How to cope with self-doubt when you’re freelance

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t riddled with self-doubt. Pouring your blood, sweat and tears (oh, the tears) into each word and wondering with every syllable if you’re good enough. Word to the wise: don’t become a writer if you can’t face mental gymnastics each time you face a blank page.

There’s something particularly anxiety-inducing about being a freelance writer that makes it the perfect breeding ground for self-doubt. Well, everything, really. To give you just the sexy highlights, freelance writers are constantly scraping for work, with one eye on the next assignment before the current one has even landed in the editor’s inbox. You win commissions, lose commissions, and drive yourself quietly mad as you turn comparing yourself to other writers into an Olympic sport. Did I mention that freelance writers have no job security and live in a permanent state of ulcer-inducing limbo?

Welcome to my world. (It’s not all bad, I promise.)

Even though I’m reliably informed by People On The Internet (they wouldn’t lie to me, surely) that your thirties are the best time of your life, a time when you have it together and finally feel like yourself, this past year…I really haven’t. I’m not sure exactly when my chronic self-doubt rocked up and took over every waking moment but, at some point, my self-doubt took on a gargantuan life of its own.

Just before I legged it on my Christmas holidays, my boss actually referenced my constant self-doubt – not once, but twice – and not in a “wow, Lisa, you should really work on doubting yourself even more!” kinda way. More of a “stop doing that” kind of way. Yikes. You could say it was a wake-up call that even my boss is appalled by my lack of self-belief. Sure, self-doubt is human and, realistically, the only people who don’t occasionally second-guess themselves are Patrick Bateman-types, but when self-doubt starts to become a part of your daily work personality, you’ve got a real problem. In the immortal words of Elton in Clueless, when it comes to crippling self-doubt, “you’re only hurting yourself here, baby.”

So, 2019 is going to be the year I tackle my self-doubt before it eats every shred of my confidence for breakfast. You heard it here first. How am I going to kill the beast? Well, here are a few tips, tricks and thoughts I’m applying in my everyday life, which might help you to cope with self-doubt, especially if you’re a freelancer, too:

