I can relate to it in so many ways. We really do need to cut ourselves some slack sometimes, and it’s just occurred to me that perhaps we’d do well to apply the proofreading mantra of “leave good enough alone” to other areas of our life sometimes…

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  7. Great post, Liz. It’s made me wonder about the way I’ve been planning and managing non-work things – meals, shopping, social stuff, etc. – in much more detail lately than I used to, with so much revolving around notes and my online calendar. Maybe it’s a knock-on effect from the way I’ve been planning and managing my freelance work?

    I think it can help if you’ve got good, regular clients who’ve shown plenty of appreciation of your work. That can make you feel less anxious about always having to chase the next job, and more secure about your future income. Even then, though, nothing’s guaranteed, and you can easily start worrying about what might go wrong.

    I suppose we all need to try to find ways of putting these thoughts out of our minds as much as possible – thinking more about the good things that might happen, and less about the bad ones.

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    1. I know what you mean about planning everything via the online calendar, Graham. I’m very fortunate with my current clients, and do feel appreciated. The anxiety about chasing jobs has reduced in recent years. But it never quite goes! (Or at least, it hasn’t yet.)

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  8. This is a wonderful post, thank you. I also find it difficult to follow the “be kind to yourself” advice, even though I know it is sound. I feel a totally frivolous walk coming on…

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  9. This is a brilliant post, Liz. Funnily enough, mental health was one of the reasons I started freelancing, for the flexibility and control it allowed me. I’m quite open about having struggled with an anxiety disorder since I was a child, but there are definitely times when freelancing feels as detrimental as it is beneficial. As you rightly say, it can feel like a constant uphill battle sometimes just to keep it going. I’m only in my tenth month, but there have been times I’ve been sat at my desk until close to midnight without much of a break because I’m trying so hard to make this sustainable in the long-term. I definitely needed this reminder to take care of myself and take breaks. (I actually came down with the flu this week, which forced me to take that much-needed break!) We can be so hard on ourselves! I know I’m not the only editor who suffers from imposter syndrome.

    Thank you for writing this; it really does make me happy to see other professionals being so transparent about mental health. With everything going on in the world today, I think it’s more important than ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I find your flu story interesting, Rachel – for the last couple of years I’ve come down with the flu every time I have a week of even slight downtime planned. It does seem to be something your body learns to do as a last resort to make you take it easy!

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  10. You rock, woman. Thank you for putting ALL of our thoughts out there so we don’t feel alone……great piece!Carol  Carol Rock Media Consultant rockmediascv@yahoo.com (661) 607-4054

    From: EAT SLEEP EDIT REPEAT To: rockmediascv@yahoo.com Sent: Thursday, March 15, 2018 2:45 AM Subject: [New post] Freelancing and mental health #yiv1353861909 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1353861909 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1353861909 a.yiv1353861909primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1353861909 a.yiv1353861909primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1353861909 a.yiv1353861909primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1353861909 a.yiv1353861909primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1353861909 WordPress.com | ljeduk posted: “Note: I agonised over whether I should share this post at all, especially on my work blog – but I decided it is better to talk about these things. I also stressed over what to call it, but decided anything else would be a euphemism.   This is a post I” | |

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  11. Thanks for this post. I’ve been freelancing full time for 9 months now. Fortunately, things are going very well. I’m trying to avoid burnout but can already relate to making everything measurable. Novels help me. And afternoon walks. I amuse myself: I’m happy that I’m getting more clients. I’m anxious about overbooking and having too many clients. But I don’t wanna sit here twiddling my thumbs, haha!

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    1. The measurable thing is tough, because it’s so necessary to make a freelance business sustainable. But it can go too far, I’ve found. Anyway, good luck with finding the happy balance of just the right number of clients!

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  12. Liz, what a fantastic piece – thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I am still relatively new to freelancing, and I find it hard to stop myself from working, from thinking about work, from stressing about work. As you say, when you run your own editorial business, there’s always something to do, whether it’s admin, marketing or responding to emails.

    My one godsend is the gym. I’ve been going regularly for 10+ years. It’s the one ‘meeting’ I rarely re-schedule because I need it to keep me sane! Even if I arrive frustrated and pissed off, by the time I leave, my mind has been focussed elsewhere (not on my current editing job), and that break helps to re-set my brain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shuna, and sorry for the slow reply. Exercise is so good, isn’t it? I should get back to running – once I finally kick the lingering cold. I learned my lesson a few years ago not to exercise with a cold – have never quite been the same since!

