I can’t say no to clients, and my success is destroying me

A reader writes:

I’ve been an independent contractor for nine years, and I’ve finally found financial comfort and fulfillment in my work. This did not come easy. I was barely scraping by the first couple of years. I took sleazy corporate work for investment bankers and lawyers because that’s “where the market was,” and I had to sell myself short to be competitive.

Not anymore. I don’t have to hustle. Gigs fall into my inbox like candy out of a pinata. I have built rapport and trust with steady, well-paying clients who respect my expertise. I work on projects that excite me and make me feel like I am making a difference in the world. One client does educational development projects for the MENA region and it absolutely feeds my soul.

This is great! This is the dream! I am so lucky! Yay!

Except that it’s ruining my life.

I have no semblance of work-life balance and the stress is eating me alive. I’m constantly breaking down, there’s a pit of guilt in my stomach over not spending time with my partner or even coming to bed most nights, I have no social life or hobbies, I barely have time to eat, I rarely leave my house.

It’s not about time management (often the huge issue for contractors). It took forever, but I have largely figured that one out. Now I can stay on task, avoid procrastinating, etc. It’s about being too terrified of losing a client to say no. This regularly results in workloads that are so staggering that I have to work more than 80 hours — sometimes more than 100 — and pull several all-nighters a week just to stay on top. And when I manage prompt turnarounds because I want to keep my client company happy, I get praise for being “seemingly always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.

Sometimes I try to convince myself this is fine because it’s the trade-off and “it comes with the territory.” I have so, so much autonomy and flexibility. I can travel, I can work from anywhere while doing anything I want as long as I have a computer and some software. And then I also try to convince myself that it’s fine because the super high-stakes, high-stress deadlines come in short bursts, and I can rest and do whatever I want in between. I can work around the clock for a week and a half then take two whole weeks off and still make very good money. Who else can say they can just take weeks off regularly? I should be grateful.

Except it’s not working. The stress is so high I don’t want to even exist when one of those bursts is over. I feel utterly destroyed afterwards. I grow numb to my partner’s concern. I spend the time off recovering and hibernating, not living.

Then I go back to work and tell myself it will be different this time, that I will say no to some of the projects, that I won’t let my clients push things on me that I don’t have the time or heart to do. But I just can’t seem to make myself do that. They say words like “urgent” and “high profile” and I cave. I get terrified that I will lose it all. That if I don’t say “how high” when they say jump, they’ll find someone else who will. That they won’t renew the contract at the end of the fiscal year, they’ll stop looping me in when there’s high-volume work for an important launch event that might literally change the world because I can’t handle the volume, and bye bye dream projects, bye bye.

On some level I know that this is not true, that I am actually valuable enough to them for them to want to retain me, that they would probably be horrified if they realized just how much stress I am under, and that even if they split the projects with another contractor, I would still get plenty of work.

But I am so afraid of burning any of these bridges that cost so much to build and that I am so attached to that I can’t seem to say no. Any of the scripts I try to come up with feel too risky and I can’t go through with them. (Unfortunately the solution is not to thin down my workload by dropping a client for lots of reasons I won’t go into).

If I turn projects down, that absolutely means they will find someone else to do them. It would feel like putting the first nail into my own coffin. Especially because I have a bit of imposter syndrome going on. I don’t have certification or training in my line of work and my skillset is entirely self-taught, and most of the time I am not sure how I managed to land the projects I have. I’m just waiting for them to discover that I’m actually a fraud.

I don’t know what I would do if it all falls apart. I am attached to the work itself. Sunk cost aside, I’ve never had a “real” job, the thought of trying to transition into conventional employment in the U.S. job market with only a resume full of contract work and adjunct gigs and a degree from a third world country makes me want to faint. I have a chronic health condition that would make it very hard for me to keep regular office hours anyway, which is why I quit teaching and started to work from home to begin with. Even academia isn’t flexible enough for me. I don’t have a social safety net to fall back on because I left my country and am estranged from my family. My partner is underemployed and I support him. I am alone.

Please help me figure out how to assert myself without feeling like I’m jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I can’t keep doing this, but if I don’t I feel like I stand to lose it all. This sounds melodramatic, but I’ve already lost it all once before and I can’t do it again. Sometimes it feels like this job is all I have.

Oh my dear letter-writer, I want to bundle you into a cocoon of blankets and give you tea and let you take a days-long nap on my couch, because I know how very, very much this sucks.

But the house of cards here — the thing that is not real and not solid — is not your work or your skills or your reputation. The house of cards here is your belief about what would happen if you pulled back a little.

