How to look after your mental health as a freeleancer

Freelancing is hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it.

Your income can fluctuate dramatically from one month to the next. A project you thought was in the bag can drop off at the last minute. And clients you thought would be a joy to work with can end up being a complete pain in the ass.

Then there’s the pressure of working for yourself – everything is on you. Every decision, every mistake, every success or failure. And it can be lonely, especially if you work from home by yourself.

So it’s no wonder so many freelancers end up anxious, stressed, or depressed.

But there is good news. There are things you can do to look after your mental health. To reduce the feelings of anxiety. To minimise stress. To avoid burnout. And to build a business that makes you happy.

The best way to protect your mental health is to understand what things could impact it and then put measures in place to prevent or manage them.

Note: In this article, I’m going to look at ways to manage some of the most common causes of stress and anxiety for freelancers but if you are suffering from severe anxiety, depression, or stress, you should seek professional support.

Table of Contents

Reducing uncertainty

Everyone has a level of uncertainty in life, but when you work for yourself, it feels so much more noticeable.

You don’t have a set salary so you don’t know what you’re going to earn from one month to the next.

One day your pipeline can be full of promising leads and a week later, you’re sitting wondering where the next bit of work is going to come from.

Clients can drop off at any minute, change their mind about working with you, or decide they can’t afford to pay you this month.

You can go from having nothing in your diary to being so busy you’re struggling to get everything done.

And this constant uncertainty can cause anxiety.

The best way to reduce this anxiety is to get comfortable with uncertainty. Accept it as part of life. You can’t change it because so many things are out of your control. But you can change the way you think about it.

Focus on the things you can control and don’t get upset about the things you can’t.

Yes – I know it’s easier said than done, but it is possible.

Don’t view it as a negative – view it as something to be planned and prepared for. Because when you put processes in place to manage the uncertainty, it doesn’t feel as scary.

Break the feast and famine cycle

It’s easy to get trapped in a feast-and-famine cycle where you have loads of work one month and not a lot the next.

This can mean you are super stressed when you’re busy and super anxious when you’ve got no clients.

But there’s a reason this cycle exists.

When you get busy, it’s easy to neglect your marketing. You haven’t got time to promote yourself, respond to enquiries properly, or book calls and meetings so you let those things slide.

Then your busy period ends and you have no work lined up because you haven’t been promoting yourself, responding to enquiries properly, or booking calls and meetings.

And because you’re desperate for work, you have a huge push on marketing. You might even agree to work you wouldn’t usually take on or discount your prices just to get some money coming in.

So what happens? You get super busy again and you don’t have time to work on attracting the right type of clients.

And the cycle goes round and round. Feast, famine, feast, famine.

But you can stop it.

Make time for your marketing even when you are busy.

If your marketing is consistent, your enquiries will start to be more consistent, and your workload will be more consistent.

It might mean you have to turn some work away. It might mean you can’t complete projects as quickly as you want.

But you have to make time for your marketing if you want to break the cycle.

Control your cash flow

There’s a lot to be said for having a regular salary. You know exactly what and when you’re going to get paid each month and can budget accordingly.

That changes when you work for yourself, especially if you do project work rather than retainer work.

Some months you can earn three times as much as the month before.

Depending on your invoicing system, you might not always get paid in the month you do the work, which means the impact of a quiet month might not be noticeable straight away.

And you don’t always know when your clients are going to pay. Unfortunately, not everyone pays quickly or on time. Some people decide not to pay their freelancers at all.

My advice is always to get paid upfront for work. This way you don’t put yourself at risk of doing work and never getting paid.

But the most important thing you can do to reduce money stress is to get control over your finances.

So many freelancers just spend whatever comes in, living month to month. They have no system for managing income and expenditure. And they don’t put anything aside for tax or emergencies. Not only can this be stressful, it can also result in debt building up.

And it can be avoided if you treat yourself as an employee of your company.

