I ghosted a client and now I need to finish my work for her

A reader writes:

I work in a jack-of-all-trades type position doing administrative work, graphic design, web design, and more. The hours that I spend at that job are full-time for my ability level, but are technically part-time and read that way to others. Earlier this year, someone I worked with in the past asked if I would take on a freelance web design project for her. I really enjoy that work, and I had been considering whether I might be able to work a few more hours, so I agreed to do it for my hourly rate at work rounded up.

We got off to a slow start on both ends, but things were moving along in early fall. I ran into some issues that I hadn’t anticipated having to deal with, and my anxiety got the better of me after we had to cancel a meeting a few weeks ago, and I haven’t responded to any communication since then. (For the record, I am in treatment for the anxiety and other mental health issues, and that treatment is both very successful in comparison to my baseline, and also I am still in this predicament.)

I need to respond to her messages of increasing intensity (and I plan to do so before I would ever hear back from you), but I need some advice on what to say about the whole thing when we do meet up. I am not proud of my work (not the actual product, but the whole experience), and I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses. How do I finish this project up in the classiest way possible in the hope of still preserving at least a friendly rapport with this person so that I can be done and never take on something like this again? (Also, I 100% do not think I should charge her the full amount of the work that I have done/am going to do.)

I know you know this, having just gone through it, but just to spell it out for emphasis: Waiting to deal with this kind of thing makes it so much worse! It’s not great when you end up needing to break a commitment, but sometimes that happens and people will generally understand. But when you just go silent and don’t update anyone — and especially when you don’t response to messages about the work — it turns it into a much bigger mess — for you and for the other person.

The best thing to do at this point is to contact the client ASAP, let her know where things stand, and apologize profusely. You could say something like, “I’m so sorry that I haven’t been in communication. I’ve had some health issues come up that have kept me from being in touch, and I’m terribly sorry for the stress and concern that must have caused. My health is now enough under control that I should be able to finish this up by (date), and I’d like to discount the work by X% because of the delay. Will that work for you, or would you rather I proceed differently?”

An important caveat though: Be very, very sure that whatever date you name is realistic because it’ll be really important that you keep that commitment. Don’t name the absolute soonest you can imagine getting it done; instead, give yourself a buffer in case something goes wrong (you get sick, you have a power outage and lose a bunch of work, zombies attack, or what have you). You want to be flawlessly on the ball for the rest of this, and you definitely don’t want to go back to the client a second time and say “actually, I need more time.” So while you might be tempted to name the earliest possible date in order to not drag this out further, you’re better off giving yourself some wiggle room in case you end up needing it.

And then when you do meet up, you address it once, briefly and professionally: “I want to apologize again for being out of touch. I know that put you in a bind, and I’m committed to getting this finished for you by (date).” But you don’t need to keep dwelling on it. The advantage of giving a full apology originally, and not trying to duck responsibility, is that once it’s said, it’s said. A reasonable person won’t expect you to keep revisiting it.

From there, it’s up to her what kind of rapport the two of you have going forward. She may be very understanding, or she may be irritated enough that she doesn’t want much contact after this. All you can do is control your side, which means making this as easy as possible on her now and accepting the consequences to the relationship.

Also, for what it’s worth … sometimes stuff comes up that prevents people from fulfilling work commitments. That’s normal, and it’s a part of doing business. When it happens, all you need to do is explain it ASAP. It’s fine to say something like, “I’m so sorry about this, but I’m having some health issues that are going to prevent me finishing this work in the next few months (or “on the timeline we discussed” or “for the foreseeable future” or so forth). I wanted to let you know immediately so that we can figure out alternate plans for it.” (It’s ideal if you can also recommend someone who might be able to take on the project, but it’s fine if you don’t have anyone to recommend.)

It becomes a far bigger — and different type of — problem when you don’t do that and instead go silent. But if you can find a way to truly internalize that Sometimes Things Come Up and That’s Okay as long as you communicate about it, it might help you avoid this in the future. To be clear, “That’s Okay” doesn’t mean that the client won’t be disappointed or even annoyed, but you generally won’t be burning a bridge in the same way that going silent will do.