Clients who value you as much as yours sound like they value you aren’t going to dump you because you reveal that you are human. But they will keep giving you as much work as you’ll accept, because they like your work! They’re counting on you to tell them where your limits are — and you get to tell them you have limits. That will not surprise them or make them think less of you. They have worked with other humans and understand how it works. They’re telling you that when they comment on you always seeming available. And they’re assuming you’ll say “enough” when it’s enough, and it’s very likely that they’ll accept that and make do.

At some level, you know this. It’s why you wrote that they’d be horrified if they realized how much stress you’re under, and that you know you’re valuable enough that they want to keep you.

But you’re not letting yourself really believe this because you’re terrified.

And of course you’re terrified. Being a freelancer is scary. All your work could go away next month, and then what? And for you, it’s compounded by how much you’re devaluing your own skills — you’ve convinced yourself that what you have now is a special arrangement that you could never replicate again — that because you’re self-taught, your skills don’t “count” as much, and so who knows if anyone would ever hire you to do this work again if your current arrangement falls apart.

But that’s BS. It’s an illusion that you’ve convinced yourself is real. It doesn’t matter if your skills are self-taught once you have years of putting them to excellent use. Look at your track record. Your skills are real ones, and they get results and people like them (and you). After a certain point, it doesn’t matter how you acquired those skills; you have them, they’re valuable, people want them, and you can sell them. The evidence of that is the incredible success you’ve been having.

Your fear is also being compounded by how precarious your position feels, with no family for a safety net and with a partner who relies on you financially. Freelancing is scary under the best of circumstances, and it’s terrifying when you throw in those factors.

But you’re doing it, and you’ve found success.

You’ve found success.

What if you let yourself trust that? What if you let yourself trust that if one of these clients did go away, you’d find more work to fill the space (or even could enjoy leaving that space free)? What if you trusted that what you’ve built isn’t going to suddenly collapse? Or that if it did, you could build it back up just as you built it the first time?

I know how scary it is to trust that, because what if you’re wrong? What if you let yourself trust it and then things collapse anyway? But the alternative is doing this non-living you’re doing right now — spending every day exhausted and guilty and frazzled and feeling like you’re stretched so far that there’s barely anything left of you. The weeks/months/years of non-living are weeks/months/years that you’re never going to get back. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending without seeing friends, without being present with your partner, without being present for yourself. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending inside, stressed or recuperating from exhaustion, rather than outside in the sun, rather than laughing, rather than traveling, rather than living.

At some point you’ve got to decide if that’s the life you want to choose. Because right now you are choosing it. It’s not just happening to you by default, not after it’s gone on this long.

If you decide that it’s not what you want to choose for yourself — and I really, really want you to join me in deciding that it’s not — then this is what you need to do:

1. When you are asked to take on work that will require you to work excessive hours, you say this: “I would love to do this project but realistically wouldn’t be able to finish it by (date). I could finish it by (later date) though, if that would work. Or I could do (piece of project) by the first date but not the whole thing. Would one of those options work instead?” Sometimes they’ll say yes to your counter-proposal. Other times they might say no because they have hard deadlines they can’t move, and that’s okay. If that happens, you say, “I understand! I should pass this time then.”

2. When you can’t take on the project at all without pushing yourself past reasonable limits, you say this: “I would love to do this! Unfortunately I’m booked solid right now so I should pass this time — but please let me know if something similar comes up again, because I’d love the chance to do it.”

3. I urge you re-think if it’s really true that you can’t drop a client. I have felt that exact same way myself, and I know what it’s like to feel like you have no options there. But it’s always an option; it just comes with a trade-off you might not want to make. And maybe that’s the right call! But step back and really think about whether it is; don’t take it as a given.

4. Also, think about taking off a whole month or even more. You need a sustained period of time to recover from what you’ve been doing to yourself — and honestly, a month isn’t enough, but it’ll help you remember who you are, and that can fortify your determination to keep making space for that person once work resumes. If you start planning now to, for example, take off the entire month of December, you can give clients an early heads-up and they will figure out how to make do (and “make do” doesn’t mean “move on and never work with you again” — people go on leave and come back and it’s fine).

If you’re too scared to do what I’m outlining above, don’t commit to all of it right now. Do just #1 or #2 once, and see what happens. You’ll almost certainly see that it goes fine, and that’ll make it easier to do it the next time, and then the next time. You don’t need to change it all overnight. But experiment with it — because you deserve to take your life back.

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