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4 Mental Traps to Avoid When You’re In Survival Mode

Every freelancer, at some point or another, runs into this scenario: One month you’re booked with clients and remarkably productive, and then the next month it almost feels as if your online identity was wiped clean from the internet’s cache.

When this continues the following month, you worry, so you start saying yes to clients that you normally wouldn’t because, you know, life and bills. You work with jerks, feel an extra thirty pounds of stress on your shoulders, and after a long day, all you can think about is how to get out of the whirlwind.

Or maybe you’re at your career crossroads, looking for the next opportunity that will propel you into the work that you truly want to do. But no one is responding, you’re not getting hired, and the bills continue to come. You start wondering if you’re a fraud, if you’ll ever get hired again, or if your overconfidence got the best of you. So out of fear you start settling for less, trying to be “realistic,” only to end up at an organization that you normally would have never said yes to.

These scenarios rarely contain the right or wrong answers. What you do have, however, is perception. Yes, the reality of a slow month or lack of emails in the morning can easily be associated with a lack of progress or an error in your process. But equally true, it could mean that this work isn’t for you, that the time isn’t right, or that you haven’t earned it yet.

Here are four mental blocks to be mindful of and ways to turn your stressful situation into an advantage.

Mental block #1: Catastrophizing your adversity 

When I was beginning my transition from New Jersey to Brooklyn, I kept calling it a “life-shifting” change.

Leaving my hometown and friends and facing my biggest step outside my comfort zone, I said to myself, was the riskiest thing I’d done thus far. This made the move more daunting and anxiety-ridden, when in fact, it was neither of those things — it’s what I labeled it that influenced the story that I was telling myself.

Language, in the words of Stanley Fish, is the handmaiden to perception. Labels are built with words, and ultimately, they’re shortcuts for your mind. Once a label is applied — beautiful, smart, toxic, fun, etc. — it’s hard to look beyond it, especially if those labels are accurate.

We catastrophize events because we’re uncertain and scared. It’s a way for us to make meaning out of chaos — to feel more empowered because we’re taking on a risky endeavor because we’re a species that thrives on reassurance and certainty.

As soon as I labeled this move an adventure, a way to mature and grow, it soon became exciting, albeit still scary.

Avoid the self-serving pitfall of making your life events grandiose. You are (most likely) not the first person to do what you’re attempting to do. Many people have prevailed or failed. Realize that what you’re experiencing and feeling is part of the ups and downs of every life, and while it must be lived through, you do not have to play the victim.

Mental block #2: Seeking certainty

For my recent move, I made decision trees, imagined the best and worst-case scenarios, and asked as many people as I could for stories, apps, and advice.

This preparation provided clarity for the path, but as I soon learned, it didn’t provide the safety that I was seeking: a right answer.

I ended up at a place where I originally didn’t want to be — but soon learned to love — and all my imaginations of the future were about as accurate as weather reports. Surprisingly, these random, unforeseen events were often joyful surprises rather than curveballs from hell.

Certainty was useful for our ancestors—certainty that touching fire was painful, that noises in the bushes were not your friends, and that the murky lake water was unsafe to drink.

While there are many facets of our lives that require certainty — like making sure your doctor is a real doctor — in other parts of our lives, uncertainty abounds. Starting a business, taking on a new job, going from full-time to freelance, dating —none of those have right answers, and yet we search for them because we inherently fear failure.

The best advice I got was from a close friend, who repeated the words of Bruce Lee:

Be like water, my friend.

What Bruce Lee meant by that was be adaptable, be open to change, be okay with whatever comes your way because you have the power to learn and move on from it. If Brooklyn was a failure, it wasn’t the end of my life. It would simply entail that a new chapter was being written.

Certainty will keep you stuck. I felt productive making decision trees and asking for advice, and while it helped tremendously, nothing was as rewarding and stretching as actually being in the middle of it and learning to find my balance while stumbling forward.

Mental block #3: Letting expectations go unchecked

Brené Brown said in Rising Strong,

“We need to examine our story for phrases like, ‘I had my heart set on it’ or ‘I counted on this happening,’ or ‘I just thought. . . .’

If expressions like these show up, we might be struggling with disappointment. Here is what you need to know about disappointment: Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”

We’re excellent at setting high expectations, pretending that we didn’t set them ourselves, and then disappointment ensues. Rather than blaming our unchecked expectations, we blame everything around us.

Anytime you begin a new adventure or chapter in your life, be clear about what you’re expecting to happen. Write it down or tell a friend. When we go to see a movie, we’re expecting it to be great because of the trailer, Rotten Tomatoes’ reviews, and what our friends said.

Anytime you feel disappointment, realize that it’s self-inflicted. It was made in your mind based on a story that you told yourself about a future event.

Mental block #4: Losing hope

Relentless failures and disappointments can feel like Mike Tyson throwing a thousand jabs at your soul.

If you don’t have a strong support system of friends/colleagues and you don’t make time to take breaks or find the in-between moments to do things that you truly enjoy, it’s easy to become cynical and pessimistic about your situation. Worse, this story will get darker, influencing you to think and act in ways that aren’t helpful for moving forward.

I remember in my three-month job search, I spent all day scouring the internet, emailing friends, polishing my resume and cover letter. After applying to 30 positions and not getting any bites, I felt a kind of frustration in the mornings that even a hot cup of coffee couldn’t heal. I started calling myself a fraud, wondering if I was inundated with lies about my expertise and possibilities. I remember the moment I started settling for less when I hit apply on a job position that I didn’t even completely fill out.

The solution, as always, is in uplifting language that shapes our thoughts, and in turn, our actions. These are two that I reread over and over:

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” –Anne Lamott

“By faith, I mean a vision of good one cherishes and enthusiasm that pushes one to seek its fulfillment, regardless of obstacles. Faith is a dynamic power that breaks the chain of routine, and gives a new, fine turn to old commonplaces. Faith reinvigorates the will, enriches the affections, and awakens a sense of creativeness. Active faith knows no fear, and it is a safeguard to me against cynicism and despair.” –Helen Keller

A way to grow faith is to surround yourself with good friends, to read stories of triumph, and to reflect on some of your past hardships that you overcame. Look at your behavior of self-defeat as a decision that gets you nowhere; look at it for what it is, and you might find strength.

Mental blocks abound in new ventures and in moments of adversity. As I said in my manifesto, everything that starts with you ends with you.