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. schnauzerfan

    AAM is absolutely right. My life got so much easier when I learned to own my own mistakes and messes. If I’m not going to make a deadline, or finish a project, run into issues… I call or email and own it. “Just a heads up. We’ve hit a snag and it looks like I’m not going to finish by Friday. I can get you the portion that’s done and you can start your review and I’ll have the last section to you by Tuesday. ” People are usually understanding. Much more than they would be if they are sitting there looking at their clocks at 5 PM Friday.

  2. Kitrona

    Oh, I’ve done this so many times. I’m getting better about it, but it’s still not easy. That said, the first time of owning up to it is the hardest, so if it happens again in the future, it’ll be easier. Anxiety brain gets the better of most of us at some point, I think, and most people are pretty understanding, especially if it’s only been a few weeks. She might still be upset, but generally people I’ve had to contact because I dropped the ball are more relieved that I’m ok before they’re upset about whatever we agreed to. I hope she’s one of the understanding ones!

    1. Liet-Kinda

      To clarify, though: if she is upset, that is both a) a valid response and b) not incompatible with being understanding. Going incommunicado for a few weeks is….not great. It would irritate most clients in that position intensely. They may choose to lead with relief and carrying on, and in which case, yahtzee! But while I’d be glad OP hadn’t gotten eaten by a whale or something, it would still be a significant impact to our working relationship and may cause me to reevaluate it. Wouldn’t be a jerk about it, and I would try to be understanding, but a reason isn’t an excuse.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        I do also worry somewhat about coming back asking for the unpaid funds. If I were OP, I might anticipate some stickiness about backpay for work that was previously seemingly abandoned.

        1. Liet-Kinda

          I am somewhat less worried about that, but I think having an answer ready when/if that comes up isn’t a bad idea.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch

          Nah. Unless she’s known to be petty, as a professional you pay invoices to the agreed upon terms.

          Unless she’s running them through a crappy AP dept system, I wouldn’t worry payment will suffer. That’s abnormal procedure unless you’re slimy all the way around.

        3. LawBee

          She’d have a hard time justifying “well, you were really late, so you did all this work for free” when there’s are agreed-upon terms. Late doesn’t negate!

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

            Well, the contract (if it exists) should specify the options if either party if dissatisfied or unable to fulfill the contract.

            In many cases, being weeks late (and not communicating in the meantime) with deliverables could make the work irrelevant or significantly less valuable. (Say, you’re designing a website for an author with a book coming out, and the website launches three months after the book is released.)

            1. Sloan Kittering

              I guess if I was the client I might assume that somebody who had gone incommunicado for a few months was walking away from the contract entirely, and the organization may have hired someone else to redo the early work and complete the task, depending how much time has passed. But perhaps they won’t! I don’t want OP to worry about it too much!

              1. Falling Diphthong

                As a freelancer, I’ve been on the receiving end of “We haven’t heard anything from the person assigned this section, so can you take it on? And is there any way you could have it by Monday?”

                I assume the person emailing me has also sent a “Hey, I realize things must have gone very wrong on your end, hope not too dire, we are reassigning these tasks elsewhere now” email. (Hey, people do get hit by trucks.) And in the absence of said email you might reasonably assume that they still expect you to do it, just late. But clients don’t expect to pay twice.

                On the other end, I cancelled an airbnb when I couldn’t get in touch with the host for any kind of check-in/arrival instructions. I did assume some health emergency–but I still needed a place to stay in two days when I got off a long flight from a third destination. And when my cancellation finally woke them up to respond to me, I was in no mood to reconsider and rebook.

                1. your favorite person

                  As a Airbnb host, I can’t imagine how stressful that would be!
                  Although it makes me think of the time I had a guest who I knew was showing up at 3pm so my husband worked from home that day to let her in, show her around etc. I was away from my phone for about an hour in a meeting and I missed the message that asked if we were there. She sat outside, on the sidewalk, with her things without ever coming to the door to knock or ring the doorbell! My husband assumed her flight got delayed and asked me to message them and at that point I saw that she said she was just waiting outside…

          2. The Man, Becky Lynch

            Ah…but try collecting on it if they decide to play games. It’ll mean forcing the anxious OP into small claims court. Then collecting for it.

            Being a contacted service provider is hard if someone decided to screw you on pay.

            I’m in the forever hell of collecting from businesses. It’s impossible to bleed turnips.

            But really even my bitter crankypants self doesn’t worry about payment in this case. They’ve worked together prior for starters.

