The Extreme Anxiety of Being a Freelancer

That "freedom" will test your mental health.

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May 24 2017, 12:00pm

Aleksandar Novoselski / Stocksy

When I was 33 I lit a match and blew up my life. I'd been an English teacher for eleven years, having just earned tenure at a high school in Queens, New York. The head of the English department there told me after the very first time he observed my class that I was born to be an educator, and I believed him. For a long time I considered myself a lifer in the field, opting to earn a master's degree in English literature as a show of good faith to any potential future employer. I toyed with the notion of becoming a college professor.

Running alongside my supreme confidence was a consistent paycheck, built-in vacation time,

health insurance, and a growing retirement fund. But, alas, the writing bug bit me, sinking its bloodthirsty barbs into my flesh and gobbling away my desire to stay on the only path I'd ever truly known—so safe, so chivalrous, and oh so boring and frustrating.

Instead, I would become a freelance journalist—the equivalent of a modern-day cowboy.
I saved money, learned how to bartend, and procured a more flexible part-time job in the food service industry to pay the bills.

Eventually, I moved on (got fired) from bartending. Over one seven- or eight-month stretch I didn't take a single day off, blew through my savings, and in spite of my quivering fatigue, I was beginning to have trouble sleeping for the first time in my life.

Due to my increasing anxiety, three or four nights a week I'd sleep only a few hours. Constantly concerned with work, I questioned if I'd done enough over the course of each day to get by. I worried about big things and small things: Could I ever be good enough to have a career as a writer? If I can't, then what the hell kind of mistake did I just make in quitting teaching? When should I take a break to brush my teeth? Clean my apartment? Have a beer?

Nine months after leaving teaching, I began psychotherapy—able to afford it because of Obamacare, by the way. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression. I quickly learned that the feelings of self-doubt I'd apparently been burying for years could no longer be contained while embarking on a career where, minute-to-minute, a person has to have complete faith in his or herself. Eighteen months ago, I started taking medication for my condition.

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Though I still have plenty of work to do on myself, I've come quite a ways since I first entered my therapist's office three years ago. For the most part, I've embraced my emotions, thoughts, and sensitivity, and realized they've all played a part in making me the writer I am today, instead of hindering me. I've accepted the fact that I have made strong decisions throughout most of my life, and my confidence is robust enough that I'm now weaning off my medication. I'm celebrating a recent fattening of my portfolio, and giving myself time off in the form of actual vacations. (A retirement fund continues to elude me, but I've got some time.)

Things seem to be working out—fingers crossed—and that's encouraging, because more and more Americans are definitely going freelance. But can they do it without completely wrecking their mental health?

According to a recent study, 35 percent of US workers now identify as freelancers, and 47 percent of workers between the ages of 18 and 24 are freelancing either part- or full-time. There's been a spat of advertising promoting the advantages of the lifestyle. The digital freelance marketplace Fiverr unveiled an ad campaign in March promoting the flexibility and sense of empowerment of the "gig life." Uber is currently running ads that depict a busy, ripped-jean-clad 20-something declaring, "These days, everyone needs a side hustle."

While it's freeing to be able to dictate your own work schedule, it's not without pitfalls. The Fiverr subway posters have been denigrated in the media and called "capitalist propaganda" because the campaign's disturbing undercurrent implies that workers should be willing to work pretty much 24/7 to, I guess, live the American Dream. The New Yorker recently posed the question if people can survive coasting along with the gig economy, and the Uber spots normalize the notion that people should seek out a second job to cover their bills.

Surrendering to these visions of endless labor threatens the balance of everyone's work/life equilibrium, and it can lead to new highs in worry and stress. New York City-based psychotherapists' offices are full of freelancers dealing with this stress. One of these therapists, Elizabeth Cobb, agrees the struggle is real: "What I've seen is that there [are] such highs and lows," she says. She's treated many freelancers, and notes that when jobs are popping up and money is coming in, her clients generally feel great.

But there's never that guaranteed security—when the bottom drops out, it's stressful, and not just monetarily. "What I've seen is that the people I work with really base their identity off of the work they're doing," she says. The consequences of that, Cobb says, can be that people "let other things in their life slide, and when they're not working and not creating, they realize there isn't a whole lot left."

One method Cobb promotes to combat this stress and build self-confidence is to generate a "credit list," where a client writes down all of the things they did over the course of the week that, one way or another, contributed to their goals. "Going to therapy is included," she says, "and that way when a client says, 'I am just useless, I still don't have a job, what's wrong with me?' they can go back to that list and say, 'Ok, wow, I did these ten things that prove I'm not totally useless."

This tactic can and should be extended to longer periods of time. Freelancers should look back and recall where they were positioned in their respective careers six months prior, or a year earlier, and ask themselves if they've seen at least incremental improvement. (The answer will probably be "yes.")

Freelancers often believe there is more opportunity for exploration and self-actualization by going solo, says Jonathan Detrixhe, professor of developmental psychology at Long Island University and a therapist in Brooklyn. Detrixhe also sees many patients who are in the arts and partake in the gig life. "But the life of a freelancer can be pretty lonely, scary, and depriving in certain ways," he says.

This anxiety is something that freelancers should listen to—it could be advising you to avoid certain paths, but could also help carry you towards better choices, he adds. Beware of self-medicating to treat that anxiety, too—having a drink or popping a pill is a quick fix and won't really address the problem. Instead, Detrixhe tells clients to prioritize maintaining their energy—beyond freelancing—to ensure that they can go home and do the creative work they enjoy.

On the business side of things, Amy Werba, psychologist and life coach with more than 25 years in the field, reminds freelancers that they not only need to be great marketers, but also their own advocates. She advises them to put one-third of their pay aside for savings, but not just for pragmatic purposes—like food and rent when work isn't as plentiful. When a freelancer has money in a savings account, "you don't become so desperate," she says, "and desperation [can] affect your work when you don't even realize it."

At times, my interviews with these professionals felt more like personal therapy sessions—ones that focused on the downsides of freelance life and how to deal with them. But the conversations always came back around to the fact that this is a choice I've made for myself, and one that I don't need to adhere to if I don't want to.

"Do you regret becoming a writer?" Werba asked at one point during our chat.

It's a question I'm asked all the time, and without hesitation, I said, "Absolutely not."

Yes, I have my daily battles with stress and anxiety, but so does most everyone else. Freelancers merely face different kinds of worries. And for that, we deserve our own set of coping mechanisms.

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