Pay yourself a set amount on the same day each month. When you have a good month, leave the extra in your business to cover your salary when you have a bad month.

Once you’ve got a comfortable buffer, you can pay yourself a bonus or give yourself a pay rise.

And make sure you set money aside for tax. If this means you have to set up a separate savings account and move money in there every time an invoice is paid, do it.

You’ll feel much less anxious when your tax bill arrives if you know you have the money ready and waiting.

Managing self-doubt

Do you ever find yourself doing any of the following:

  • Holding yourself to ridiculously high standards
  • Putting unnecessary pressure on yourself
  • Expecting everything you do to be perfect
  • Being overly critical of yourself
  • Dwelling on bad feedback
  • Focusing on negative comments instead of positive
  • Doubting your ability
  • Questioning your judgement
  • Overthinking everything
  • Feeling like a failure when you make a bad decision or something doesn’t go to plan
  • Telling yourself you aren’t as good as other people

None of those things are going to help your mental health. So cut yourself some slack. 

You are just a person. People make mistakes. People get things wrong. Don’t be so hard on yourself all the time.

Yes – you have to work hard and deliver good service. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an off day. You can’t be perfect 100% of the time – it’s not possible.

Stop comparing yourself to others

You wouldn’t walk into a gym, look at the fittest, strongest, most toned and muscular person there, and expect to achieve the same look after a single workout (unless you’re deluded).

So why on earth would you compare your success to the success of others?

You aren’t the same. Your clients aren’t the same. Your skills and experience aren’t the same. Your goals aren’t the same.

You don’t know what support they’re getting in the background. Or whether they’re exaggerating their success stories.

You don’t know how long it took them to get to that point, how hard they had to work, or how much they invested.

You don’t know which bits of their business they’re not sharing on social media. Maybe they’re in a world of debt. Maybe they are working sixteen hours a day but barely making ends meet. Perhaps they are on the verge of burning out.

So what they are doing is irrelevant – it’s their business. 

Your business is your business, and it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or not doing.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. It’s where you feel out of your depth or underqualified even if you have all the knowledge and experience required for the task. The feeling that you’re a fraud, a phoney, or an imposter, and someone will catch you out.

You might feel like this if:

  • You are doing something for the first time
  • You feel like everyone else around you has more experience
  • You are being called an expert but you don’t view yourself that way
  • You don’t believe you’re the most qualified person for the job
  • You feel like you don’t deserve the success you’re experiencing

But imposter syndrome is just self-doubt and self-doubt is healthy every now and then.

It means you’re pushing yourself – you’re leaving your comfort zone, trying new things, and developing yourself. It means you are not arrogant enough to believe you’re perfect.

So embrace the self-doubt – it shows you are moving in the right direction. 

Drop the need for perfection

Sometimes you will make mistakes. Or get bad feedback. Or hear things you don’t want to hear. It happens.

But you can’t dwell on the negative. You can’t beat yourself up for not being perfect.

There is no such thing as perfect.

If you get bad feedback, learn from it. Figure out what went wrong. Did you agree to something you should have said no to? Did you do a good enough job of understanding the client’s needs? Did they have unrealistic expectations? Did you communicate effectively?

How can you make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Accept that you will make mistakes. That you will get things wrong. That you will have off days. And that not everything can be perfect.

Dealing with stressful clients

When you start freelancing, it’s tempting to take on every client that comes your way, but this is a mistake.

Not all clients are good clients.

Some clients aren’t a good fit. Some are hard to work with. Others are plain toxic.

And working with these clients will bring you down.

Learning to say no

If you struggle to say no, you aren’t alone – many people find it tough. We want to be helpful and we want people to think nice things about us, so when we’re asked to help out, do someone a favour, or take on extra work, it’s hard to refuse. We don’t want to let people down.

But you can’t help everyone. And you shouldn’t. Doing stuff you don’t want, compromising your values, or taking on more than you can handle is not good for you.