          3. Mazzy

            I want an update! This reminds me of so many Judge Judy cases where the defense is that the plaintiff was MIA so they needed to hire someone else, then the plaintiff has to prove they weren’t MIA. Of course JJ verdicts are really mediation not law, or so I’ve heard

              1. Former Employee

                Judge Judy seems fairly typical of small claims court except with a higher DQ (drama quotient).

        4. A Consultant

          That’s why this line in Alison’s script is so important: “…I should be able to finish this up by (date), and I’d like to discount the work by X% because of the delay. Will that work for you, or would you rather I proceed differently?” It’s very important to get the answer / have the discussion about this last question, rather than just barrelling ahead with the work. At this point, you are effectively renegotiating the terms of the agreement. You’re proposing deliverable Z at new deadline Y at X% reduced cost; she can agree or decide to end the contract and have it done somewhere else (or may have done so already). If the latter, you’re going to have to discuss (and ideally refer to a contract) about whether there’s any portion of work completed already that you can be paid for, or whether you didn’t do anything enough yet to warrant even that.

          Either way, it’s a learning experience. Good luck, LW. Good on you for owning up to it. Alison’s advice is spot-on.

    2. mark132

      I totally agree with the term ‘Anxiety Brain”. I’ve had some “stinking thinking” from anxiety before.

      1. Not So NewReader

        I think the anxiety brain can actually be worse than the immediate problem.

        OP, for the most part people are wonderful. But we have to give them a chance to be wonderful. If we don’t talk to them, then we don’t give them that chance.
        And Alfred Hitchcock understood this concept: What happens in our minds is far worse than anything that can be shown on screen. And so it goes with life, what happens in our minds is usually far worse than how it plays out.

        I like to use worst case scenario for dealing with stuff that is nagging me. So I ask myself, “What is the worst thing that can happen here and how will I respond to that worst event?” If we plan for the worst thing, lesser problems can seem much easier to solve.
        Then after all is said and done, I ask myself what will I do so I do not face this situation again? For this last question there is not always a solve-all answer. However sometimes I can figure out ways to lessen the situation so it’s more manageable.

        1. selena81

          I do that too: trying to lessen my anxiety with ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ Most of the time the answer is ‘even if the worst were to happen it would be survivable, so to say’. The real outcome than always seems lighter in comparison.

          I think i understand very well what OP is going through: i also have the bad habit of responding to stress by ghosting people.
          Of course i understand on a rational level that it only makes problems worse (and is just a shitty thing to do: i honestly do not want people to be worried, this is not we-were-all-so-worried-about-you attention-seeking). But inactivity is just so damn easy.

          And eventually you get to the point where the stress over restarting your life is much worse than the stress that originally caused the problem. I spend several years as a hikikomori (social withdrawal without a specific underlying cause)
          I fought my way back from that by focusing on ‘the bad’: by contrasting ‘restarting my life now’ with the far worse option of ‘restarting my life later’. It is bad to be unemployed for a year, it is worse to be unemployed for 10 years: that was the mantra that kept me motivated. It took getting used to because i started my life on a high note: great at school and stuff, everybody had high hopes of me and i thought i would just steamroll into an inspiring career.

  3. BadWolf

    Having been on the “Where’s my stuff” end and received answers in the “I was sick” or “Someone died” category, I would emphasize that you know it was bad on your end and expecting a timely answer was valid for the customer. Avoid making your customer feel bad because they didn’t magically know you were going through a hard time.

    The caveat being that the customer is making reasonable requests and not being an utter jerk about it.

    1. MommyMD

      There is really no excuse for ignoring a client to this extent. Unless you are literally in a hospital bed unable to communicate. Personally I don’t think there can be a complete recovery. I agree the “I was sick” excuse can backfire and to me is weak. I would offer them the option of having all their money back and just dropping the job. And give them anything completed. In the professional world unless something catastrophic happens, this just can’t happen. If the client is upset, they have good reason.

      1. Anonymous this time

        I think that’s awfully harsh on someone who has a mental illness. And it may be true for you if you’re the client, but I’ve been both a client and a consultant and have seen professional relationships survive this kind of thing.

