How to fight freelance fury

by Tom Albrighton 15 September 2010 Freelancing

So the expected email has arrived from the client. They’ve been hanging on to your work for weeks, but now their feedback is here. They don’t like it much, even though you stuck to the brief (you thought). The document has been circulated around several committee members, each of whom has made suggestions – many of them contradicting what other members are saying. Obviously, your invoice can’t be paid until the work is approved. So now you need to rework the whole thing – by Friday. (And if that lot isn’t enough for you, check out Clients From Hell.)

What you’re feeling is freelance fury. It’s always there, waiting to get out: the primal, all-consuming, incandescent anger that can only be experienced by the self-employed white-collar worker. Here are a few ideas for cooling your jets and redirecting your energies towards something more productive than chewing the carpet.

Email in haste, repent at leisure

First and foremost: don’t act hastily. Communicating with the client might well be part of the solution, but don’t grab the phone or send off that angry email just yet. Work through some of the ideas below first. While you might feel that the client ‘should’ hear what you’ve got to say, venting your rage is unlikely to resolve the situation to your advantage.

One way to release the pressure is to compose that email without sending it. Write it, but just save it as a draft. You can read it through tomorrow and then decide how much needs to be said.

When I do this, I usually find that 90% of the content is righteous anger or self-justification, and 10% is pragmatic stuff that the client actually needs to hear. So I cut the email to the essentials and then send it.

Control your response

Self-help guru Stephen R. Covey defines ‘responsibility’ as ‘response-ability’ – your ability to respond. His key point is that while there are always aspects of a situation that you can’t control, your own response (whether mental, verbal or physical) is always a choice.

Understanding this is the foundation of self-responsibility: our actions are never really forced by outside circumstances, however much we might like to think so.

In the context of freelance fury, response-ability means separating the events that have made you angry from your own response to them, instead of trying to grapple with a confused, seething tangle of thoughts, emotions and memories.

The table below shows how actual, real-world events (left-hand column) might be distinguished from the interpretation, speculation, imagination and judgement you’re bringing to the situation (right-hand column).

In the real world In your mind
Actions taken by the client      

Words spoken or written by the client

What the client wants to do, or is trying to do      

What the client ‘always’ does

What the client thinks of you

The sort of person the client is

What will probably happen next

How it will all end up

This is the first step to getting a grip on your thoughts and throwing out the ones that are unhelpful. Speculating on what the client might think, or what might happen in the future, is particularly pointless. You’re just fiddling about with imaginary ideas in your mind. Focus back on the real world and what needs to be done now (see below).

Another way to work through your responses is just to talk through the situation with someone else. When you have to describe events and reactions to another, the distinction between them becomes much clearer.

Experience anger fully

In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out… That is what [Zen master] Dogen meant when he said, ‘Ashes do not come back to firewood.’
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This quote, which may seem rather opaque at first reading, refers to the Zen idea of complete experience. In Zen, meditation is a way to experience existence in the fullest possible way. But other acts as well as meditation can – and should – be experienced in the same way: with a single-minded, focused concentration and appreciation.

Mr Angry was furious that he'd gone out wearing nothing but a hat again


Unfortunately, modern life is full of fragmented, incomplete experiences that are intrinsically unsatisfactory. Surfing the internet while watching TV, for example, or eating while reading a book, delivers an incomplete experience of both. Yet we persist with the idea that we can somehow kill two birds with one cognitive stone. In fact, as Suzuki points out, such incomplete activity leaves unwanted ‘traces’ in our minds and in our character; the firewood has not been completely burned.

Because anger can be so powerful, it can be difficult to experience it completely. As discussed above, our own reactions quickly cloud the waters, and before we know it we’re locked in an internal dialogue with our own fears and interpretations. As a result, a trace of the anger remains, and we can’t let go of it.

To remedy this, try ‘sitting’ with your anger. Just sit quietly and observe what’s happening in your own mind. (You don’t have to adopt the lotus position, but it’s worth finding a time and place without distractions.) Remember the events that made you angry and note your reactions. Don’t judge your client, or yourself – just observe the thoughts arising and passing away, like clouds passing the sky. After a few minutes, you’ll usually find that past events feel truly past, and your own perspective is much more balanced.

See yourself taking action

One of the most powerful anti-worry techniques is to vividly picture yourself taking action to address the situation. Instead of going round and round in your mind, fuming, focus on what you could actually do. For example, you could:

  • talk to a fellow freelance and get their views
  • go online to see how others have dealt with the situation
  • call up the client or send them an email to raise your concerns
  • tell the client you’re going to have to charge more to cover extra work or time
  • decide to walk away from the client (perhaps without even charging for work to date, so there’s no dispute).

(I’ve used this last tactic recently and it worked really well. I proposed my best solution. The client didn’t like it. So instead of endlessly trying to revise it, or become something I’m not, I cordially ended the project, letting them use what I’d done if they wanted to. Quick, angst-free and effective, freeing me up to go where I can add more value. Nothing owed on either side, and the client at least respects me, even if they don’t like my work.) 