And if you’re constantly saying yes when you should be saying no, you’re going to end up miserable, anxious, and stressed out.

Here’s when you should be saying no:

  • When you’re already overloaded with work – you might not want to let anyone down, but if you take on too much work, you’ll let everyone down because you can’t deliver your best work if you’re rushing it.
  • When you get a bad feeling about a prospect – you don’t have to take on every client that comes your way. If someone doesn’t feel like the right fit, trust your gut or you’ll end up regretting it.
  • When you don’t feel confident you can do the work – there’s nothing wrong with taking on a challenge but if you know something is outside your skillset, you could end up doing a bad job of it and that won’t be good for you or your client.
  • When the work compromises your values – if something feels dodgy, illegal, or immoral and makes you feel conflicted, don’t do it.
  • When a prospect won’t agree to your terms – you decide how you run your business and if a prospect isn’t prepared to respect that, they can go elsewhere.
  • When you’re asked to work for free – there may be the occasional exception to this, but 99% of the time, working for free is a bad idea. It’s not fair on your paying clients if someone else gets your time for free.

Don’t feel bad saying no. You might not want to let someone down, but you’ll let them down more if you take on something you shouldn’t and do a bad job of it.

And trust me when I say, people are usually less disappointed or upset with a no than we think they are going to be.

So don’t waste energy agonising over the decision. If you don’t want to do it, say no – once you’ve got it off your plate, you can focus on the stuff you’ve said yes to.

Setting boundaries

You cannot give 100% to your clients if you’re tired or ill or injured or anxious or stressed or depressed. So you have to look after yourself. You have to take care of you. If you don’t, you’re not only risking your own health, but you’re also doing a disservice to your clients.

Put clear rules and boundaries in place to protect yourself.

These could be around working hours. For example, you might say “I don’t do any client work after 6pm”. Then all you need to do is to finish work at 6pm and not respond to any work calls, emails or messages.

Or you could set a rule that you have one work-free day a week. 

Make sure your clients are clear about your rules when you start working with them. And if they aren’t prepared to respect your boundaries, don’t agree to work with them.

Get rid of toxic clients

Every now and then a problem client can slip through the net, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of them.

If you’re experiencing any of these problems with a client, it might be time to rethink your relationship:

  • They never pay on time
  • They don’t respond to information requests when you need them to
  • They make unreasonable demands on your time
  • They are always asking for “a quick favour”
  • They don’t respect your rules and boundaries
  • They treat you like the hired help
  • They micromanage you
  • They are rude or disrespectful
  • They expect you to drop everything else when they need you
  • Working with them makes you anxious or stressed
  • You don’t like the work you do for them
  • You don’t like working with them
  • You don’t like them

So how do you get rid of them?

First of all, you need to decide whether the relationship can be salvaged. Maybe you need to have a conversation with them or change the way you work.

Don’t keep working with them expecting things to change if you aren’t prepared to tell them things need to change.

If you can’t find a way to improve the relationship or you just don’t want to work with them any more, end the contract or let it come to a natural end.

Be polite and respectful, but don’t back down. If you aren’t happy with the relationship, it’s ok to walk away. Your mental well-being should come first – if you are miserable, stressed, anxious or depressed, you won’t be able to give your best to your other clients.

Minimising isolation and loneliness

Even if your freelance business involves working face-to-face with clients every day, being a freelancer can still feel lonely.

Ultimately, you and you alone are responsible for the success or failure of your business. You don’t have colleagues or managers to offload your problems to, bounce ideas off, or get advice from. It’s just you.

And that can feel lonely.

If you work from home alone, it can feel even more isolating. Nobody next to you to talk to when things go wrong or to celebrate with when you get a win.

Loneliness and isolation are not good for your mental health.

And you don’t have to be lonely or isolated. Working for yourself doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself. So reach out to people. Get a support network in place.

Family and friends are great, but if they aren’t self-employed, they won’t always understand. So connect with other freelancers and business owners as well.