        For a while my then-husband was my business partner in my consulting business. He’d had mental health issues in the past and they came back much worse and he was eventually diagnosed not with depression as before but with bipolar II. I found out that he hadn’t done anything on a large client project…and learned it when it was due. This was a very important client and a fairly large project. I contacted the client directly, apologized directly and sincerely, explained that my husband was my business partner and had become very ill (which sadly was very true) thus delaying their project, and said that they would be my first priority until the project was completed. I did complete it, and I went on to work for them for many years after that. If they had taken me off the project I would have said I understood and been professional about it.

        Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Those mistakes can be just a little typo that ruins a big job (small error, big problem), or multiple poor decisions that don’t actually cause that much trouble (lots of poor decisions, like ghosting, but the project itself isn’t on a tight timeline and the situation can be salvaged without any real harm to the project). And lots of things in between. I have forgiven other vendors for errors and missteps as long as they took responsibility, the negative outcome was not unacceptable, etc. (occasionally the negative outcome or the lack of responsibility has been unacceptable and I didn’t work with them again). No one is perfect and all of us will need some forgiveness at some point.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          I agree it’s harsh and over the top. I’m assuming this is also a one off thing, not a pattern, since the client came back on their own for more assistance.

          However your situation is very different. You saved your husband here by stepping in. You have a partnership to fall back on. Nobody can swoop in for the OP and clean up for them.

          The fact is that most people are forgiving to a point. You still have to watch your step or you can torch vendor/client relationships. However the OP is mindful of the issue and seeking help, that’s huge and very important. But no, you won’t always get a break from the world and its expectations that you can juggle a job you choose to do and your mental health issues.

          I say this as a clinically depressed and anxious person who has had breakdowns of my own.

          1. Forced choices

            Choosing isn’t always full of free choice. We can’t get care without working but sometimes we need to not work to take care of ourselves. It only works if you’re rich.

        2. paul

          It may sound harsh, but from a client standpoint: if someone I hired to do X is out of touch unexpectedly for a week plus I’m in a hell of a bind. I had a contractor (electrician specifically) ghost on us when we redid some wiring and I wound up just hiring a different one and telling them not to bother.

          They may have been going through something utterly terrible, but how long do I wait with my sheetrock out and half my house without power?

          Even if I had ever heard back from the guy (I didn’t) I’m pretty sure I’d have elected to go with someone else anyway, for any future wiring needs…

      2. lasslisa

        Even if it isn’t a clean-slate excuse, I would prefer to hear *some* explanation from the contractor because I think it helps show an understanding of the severity. If someone just shows up with “I’m so sorry about ghosting on you, how about I deliver it by end of Feb with 30% off?” I get the same message I’ve gotten from, say, construction contractors: talking to you is not a priority, I’ve been doing a different job and I schedule myself to be too busy to reply, changes like these at the last minute are typical for me and I make up for them with discounts.

      3. Not So NewReader

        While it is true that some people do draw that stark black line, OP, others do not.

        Where I see this most often is where people realize they are working with other human beings. Many folks will work to remedy a situation because they value the person’s work, or they see that they themselves have made similar mistakes in the past.
        Yet other folks place a high value on long term working relationships. This is me. I like to get with a company and just keep doing business with them. My oil company goes back 24 years. My insurance agent goes back 36 years. From a customer perspective, I find that as a long term customer I get treated well. If I call with a problem I get helped. I place a high value on this. I am willing to over look delays. In the case of my oil company, I am willing to wait if they have a customer with a larger problem than mine. These are the types of things people do because they want to maintain the relationships.

        I think that if a customer drops you because you were sick, then it might be a good idea to consider that maybe the customer was not the right type of customer for you. I have met people who do not see funerals as a valid reason for not working. These are not my type of people. It’s kind of like the adult version of the “fast crowd” in high school. Some people like life in the fast lane and they like other fast lane people. That is fine, but that is not me.

  4. CM

    Also, OP, if you are not absolutely confident you can do the work to deadline even now, and are anticipating it with dread because you feel you have to… consider dropping it entirely. Yes, you will be burning a bridge, but you CAN say, “I’m terribly sorry, etc., but I’m no longer able to do this” rather than “I promise to finish it up by X date.” If you will be sacrificing your mental health or making a commitment that you may not be able to keep, burning that bridge is not the end of the world! Just apologize sincerely and try to make your other clients happy.

    1. Liet-Kinda

      This. If you take it on, you have to give that client a reasonable deadline and meet it or beat it – no exceptions.

