During the first years of my freelancing career, I’d run through the same internal monologue every time I pitched. What am I saying? I sound like a phony…Other freelancers will get the gig because I am not enough.
Self-employment can be a mine field of unhealthy behavior and mental illness. Negative self-talk, loneliness, depression—freelancers, who often don’t have the benefit of objective third-party observation, must learn to recognize warning signs in themselves. I’ve found one of the toughest to combat is that little voice inside my head telling me I’m out of my league.
Clinically speaking, that voice is called imposter syndrome. Often described as an inability to accept and internalize one’s own accomplishments, imposter syndrome leads to the feeling that you’re a fraud, often just waiting to be unmasked. Despite external evidence of competence, people with imposter syndrome suffer from negative self-talk and are convinced they don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
Why freelancers are susceptible
Since freelancers build careers on relationships and connections, it can be all too easy to start attributing success to outside factors rather than internal competency.
“Imposter syndrome is impacted by an external attribution style,” said psychologist Rachel Tomlinson. “Success is deemed to be due to external things like ‘luck’ rather than internal things like hard work or skill. Because of the way freelancing works (right story, at the right time for the right editor), [that] lack of consistency can lead people to develop this external attribution style, which exacerbates the feeling of being an imposter.”
Then there’s the social isolation. Human beings are wired to work in social settings where we often receive positive feedback. As freelancers, even in co-working spaces, we’re alone for much of the time. This isolation puts us at risk for anxiety and removes opportunities for feedback.
“It’s much harder to get validation and praise from co-workers and supervisors when you are largely working on your own,” said psychologist Dr. Jay Saul. “In a non-traditional setting, you might not hear any feedback and be left to overthink the kind of work being produced.”
How to deal with imposter syndrome
Rewiring your brain is no easy task, and I’m not advocating you do it without the help of a mental health professional. But there are some healthy behaviors you can engage in now to keep the negative thoughts at bay.
Reframe your thinking
With imposter syndrome, even the best, most productive stretches are overshadowed by feelings of inadequacy. When gigs dry up, it gets even worse. “You don’t get rid of imposter syndrome,” Dr. Saul said. “What you do is reframe the situation and use that to balance out the doubts.”
In other words, try to list the positive actions you’ve taken recently—the gratitude of your clients, the impact your content had on a campaign, the collaborative relationships you’ve formed with other creators.
If all else fails, anchor yourself to your professional record. It’s hard to argue with demand. “To be a successful freelancer, you have to be talented and able to produce high-quality work,” said Dr. Saul. “Continuing to get assignments is usually a sign you are doing something very right.”
Practice mindfulness meditation
A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience reveals that meditation lowers anxiety levels and positively affects the section of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that controls worrying.
In practice, mindfulness meditation is all about controlling your breath; acknowledging your thoughts; and then, if they’re not constructive, letting them sweep past you, without judgment. It takes practice, but the process can be very helpful for letting go of anxiety and reducing physical symptoms.
Connect with other freelancers
Social isolation is a tricky thing as a freelancer; it’s easy to slip into isolating behavior, but, fortunately, also easy to slip out. Connecting with other peers and professionals can help. Schedule social activities with local freelancers or consider registering for a creative meet-up or conference. If you’re ready for slightly more commitment, join a co-working space that encourages members to share their work with each other. View it as networking or peer critique if you’d like, but don’t feel obligated to make the dialogue all about shop talk.
Treat your freelancing opportunities as a business
Sometimes changing the external will cause the internal to follow. Professionalizing your business not only signals to clients and peers that you should be taken seriously, but over time, may help you believe it as well. Creating an LLC, taking professional headshots, tightening up your bookkeeping, documenting and promoting past clients, and updating social profiles are just a few ways you can feel more grounded in your work.
Don’t ignore the feeling of being an imposter and don’t downplay it. Take action sooner than later. Surround yourself with supportive peers and focus on your successful projects. And if you are severely anxious or depressed, get medical help immediately.