Networking groups and meetups

Networking isn’t just a way to get more business, it can be a great way to meet other freelancers and business owners who can support and guide you.

I was a member of a networking group for three years when I started out and I made some good friends who I still meet up with now.

And don’t be scared of connecting with other people in your industry. They aren’t necessarily your competition – they can be your allies too. You can use them to bounce ideas off, or share challenges with – they get it.

Plus, you might end up finding some great referral partners. I often used to pass work to other copywriters and get work in return.

If you’re not a fan of formal networking, look for industry meetups or events with speakers. At least you know you’ll have something in common with other people at the event.

Online communities

If face-to-face networking isn’t your thing, look for online communities.

There are loads of Facebook groups for freelancers and small businesses (such as Freelance Heroes), as well as industry or location-specific groups.

Or you can look for paid communities (such as Fellow Freelancers)

Start with free groups and see which groups people recommend. Or if you’re feeling confident, start your own online community.

Co-working

If you work alone at home, look for local co-working spaces and try a few of them out.

Even if you aren’t confident in striking up a conversation, you’ll feel less isolated if there are other people around.

As people start to recognise your face, conversation will become easier.

Accountability partners

Having accountability partners can be a good way of feeling supported and having someone keeping you on track.

This could be one other person or a handful of people. You each set goals and hold each other accountable for achieving them.

You can book a call or meeting once a week, month, or quarter to catch up and check in on each other.

Mentors

I’ll admit I was sceptical of mentors when I started out. Why would I pay someone to tell me how to run my business? I knew what I needed to do – didn’t need any help.

How wrong I was.

I wish I had got a mentor sooner. Having a mentor is like having someone in your corner all the time. Someone you can talk to about every part of your business – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

They will help you see things more objectively, pick you up when you’re having a wobble, and kick your ass when you need it. They will help you get where you want to be much faster than if you try to do it alone.

And yes – I know I am biased because I offer mentoring services, but I also know the value a mentor adds because of how much my mentors have helped me and how much I’ve helped my clients. 

Choose a mentor who can help with a specific aspect of your business or a mentor who has successfully built the type of business you want.

Avoiding self-neglect and burnout

Freelancers can often be their own worst enemy when it comes to mental health by not looking after their physical health.

You cannot give your clients the best of you if you are not looking after yourself.

Working yourself into the ground is not something to be proud of. Putting your clients before yourself and your family is not something to be proud of.

When you don’t eat properly, when you don’t sleep properly, and when you don’t give yourself time to enjoy life or relax, it’s not a sign that you put your customers first. It’s a sign that you don’t value yourself.

You might think you’re doing your clients a favour by neglecting yourself to serve them, but you’re not.

There is a reason they tell you on aeroplanes to put your oxygen mask on before helping others – you can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe. Don’t kill yourself for your business.

Make your mental and physical health a priority.

Exercise

I think regular exercise is vital as a business owner. It’s one of those things that often gets neglected but should be a priority. Exercising isn’t just good for physical health – it reduces stress and anxiety.

I make exercise a priority. It’s not because I enjoy it or want the physical benefits. I do it because I like how I feel after, and it benefits my mental health.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, or the words aren’t flowing, I go for a run or do a workout. Even just taking half an hour out every day to go for a walk will help you build a better business.

If you still aren’t sold on the idea of exercise, check out my article on 7 reasons freelancers should prioritise exercise.

Sleep and diet

If you prefer working at night, that’s fine – as long as you’re sleeping at other times.

If you like getting up at 4am, that’s fine too – as long as you are catching up on sleep at other times.

Everyone is different, and everyone’s sleep needs and routines are different.

But I know plenty of freelancers who work ridiculously long hours on a regular basis, skipping sleep and surviving on caffeine.

This is not a good way to work. If you skip sleep, you won’t be as fresh and focused.

You’re more likely to make mistakes which will lead to more stress.