      1. MommyMD

        Client may rightly have lost all confidence. I’d want any money invested refunded and find someone else. Past performance is a predictor of future behavior.

        1. sourgold

          Client is right to lose confidence, sure, but your final sentence is harsh and uncalled for, especially in the context of a serious illness.

    2. Sloan Kittering

      For all you know, the client may actually prefer you drop it versus trying to get even a discounted amount of payment. If they’ve had to make other arrangements already or if they’ve mentally assumed this wasn’t getting done at all.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Right. After several weeks of radio silence I would have found someone else to finish the work.

    3. Anonymous this time

      In these kinds of situations I’ve also found a subcontractor to do the work, either to do it for me or to offer to the client as a fix. “Unfortunately I’m having health issues and can’t finish this, but colleague Jane Chen is wonderful and is available at the same rate if you’d like her to wrap it up. I’ll brief her completely so she can hit the ground running,” etc. People appreciate that you’re trying to solve their problem.

      1. selena81

        I get that for an outsider it sounds like ‘oh come on, just pick up the damn phone to cancel your commitment to the project, that is 5 minutes of work to wrap up the situation in a pleasant way’
        But that is kinda like telling someone in a psychosis to just stop believing that the government is spying on him: he knows on some level that you are right, but his brain is running in crazy directions.

    4. selena81

      Agreed, only offer to finish the project if you feel reasonably confident you can do so without it becoming a huge stressor yet again. Don’t do it just because you feel honor-bound or because you feel embarrassed about your mental illness ‘holding you back’

  5. KHB

    I don’t have anything in particular to add to Alison’s advice, but I can commiserate. I had a bout of anxiety a while back that let me to drop the ball on some professional commitments (and completely ghost on a volunteer commitment), and it was tough. Even after the original anxiety had subsided, it took me months before I was comfortable asking anyone for favors again at work, because I was worried they’d start thinking of me as unreliable. (In hindsight, I think that was just the lingering JerkBrain talking.) Hang in there, and good luck to you.

    1. Sloan Kittering

      It’s so tough! And it’s hard to find jobs that are compatible with mental health struggles. Ideally a job where the deadlines are soft and there’s not a lot of urgency in general are best, but most jobs have their busy/hectic/demanding period and their grouchy personalities.

      1. KHB

        Fortunately, my boss was great about it. As soon as I mentioned that I was having health challenges, he offered to take everything off my plate that was either time-insensitive or not specific to me. That gave me enough wiggle room to stay on top of everything that was left (we are not at all a soft-deadlines type of place). I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been so accommodating.

      2. Anonymous this time

        I personally have done very badly with soft deadlines during my bad mental health times. I have winter depression/anxiety. I had a client give me a dozen no-deadline projects, each about 2 hours, and they just sat from January to April. Meanwhile I was doing fine with other simple projects with clear deadlines.

  6. Agent J

    Something also to consider: When you’re dealing with anxiety, you probably don’t know when you’ll feel well enough to get back to work or to give an update with specific timeframes. I would still say to communicate early: “Hi client, I’m dealing with some health issues right now that will keep me from completing your project in the timeframe we agreed to. I’m not able to give you a firm deadline right now but I will follow up with you as soon as I can. I’m sorry for the inconvenience and I thank you for your patience.”

    1. Liet-Kinda

      My feeling is that if OP cannot give a specific timeframe, then they should probably transition the project to someone else, not attempt to keep the client in a holding pattern. It is not reasonable to expect someone to put business needs on hold indefinitely, even if the cause is understandable.

      1. Product person

        This. If I commission work, we agree upon a timeframe, and then the person tells me they don’t know when they’d be able to finish, I’d definitely opt to find someone else to do the work, and wouldn’t be happy with the assumption that I’d be willing to wait, especially without a firm date. I think the template for communication needs to include that portion — something like,

        “Hi client, I’m dealing with some health issues right now that will keep me from completing your project in the timeframe we agreed to. If you prefer to transfer this project to someone else, I’ll be happy to forward you all artifacts I have already created [insert here details about payment if any is required]. If this is not urgent and you’d be willing to wait, I’m not able to give you a firm deadline right now but I will follow up with you as soon as I can. I’m sorry for the inconvenience and I thank you for your patience.”

        1. Agent J

          Yes, I think this is better. I was trying to help OP not let uncertainty about when they’ll be ready for work keep them from communicating with their future clients. But I also agree that clients with deadlines need their projects prioritized, and they may mean transferring the project to someone else.

