A few years ago, I left a job, a relationship, and an apartment all in the same month. One, the job, came to a natural ending; I set off to begin my full-time freelance life. The other two endings were far more abrupt, and both were related to gender-based violence.
I’m a food, sex, and mental health writer. I cover how inequality affects our ability to meet our emotional, physical, and cultural needs, and I offer readers practical advice on thriving in an unjust world. Yet in 2019, I found myself sorely in need of my own byline’s wisdom: nursing a broken heart while frantically trying to pitch my way to a new apartment.
The experience illuminated the instability of freelancing as a field — many of us are just one dropped client or project away from housing insecurity. But it also revealed that this instability affects us differently based on our identities. Female and transgender freelancers, especially women and trans folks of color, make less money than our male colleagues. Due to racist discrimination, freelancers of color of all genders receive fewer opportunities for advancement than their white peers.
Those of us at the intersections of multiple oppressions are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. Experiencing sexual and intimate partner violence makes us more likely to experience homelessness, mental illness, and unemployment. At the same time, financial instability makes us more vulnerable to victimization. As freelancers, we may also be more likely to rely on partners for health insurance or material support during dry spells, making it harder to leave a harmful relationship. That’s part of why universal healthcare and housing are so important.
When I began my own journey as an independent journalist, I realized that the connection between freelancing and intimate relationships could be more positive. I got my sea legs as a freelancer the same time that I was learning to date in a healthier way. The skills I needed for each were uncannily similar. I learned to ask for what I need, to value myself, and to set boundaries. When I started declining gigs that didn’t match my goals, I found myself better able to say no to dates who didn’t respect me. When I started clearly asking for what I wanted in relationships, I found it easier to set work rates that honored my time.
As it turns out, both freelancing and dating are an act of placing a bet on ourselves— a vote of confidence that we’ve got our own backs, and that the world is abundant enough for us all to thrive in. I want to share some of those core skills, as well as how they can help us become more confident in our work and intimate relationships.
Name—and fight—systemic barriers
Both our labor and love lives are fundamentally shaped by economic exploitation, racism, sexism, ableism, and queer- and transphobia. Yet those very same systems teach us to internalize the discrimination we experience and blame ourselves rather than injustice.
When we name inequality, we take the first step toward reclaiming our power. And we open the door to organizing together to eliminate the barriers to our collective thriving.
Practice unconditional positive self-regard
Most of us, especially if we’re marginalized in some way, have a negative internal voice that tells us we are not good enough. This voice is the source of imposter syndrome. It tells us that we can only love and respect ourselves when we live up to external expectations.
But we’re always worthy of love. In humanistic psychology, unconditional positive self-regard means approaching ourselves with gentle acceptance, no matter what. When we treat ourselves with a baseline of compassion, we’re able to acknowledge areas where we’d like to grow. For this reason, research has shown that people who practice unconditional positive self regard are more resilient after trauma.
We can start by framing ups and downs as learning experiences in a process-oriented way — “Wow, that date was a great lesson in paying attention to red flags” — rather than as judgements of our intrinsic worth. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we’re much less likely to accept treatment that devalues us — and we’re much more likely to treat others with dignity.
Build better boundaries
A therapist I once interviewed for an article said, “Boundaries are for you, not for other people.” I found the quote striking. We can’t control how other people treat us; we can simply decide how we want to be treated, and choose to extricate ourselves from, or work to change, situations and dynamics that devalue us.
If we’ve been really disconnected from our inner voice due to experiences of material or emotional scarcity, we may not know our own boundaries until they are crossed. That’s okay. It takes time, experimentation, and generosity to learn what actually feels good for us.
Practicing better boundaries doesn’t have to mean literally leaving a situation; when we’re in a financial crunch, for example, we can’t always leave jobs with poor working conditions. But we can set boundaries around how much of our time, energy, and emotional self we devote to a situation or to a person, and we can collaborate with others to change exploitative conditions. When we honor our own boundaries, we show others that we expect them to respect us, too.
Nurture an abundance mindset
When I first heard people I admire talk about an abundance mindset, I was skeptical. I’d previously heard the concept discussed in law-of-attraction terms, without any attention to systemic injustice. When I relearned the concept through the work of abolitionist feminists of color, it clicked into place.
In a world in which we produce more than enough food and shelter for everyone, scarcity is a product of inequality. When we experience physical and spiritual deprivation, we internalize the idea that we are in a competition for scarce resources, and should settle for what’s given to us even if it doesn’t foster our wellbeing.
That settling can be in the form of relationships: “He has a bad temper sometimes, and he calls me names, but at least he doesn’t hit me.” Or it can happen in our work lives, when we accept underpaid projects from a place of fear, or compete to undermine other workers rather than unionizing.
Nurturing an abundance mindset means recognizing the reality of inequality and the need for structural change by refusing to accept that we are only worth the crumbs we are given. And it means joining with others to pool our strengths and resources through mutual aid and organizing.
Ask for what you need
Especially for women and marginalized people, asking for what we need — whether that’s more money or for our partner to do domestic labor — can be terrifying. We may internally police our own needs to avoid disappointment or retaliation. But it’s okay to want more. And in fact, we’re not going to get what we need if we don’t demand it. Give yourself permission to center your own needs —and then ask for what it takes to meet them.
Always cultivate hope
It’s not always possible to say no to an underpaid job, especially during this period of heightened precarity. It’s also not always immediately possible to leave a romantic situation that is harming us.
That’s okay. When we practice unconditional positive self-regard, we stop shaming ourselves when we find ourselves in situations that aren’t consistent with our values. Instead, we can understand the factors that brought us there with compassion, and focus on the things we can do to demonstrate better care and respect for ourselves, here and now.
Abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba says, “Hope is a discipline.” It’s a daily practice of building a better world for ourselves and our communities. Cultivating hope means believing that it is never too late to make choices consistent with our individual and collective wellbeing. There is always time to meet a great person or organize for better work conditions. If we try 100 times — to leave a harmful relationship, or to land a fairer contract — and don’t meet our goal, we can still succeed on the 101st try.