And make sure you eat properly and stay hydrated. It’s important – you don’t need me to tell you that.

Don’t neglect your health. Don’t sacrifice sleeping and eating for a bit of extra cash.

Try and get into a sensible routine.

Take time off

It never ceases to amaze me how many freelancers say they never have a day off or haven’t had a holiday in X years because “you can never take time off when you work for yourself”.

Rubbish.

The first thing I did when I left employment was go on holiday. And I’ve had at least two or three holidays every year since.

I started my business because I wanted more freedom and flexibility. I wanted to be able to choose when I worked – choose when I took time off to enjoy life and travel the world with my husband.

I’m not saying I always switch off completely – I’ve occasionally finished off a blog post at the airport or tweaked some website copy by the pool. And, yes, I usually answer the odd email while I’m away and put out a couple of posts on LinkedIn.

But I definitely don’t spend my holidays sitting in the hotel room beavering away. In fact, when we went to Peru for three weeks, I didn’t even take my laptop and I only had internet on my phone when I was connected to hotel Wi-Fi.

Guess what?

My business didn’t go under.

I didn’t lose any clients.

You can absolutely take time off as a freelancer and you should.

And you don’t have to travel to take a break. Not everyone is into travelling – I get that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to take time off every now and then.

You don’t need to dedicate every minute of every day to your business.

You are allowed to take time off to meet a mate for lunch, spend the day at the beach with your kids, go for a long walk in the countryside, bake cakes, paint, write, sew, watch crappy TV, go to the cinema, do a jigsaw puzzle or treat yourself to a spa day.

Whatever it is you enjoy doing, make time for it.

Because your mental health will thank you for it.

It's ok to decide self-employment isn't for you

Just because you decided to go freelance doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. 

Self-employment is tough. You have to get used to uncertainty. You have to be ready to adapt. You can’t control everything. It’s a rollercoaster. 

And you never stop having to “do marketing” or “do sales” (unless you pay someone else to do it). It’s relentless. 

If you don’t enjoy running your own business – if it makes you miserable – why keep doing it? 

People constantly change careers. Or try things and decide they aren’t right for them. 

When I worked overseas, we’d get people every year coming out to work in sunny resorts only to find they wanted to go home after a week. 

People take on new jobs and then go back to their old ones all the time. 

People undergo complete career changes. 

I know someone who was a successful freelancer for fifteen years and then accepted an exciting full-time job opportunity. He’s happier than ever. 

People change jobs all the time and nobody bats an eye. Switching between employment and self-employment is no different. 

Whether you’ve been self-employed for a month, a year, or ten years, it’s perfectly ok to fancy a change. 

You can take on a part-time job to supplement your earnings, carry on freelancing on the side of a full-time job, or walk away from your business altogether. There’s no reason you can’t go back to self-employment later in life. 

The important thing is doing what is right for you. 

Is it time for a change?

If you aren’t attracting the clients you want or earning what you’d like, you have to make changes. There is no point slogging away at a business that doesn’t make you happy. 

The change might involve walking away completely. Or it might mean making big changes to your business – increasing prices, changing how you package your services, saying no more often, learning a new skill, or working with a mentor. 

But you have to do something because things won’t change unless you change them. 

 

Build a business that works around you

It is possible to build a freelance business that works around you – that makes you happy.

You can get paid decent money doing the thing you love for people you like.

I do.

And now I help others do it too.

If you’d like to know how I went from frustrated freelancer to living my happy ever after, grab yourself a copy of my book, The Freelance Fairytale here.

Hi – I’m Lisa

If this is your first time here, thanks for reading. 

I’m Lisa – owner of Make Your Copy Count Ltd, and author of the ‘A-Z of Blogging’ and ‘The Freelance Fairytale‘. 

I help freelancers and small businesses attract more of the clients they want by providing copywriting training and business mentoring

If you’d like to get to know me a bit better, sign up for my daily email here