  7. Ann O'Nemity

    Being on the other side of this – the one being ghosted – it helps when the hassle and pain is acknowledged. I like Alison’s suggestion: “I want to apologize again for being out of touch. I know that put you in a bind, and I’m committed to getting this finished for you by (date).” I don’t mean the OP needs to grovel, but a sincere apology helps.

    And a discount, if feasible.

    1. Liet-Kinda

      Yeah, it’s a fine line. The apology needs to be complete and sincere, but it also needs to be professional and restrained. I would not go any closer to discussing what exactly happened than Alison suggests, and I would keep it focused more on regret for the impact to the client than attempting to justify or explain the circumstances.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        I agree, if the email turns into a even a whiff of FEELINGSMAIL of shame and putting yourself down, that doesn’t at all serve the client’s needs. I suggest writing what you want to say, then having a third party look it over to make sure it’s appropriately contrite without going overboard, if you’re varying from Alison’s script.

        1. Fuddy Dudd

          It’s a long story that I won’t go into full detail here, but a (former) good friend of mine booked a wedding photography gig for another person in the friend group’s sister. The (former) friend came highly recommended by all of us; he had done phenomenal work in the past, so we were happy to send him their way.

          He double booked. Which, in an of itself, would have been a bummer, and yes would have looked a little bad, but not the end of the world. How did he handle it? He proceeded not to tell the bride until two weeks before the wedding (he didn’t even reach out to her, she had to be the one to ask him why she hadn’t heard from him), had already spent their money (they had paid for the entire cost upfront), and then proceeded to send a very long, very self-pitying email about how he made an honest mistake and everyone was being way too hard on him and how difficult the whole ordeal had been for HIM. No true acknowledgement of his mistake, etc.

          Yeah, the relationship was toasted after that. All that to say, mistakes happen-it’s how their handled that leave the mark on people’s minds.

          1. TootsNYC

            “The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”
            Per restaurateur Danny Meyer, in his book “Setting the Table,” this is the advice Mr. Marcus of Neiman and Marcus gave to him when he was anxiety-stricken over opening two restaurants at once.

            (Everyone should read that book.)

          2. The Man, Becky Lynch

            I get this feeling he won’t have the chance to double book now that his word of mouth is “he’s a con and won’t show up after spending the money.”

            1. Fuddy Dudd

              For sure, it was really, really sad and we were insanely disappointed. Not only were we obviously never able to recommend him professionally again (a dang shame, because he is very talented), but his attitude after the fact left such a bad taste in all our mouths that we weren’t able to remain friends with him. He refused to take any real responsibility not only for the original mistake, but every misstep thereafter, and the “woe is me” email was just the nail in the coffin.

    2. Editor Person

      I’ve noticed and it’s amazing how much acknowledging hassle can de-escalate. I’ve been in situations when I’m silently fuming about some work thing and then the other party says “I know this is really a pain” and I feel much better.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        This.

        One reason I loved my (now-retired) dentist was that the first time I had x-rays the hygienist looked in my mouth and said “Oh, you have bumps in your palate top and bottom–that means the bite wings will hurt. Sorry, and I’ll be quick as I can.” I had always found x-rays painful; this was the first place to acknowledge that possibility and allow that it sucked.

          1. kitryan

            For me, I think it hurts because I have a smallish mouth and they’re always too big for me. I had no idea about the bumps/tori though, I learned something new!

        1. Ann O'Nemity

          I don’t have dental tori (bumps) and I still find bitewings to be painful. I have a suspicious that many dentists and hygienists downplay the associated pain because X-rays can be quite lucrative for them.

    3. Anonymous this time

      Totally agree. Don’t grovel, don’t give a lot of details, and acknowledge the specific wrong you did, such as causing a project to be delayed, making them worry or be frustrated by no answer, etc.

  8. Typhoid Mary

    Hi LW, just wanted to say that I commiserate with this situation!

    Accessing mental health care can be so difficult, and you are a badass for going through the process and seeking treatment. If the self-awareness in your letter is any indication, then I’m sure as you grow and learn to better estimate your energy reserves, you will become increasingly unstoppable and fabulous in your professional field!