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  13. Wow, I can so relate. The compulsion to “make hay while the sun shines” has me churning out project after project for the fear there won’t be more afterwards, and doing so while sick and should be in bed. There’s always something to be done and I find unless I’m feeding my family, getting them off to school or tucking them into bed at night, I’m working. Someday I’ll figure out a better balance…right?

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  14. Liz, what an amazing post to do. There is a lot in your post which rings true for me. I have been freelance for 11 years now, and it doesn’t get any easier. I recognise the frustration of having to hunt down project after project, which is sometimes made more difficult by a combination of contacts moving on or a change of policy internally in publishers how they buy external resources and [experienced by myself] your face sometimes doesn’t fit anymore. Its also made harder by renumeration being driven down, which means you need to find more projects, but there isn’t enough time in the day to do more or to do them well.

    Freelance work for me has been made harder in the last 3-4 years after being diagnosed with what has become a long term condition. At the time of diagnosis I was in hospital for 5 weeks and at least two of my then clients dropped me in that period [and have never come back] because I ‘disappeared’. At the time of being ‘disappeared’ I was busy being in an induced coma, not very far from staying alive. One of the clients even refused to pay me for work I had done in the period immediately before being hospitalised because in their view the work was compromised. I’ve never quite forgiven either of those clients, as this added a lot of stress at a not very good point in my life.

    I feel though you can always get other work [hopefully] but you only have your health once. I now take lots of breaks [probably too many], listen to the children more [though nowadays its a one way conversation about how much money they want], spend more time as a family, taking the dogs out and staring wistfully into space, while trying to take a more laid back attitude to work. The problem is being too laid back doesn’t pay the bills. But we have to remember life is too short to just work.

    A great post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry to read about your experience, Bruce. That sounds very difficult – but I’m glad to read that you now take more breaks. And you’re quite right about life being too short to just work. It’s a constant balancing act, I guess. I managed to take off the whole of the weekend just gone, felt much better, and have now resolved to get back into that good habit.

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  15. I really enjoyed reading this, Liz, and I’m so glad you decided to publish it, because it makes me feel like I’m not such a wuss for finding things overwhelming recently. Indeed, it all sounds way too familiar, especially the bit about despairing over what I see in the mirror! This winter is not being kind mentally or physically and as a Brit living abroad and with friends who are almost exclusively exiles of one flavour or another, Brexit is ageing me almost as quickly as it is Teresa May. And I didn’t ask for it, unlike her!

    One thing I found particularly interesting is your comment that “Being on your best behaviour all the time is exhausting”. That’s an aspect I’d never previously considered, but it is actually a huge burden, particularly now, in the middle of a renovation in never-ending winter.

    Interestingly, my next project (I’m a translator) is a book about how to take things easier and have a better life as a result. Sounds like something a lot of us freelancers could benefit from!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jane. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it. And good luck with your renovation! (I’m not allowing myself to even think about what I should be doing to my house right now!)

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      1. Just to say that I shared it on Facebook too – and now I’m getting tons of comments saying that pretty much everyone I know has been struggling with the same thing, especially over this winter!

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  16. I loved this! I’m so grateful to you for pressing Publish.

    Isn’t it funny: the post you might have worried would mark you out as unusual is in fact the one everyone relates to? I’m completely the same, right down to the grey hairs and sagging jawline, and yes – I’m also becoming all too aware of my own looming deadline!

    Thanks for writing and sharing this. And congrats to your son on his swimming certificate. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kate! It’s certainly been my most widely read post ever. I’m glad it struck a chord (though sorry so many others feel this way too, so much of the time!).

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  17. Great post Liz. I can also relate although mostly in retrospect. I have recently taken the dramatic step of getting off the hamster wheel altogether and hanging up a “retired” sign. I’m just lucky to be able to – finally.

    One thing I thought of – do YOU have a mentor? Is there somebody you can talk to when you hit overload? If not, isn’t it time you found somebody to do for you what you do for others? You’re also entitled to some emotional support, you know.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Janet.
      Actually, I couldn’t do without various editorial friends, who do act as mentors in a way. I’m part of an accountability group, which is very supportive. Most of all I have benefited from membership of the SfEP, which is where I found many of them, online and in person at local meetings and the annual conference.

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