You don’t have to follow up on all your ideas – or any of them. You just need to give yourself a realistic set of options that you could take. Just having these options generates a sense of freedom and choice – and that takes the pressure off.

Criticise the act, not the person

A lot of the time, we react to our conceptions or perceptions of how people are, not what they actually do. We might also characterise them in particular ways – ‘difficult’, ‘fickle’, ‘demanding’ or whatever. If unchecked, this can become a feedback loop where everything they do just reinforces our perception of them.

The key is to criticise a person’s acts, not the person themselves. For example, instead of saying ‘They’re so critical’, say ‘They’ve criticised me’. This may seem a trifling or semantic distinction, but it’s crucial. The first sentence judges the person as being a certain way, while the second simply describes an action they took.

People’s basic characters tend not to change, but they can always choose different actions. If you characterise them as being a certain type of person, you’re shutting off the possibility of change. But if all they’ve done is take a certain action, they can always choose another action in the future. That gives you (and them) more options and a sense of hope and purpose about the whole relationship. (This technique is also recommended for telling off children.)

Hold on tightly, let go lightly

I’ve quoted this phrase before in another article aimed at helping freelance writers. I think it illustrates perfectly the balance of commitment and flexibility that freelances need in order to operate without going mad. Obviously, you want to put effort into your work, and do the best job you can. But in some situations, you need to switch to a more arms-length, practical approach where you’re less of an artist, more of a business person.

Personally, I find it easiest to cultivate a consistent sense of distance between me as a person and my work – although this can be difficult, particularly when social media is furiously muddying the distinction between personal and commercial. For me, deciding to trade as a company was a key step in establishing this distinction between what I might want and what’s best for ‘the company’ – even though the company is really just me.

While you might get enjoyment from doing a good job, if things go wrong you’ve just got to be dispassionate and work through the difficulties in an unemotional, clear-sighted way. Don’t invest too much of yourself, or you’ll end up being consumed by freelance fury.

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  • Great stuff, Tom. I’m consistently amazed by the thought and effort you put into these posts, and by your range of references.

    Email is part of the problem with freelance fury. Because you can’t hear the client’s tone of voice or see their body language, it’s much easier to feel personally criticised or treated badly, even if their intention is completely the opposite. In these situations, a phone call is often a good idea (once you’ve calmed down, of course).
    .-= Richard Hollins´s last blog ..Copywriting tips- length matters =-.

  • Hi Tom,

    Undertaking freelance work for large corporations can be a nightmare. As you say, often you are not simply looking for one person’s approval of your work. There will be a small army of people your work has to get passed before the OK is given.

    Frequently, you will also find the negative responses can stem from the fact that the initial brief was not what they’d all wanted. So you are left on your own in a pool of sharks through no fault of your own.

    I have learnt to grow a thick skin since becoming a freelancer. Thankfully I’ve only ever had one experience where I couldn’t fulfil a client’s needs – mainly because they didn’t really know what they were. I dealt with it calmly and walked away leaving them free to find another freelancer.

    Being a freelancer is, at times, like being in an office environment – you will always come up against someone you can’t work with. When that happens, don’t take it personally, act calmly and rationally and retain your dignity – then go and kick something!

  • I’ve always wondered how other freelancers handle the invoice/waiting for feedback dilemma that you pointed out in the first paragraph. I charge 50% up front, 50% upon completion, but I’ve had clients take months to get back to me with revisions. Do you just wait it out? Send the invoice after a set amount of time? What do you suggest?
    .-= Natalia M Sylvester´s last blog ..From Writer to Entrepreneur and what I’ve been up to lately =-.

  • Good post Tom. I don’t know if I’m alone in this but my first response to client criticism is “Oh my God what have I done wrong.” I find myself half way through an apologetic missive before pausing to think whether the criticism is actually reasonable or not. Frequently it’s not – I’ve had people trying to renegotiate rates by devaluing what we’ve done, off-loading blame for an in-house cock-up or just simply venting a bad mood. A period of reflection allows me to assess whether the criticism is valid or not and respond to the client appropriately.
    On Natalia’s point, I generally lay out terms and conditions for larger projects and set a payment and delivery schedule. Hope that helps – get in touch if you want to ask more.

  • Pingback: How much is enough? | Copy Writing Career()

  • Tom, I agree with everything else you say but this rubbed me the wrong way: “The client didn’t like it” (and then you walked away from the project).

    All right, you may skip some details for brevity, but the first thing that comes to my mind in a situation like this is to ask “WHY exactly do you think it’s wrong”.

    If they can’t come up with a clear-enough reason, then the next thing I’d propose is testing. What the client wants, what I’ve written, a small sample of target audience and pull the trigger. If I lose, okay, I didn’t do it right and may forfeit my fee. If I don’t, it’ll show the client that copywriting really is something you need a professional for.

  • Very grateful for this post Tom.

    I bookmarked this article several months ago and to be honest, I hoped I’d never have to use it. However, that time did come recently and your advice has really helped. I particularly found the real world/your mind table really useful. I think in these situations it’s best not to assume what the client is thinking but rather to stick to the facts.

    Thanks again!

  • Thanks for the kind words Jamie. I’m glad this was useful.