  9. The Man, Becky Lynch

    I’m glad you realize you need to offer a discounted rate. That’s the way to really smooth out the wrinkles created and acknowledge your sincerity. I’m over people dropping the ball, shooting a “sorry, not really that sorry tho!” apology that’s full of excuses. You’ve created stress for her courtesy of your stress, that has to be acknowledged and not swept away in order to possibly save the bridge.

    I strongly encourage you to work on knowing your limits and not trying to squeeze in a few hours for side projects. Over estimating your ability to deliver will only cause your anxiety to spike more and that’s seemingly the root cause. It’s so tempting to jump in all in but when freelancing you live and die by the commitments you pledge to keep.

  10. Julia

    I have this problem too! I struggle with extreme anxiety that causes reliability issues, and it’s damaged personal and professional relationships. You can’t expect to get over it tomorrow and do everything perfectly from now on. All you can do is try your best to work on it.

    Since I have trouble getting started on projects after having let them slide for a while, I’ve had some success with the Pomodoro technique: work for just 25 minutes at a time, then take a break. When my anxiety has been really bad, I’ve even just set a timer for 10 minutes followed by a 20 minute break. After just doing SOMETHING about the issue, even for only ten minutes, you’ll feel better and your next work segment will get longer. Even if it’s just sending an email saying “I’m so sorry and here’s what I’ll do to fix it”.

    The other thing I’ve had success with is breaking projects into the tiniest possible pieces. When it feels impossible to even get started, I write on a piece of paper “open laptop, open Chrome, go to X website” and then I do that and check that step off my list. Even steps as small as that are still steps.

    Hang in there! You’ll be ok.

    1. anon today

      I’m so relieved to see others have the same problem! I have also found pomodoro a godsend in dealing with it. I also try to give myself very cut-and-dried habits. For example, I respond to all emails within 24 hours (not counting weekends and vacation, of course), even if it’s only to say “I am checking on this question and will get back to you by date X with an update.” It’s helped me avoid the cycle I think the OP might be in, where you procrastinate a bit on a response and/or project, which then builds the pressure for that response to be the Best Response Ever, which leads to more procrastination, etc. etc.

    2. AnonAcademic

      I endorse these techniques! Something I learned in a productivity seminar has also really helped – it’s the idea that anxiety has a ceiling of 100% for everyone, so even if you are maximally anxious while doing a task – it’s not going to necessarily get *worse* and in fact will likely be less anxiety inducing just from exposure to the task. So if you can learn to expect and tolerate the initial anxiety peak, you can learn to get past it quickly or decrease it over time. It motivates me now to notice as soon as I’m in an avoidance/anxiety cycle so that I can break it when my anxiety is still at, say, 60% of max instead of letting it creep up to 100% (where I’m having panic nightmares about it, ugh).

    3. kitryan

      These are definitely good techniques. I’d add that something that works for me is that if you can work around the most anxiety inducing part for a bit, getting the ‘easy’ parts done, sometimes the difficult/stressful part looks more manageable-smaller or simpler- once it’s ‘exposed’ and the chaff of the easy stuff is cleared away.
      I also sometimes talk to my anxiety brain and remind it that it’s not the job or task that creates the most stress but the lateness, and that’s only going to get worse the longer we (me and anxiety brain) put it off, so might as well deal with it now, while it’s one week late, it will never get earlier but it will get later and one week’s better than one month (and one month is better than two months and now is always going to be better than later…).

    4. rogue axolotl

      I have similar issues, and this technique works well for me too. I also tend to find that my biggest hurdle is knowing the full extent of the project, if that makes sense–I tend to get anxious when I think the project is too big/unmanageable, and it’s tempting to avoid it. But I know from experience that once I do the initial learning step I’ll feel much better and will actually be able to put together a plan for how to tackle it. So I usually try to set aside a time when I have the energy and am not distracted to just look over all of the information, without actually planning to start it yet.

    5. Me

      The anxiety death spiral of everything is so terrible it’s paralyzing is just soooooo not great. One of my coping techniques is to actually state, or write down what the worst outcome(s) of a situation might be. It can be helpful with anxiety because while your brain is acting like it’s the end of the world, reality is even if the outcome is unpleasant or bad, it’s can still be dealt with.