  • If you weren’t any good, you wouldn’t be hired. Fact. A few years ago a highly experienced editor told it to me straight: “If you’re good, you’ll get work.” Sounds simplistic but in my experience it’s 100% true, particularly if you’ve worked with the publication or client before. With flexible work on the rise, there’s never been so many freelancers to choose from, yet editors regularly tell me how hard it is to get good ones. Unless you’re working for free (in which case, I implore you to stop) a company values your work enough to pay you for it. Despite what your imposter syndrome is screaming in your ear, you are not working on this project by some weird serendipitous mistake – you have skills that this company wants and needs. Whatever work they’ve given you, they obviously believe you can do it. Now you just need to believe it yourself.
  • Define yourself. Even though I’ve been a freelance journalist/editor/experienced worrier for 5 years now, a lot of my self-doubt stems from my inability to describe what I do. In these days of personal branding, that’s a big no-no and it also means I spend an inordinate amount of time mumbling, Hugh Grant-style, about my job when anyone asks me about it. Life is much simpler when you can just say “I’m a Content Manager. That means I manage content!” but freelancing is slightly trickier to describe. To feel more confident in who you are and what you do, write a 200 word summary of your career, a bit like your LinkedIn summary. When you feel your self-doubt creeping in, reading this summary of your career and achievements is a good way to remind yourself of what you do and how much you’ve achieved. It also means you know exactly what to say when disgruntled old white guys quiz you on everything but the colour of your knickers. And they will.
  • Find your freelance allies. I’ve often joked on Twitter that I’m going to set up a Freelance Support Group so other writers can get together, name and shame bad clients, and generally reassure each other that we are not the World’s Worst Writers. All jokes aside, I’ve had worse ideas. You don’t need to start a club (but if you do, I expect an invite) but befriending other freelancers is essential. Not only will you find out about work but they’ll keep you sane by reminding you that all the things that fuel your self-doubt – being ghosted by an editor, having your ideas nicked by a magazine, or having to chase a national newspaper for six months to get paid – aren’t just happening to you.
  • Go into the office. Any office. I used to love working from home and any time I had to grace an office with my presence, I was the certified Office Weirdo because I had no idea how to act. This past year I realised that, while I’m still productive working from my office/wardrobe, working remotely is increasingly isolating and has given my self-doubt too much room to creep in. As if by magic, on the days when I actually bother to work from the office, my self-doubt evaporates. I feel part of the team, rather than a faceless Gmail address. If your company doesn’t have a desk for you or they’d prefer not to see your eager/desperate little face in person, you can try a co-working space or just make it your business to be there in person for meetings and social events (they’re still work).
  • Be selective and learn to say no. Not an easy one when you’re starting out and you feel you have to say yes to everything, but once you’ve got a few regular clients, it’s more beneficial for your career to be selective and to say ‘no, thanks’ to road-to-nowhere opportunities. Taking lots of smaller writing jobs that haemorrhage your time, pay badly and you’re too ashamed to even mention on your CV will just feed your self-doubt. Over the years I’ve been tempted to accept completely random writing jobs, like the real estate company who were willing to pay me a grand total of €25 for my work. As you gain more experience, you’ll be able to sniff out when an opportunity will be worth it or not, in terms of financial gain AND self-worth.
  • Watch your language. When you talk about yourself in a negative way, not only will the people around you start to believe your words but you’ll slowly start to believe it too. I wrote a lot about how self-deprecating comments are effectively self-sabotage in my post on self-deprecation. Wanna curb the urge to put yourself down? The always-helpful Otegha Uwagba offers some pretty useful advice in this Stylist feature or you might find this post about how to deal with negative self-talk useful.
  • Accept the ebb and flow. One of the joys of freelancing, versus a regular job, is the unpredictability. I can honestly say that I’ve never been bored in my 5 years as a freelance journalist. On the flipside, the sensation of not knowing where your next pay cheque is coming from or whether you’ll get work thrown your way, is hard to grapple with. Every freelancer experiences a flurry of work and then a painfully quiet period where you start to wonder if you should sell an organ or not. Before you give in to the self-doubt freefall, remember that there are a million reasons why work dries up – usually it’s budget, they’ve got an unpaid intern to do the work, or they’ve replaced you with the daughter of the boss. Quiet periods are not necessarily a reflection on you and your abilities.
  • Get a permanent job. Look, I know this is not the cool thing to say right now when multi-hyphenate millenials are allegedly the future, but freelancing is not for everyone. The anxiety, lack of security and the sensation that the ground can open up underneath your feet at any moment – well, they NEVER go away. Self-doubt and anxiety can lead to even more serious mental health struggles (here’s a good piece from Vice about how freelancing can negatively affect your mental health) so, if your self-doubt is really impacting your life and you know it stems from your precarious work situation, it’s time to say goodbye to the world of collecting receipts and sending invoices, and hello to paid holidays and career progression. While I’m not exactly ready to ride off into the permanent job sunset just yet (I’m currently at ‘Acceptance’) I know that freelancing is a tough business. Be proud you made it this far.

If you’re a freelance writer and you’d like some free advice about carving a freelance writing career, check out my freelance writing tips post

3 thoughts on “How to cope with self-doubt when you’re freelance

  1. Madeline Johnson

    Lisa – this is such an accurate depiction of what freelancing is like. This one resonated with me – Taking lots of smaller writing jobs that hemorrhage your time, pay badly and you’re too ashamed to even mention on your CV will just feed your self-doubt. – We do this sometimes when we get frightened about the lack of work and money – and it is never a good idea. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Hughes

      Madeline, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I was worried I was being too negative about freelancing but I feel like these issues – such as taking badly paid jobs – are rarely mentioned when writers talk about their experiences and this, in turn, feeds into the idea that freelancing is easy. Thanks again for reading!


  2. NJ

    “…name and shame bad clients,” that sounds fun lol but we know we couldn’t do that. Being a member of a freelance group is helpful because you will have great support and you will know that you aren’t the only one struggling. You will sometimes get motivated to be a freelancer again with a nice support group.


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