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How to detach your self-worth from your work

Illustration by

James Merritt

Words by

Amber Sunner

November 11, 2021

Self-worth and work are often intertwined when you're a freelancer. The feeling that you’re not achieving enough can be further fuelled by announcements from the Twitter personalities who constantly showcase new articles, new wins, or new jobs - people you haven't even met in real life. The need for validation of your place in the industry can prove to be overwhelming.

Whenever I was not working, I used to feel guilty and unproductive – the exact opposite of what I should have been feeling. I still sometimes slip back into the old habit, but I now realise that resting and time off are important in running any business – especially a freelance business as we often work non-stop.

The feeling of being unable to relax due to fear of falling behind can signify that you are attaching your self-worth to your work. Because we are often without structure in our field or trying to bag new clients, thoughts like 'I'm not working hard enough to grow my business' can slowly creep in. 

Esther Okusaga, 23, has worked through similar feelings. She's a new freelance journalist who has felt unworthy in her work because of the high rejection levels in the industry. "When I do get a pitch accepted it is almost like someone invisible is applauding, saying: 'Well done you are good enough,' but when the rejection email comes through it inevitably makes the noise disappear, and I am left feeling disappointed, questioning my talents once again." 

Attaching self-worth to our work can make us less inclined to decline work, mainly to maintain our internal validation through external validation. However, saying no to projects that don't serve you can help you focus better on what will serve you. The phrase 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' is something that I'm still trying to weed out of my mindset personally, but some freelancers have already achieved this.

Detaching your self-worth from your work is not an overnight change. Like many things, it can take time to unlearn something that we inherently feel. Many of us are passionate about our work, hence why we can sometimes attach our self-worth to our work.

Lola Méndez has been a freelance journalist for five years and says when she was starting out she “absolutely” attached her self-worth to her work. “I felt I was only as good as my most prestigious byline or highest per word fee.” Lola adds that valuing yourself in this way can cause an “emotional rollercoaster”.

Talking about moving away from this thought process Lola says the pandemic helped her. “When I used to attach my self-worth to my work I was in the scarcity mindset. The pandemic pushed me towards operating in the abundance mindset and I've had an incredibly successful year and a half or so.”  

The 32-year-old recognises the difficulties of detaching self-worth from work, saying “It's very hard to separate our self-worth from our work as journalists, especially those of us who are essayists and share our personal lived experiences in our work.”

Lola advises fellow freelance journalists to step away from writing personal pieces and instead focus on straight news. “Establish relationships with editors who give you assignments, and pitch topics within your wheelhouse until you feel confident in your abilities again,” she adds.

Andrea San Pedro has been a PR freelancer for the past nine years and recognises the change takes time. "Separating one's sense of self-worth from work can be one of the hardest things one can do - especially for people, like me, who a) work in very demanding, sometimes thankless careers like PR and b) use work to quell old psychic injuries relating to inadequacy and feeling like an imposter."

Andrea talks about defining outcomes as a freelancer and how that can affect how we perceive ourselves as people. "The success or failure of work doesn't define who we are, what we are worth, what our abilities are, or what our potential is. I take comfort in the knowledge that I have tried my best, have made salient measures to make something work - and that, sometimes."

In my freelance journey so far, I have learned that rejection is part and parcel of the job. Some may say it gets easier, but sometimes I still view rejection negatively – recurring thoughts that come alongside rejection are "I'm not cut out for this ruthless industry!" Sounds dramatic, right? It turns out I'm not the only one who has reckoned with such feelings.

Jamie Irwin, 31, has been a Search Engine Marketing freelancer for three years. When he started out freelancing, he looked at the result rather than how he got there. "If something didn't go as planned, I used to think it was because I had done something wrong and not write anything else until I came up with a solution."

Once Jamie changed his mindset, he said his work benefited. "Once you strip the emotional element like self-worth from your work, you're bringing it back to it just what it is - an economically driven project. It's no different to any business transaction, so act accordingly."

 He advised freelancers to stop nit-picking every detail in pursuit of perfection as it is incredibly time-consuming. "Especially when, as a freelancer, time-management is directly correlated to your income," he added. 

Andrew Don, 59, has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is the author of The Bounty Writer. He gave the powerful advice: "Do not give editors the power to dictate how you feel about yourself. Do not give anyone that power. Every person has worth just for being themselves. The moment you understand that you will have self-worth throughout the highs and lows for freelancing." 

"Separation of 'self' from success and failure is a superhuman feat," he continues.

In a similar vein, careers, in general, have peaks and troughs that can emulate success or failure. One month our diary's may be fully booked; the next month, our work and income streams can dry up.

Helen Jane Campbell, is a life and business coach and the author of Founders, Freelancers & Rebels says fluctuations in how we value ourselves is expected because of this uncertainty. She has been helping freelancers detach self-worth from their work for over five years as a coach. She also has run communities for freelancers for over a decade. She recognised a pattern amongst her freelance clients regarding attaching self-worth to work, saying that to avoid this herself, she "brings her own sources of joy and inspiration and reassurance into my work and life".

 She advises freelancers stuck in this place to do the same and find a healthy routine that works for you – and, more importantly, stick to it. Prioritise recharging your batteries rather than chasing 'wins' – self-fulfilment comes first, she adds.

Take a step back from work and look at all the things we have achieved during our time as freelancers, especially during such a rocky period we have. Ultimately, we are so much more than our work – we have lives outside of freelancing (believe it or not)! Do more of the things you love, and your self-worth will rise at a rate far steadier than a momentary byline high will produce. Talking to freelance professionals has opened my eyes – we are not our work. We simply produce our work.

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