      Phone calls/voicemails for me are a particular hell. Dunno why. Anyway, say my boss calls and leaves me a message. I don’t want to listen to it. So what is THE worst thing I can think of its about. Well okay, I’m fired. That’s not great and obviously causes problems, but I can get another job. What is I just screwed something up at work and everyone is mad at me? Well, people don’t normally stay mad forever and also I can try to fix my mistake. So on so forth.

      There’s something about saying it or writing it down that helps stop the endless negative thought process too. So that parts important, not just thinking it but saying it.

      It’s a technique that works particularly well for me.

  11. WellRed

    “The hours that I spend at that job are full-time for my ability level, but are technically part-time and read that way to others.”
    What does this mean? That you are doing work you aren’t totally qualified for? Is that part of a bigger problem which led to this mess? IF I am reading that correctly, might want to get up to speed before throwing freelance into the works.
    I recently had a freelancer simply stop communicating fully with me recently, but also just would not bow out. It stressed me out and made me look bad to MY boss. No thank you!

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

      I think it means that the LW cannot work full-time (40+ hours/week), perhaps due to a disability. So she works (for example) 28 hours a week, which is her full capacity, but to other people it appears that she has extra time available.

      I don’t think it’s actually relevant to the question here, except that she may be fielding more requests for freelance work than she can handle, because to potential clients it looks like her dance card isn’t full.

    2. Delphine

      I think it just means that work that might take the average person 4 hours to complete takes the LW 8 hours.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        That’s how it reads to me as well. However the advice still stands, if you’re overworked, even if it’s by lower amounts than what others can take on, you need to forego freelance jobs until you are able to handle them comfortably. Otherwise this is the trap you fall into. Taking too much of a bite off the elephant and choking on it, people will take the hint and not hire you again after and worse, they’ll tell others to avoid you.

        1. WellRed

          This is what I was thinking. Whether it’s work or freelance work, you gotta have the “bandwidth” to take it on.

    3. Myrin

      I’m reasonably sure that’s the same situation my sister is in – she works 22 hours a week which, in a culture where 40 hours is the norm, isn’t considered a full-time job but rather a part-time one. However, her pretty severe mental health issues lead to her feeling just as stressed and exhausted at the end of the day/week as others do after a full eight hours/forty hours a day.

  12. Ghoster

    Holy crap. I’m really glad this got posted, because I’m in a situation 99% similar to OP’s right now and have been panicking about how to deal with it. The anxiety over having not responded and shame over not having finished the work just keep compounding each other. I’m going to try and reach out to my person today as well.

  13. The Imperfect Hellebore

    As someone who deals (and sometimes fails effectively to deal) with mental health issues, I think AAMs advice is wise, sensible and practical.

    OP, I get that it’s very easy in your situation to become worked up and anxious to a point that you can think of little else but this one issue. You know yourself best, and I assume you probably know the best way to deal with this stuff. I’ve been in similar situations to yours, and different mindsets help in different situations. If it’s any help at all, the phrases I keep in mind that have helped me the most are: “Run towards your problems, not away from them.” and “Little by little.” In my case, this might mean worrying about a probem for days or weeks, then finally getting the courage to look at it objectively, then promising myself I’ll take one step per day to solving this problem. That might mean Day One: Opening an email I’ve been putting off opening. Day Two: Drafting a reply. Day Three: Editing and sending the reply.

    We’re different people, obviously, and my thoughts may not apply to you all. But I know how ridiculously difficult it can be to accomplish the most logical of tasks, when you’re also battling with your own mind. Best of luck, OP :)

    1. The Imperfect Hellebore

      And to clarify, I do think that you owe your client an explanation, and that Alison’s suggested scripts are spot on. I also agree with her pointing out that you need to be as sure as you can be on any timeframes you give. Don’t fall into the trap of the extended promise, as that will help no one, least of all you. Again, good luck OP :)

    2. TootsNYC

      speaking of this:
      the phrases I keep in mind that have helped me the most are: “Run towards your problems, not away from them.”

      When I was a kid, I broke a plate of my mom’s just by putting away the dishes that were stacked in front of where it stood, leaning on the back wall of the china cabinet. We’d been lectured by our dad about important that sentimental object was, and I was terrified.
      I hid it at the bottom of the garbage, hoping she wouldn’t find it. But of course she did. And she was really angry and upset. I was beside myself with guilt.

      Once we had both calmed down (her from anger, me from anguish), and she realized that it had truly been an accident, she stressed to me: “I will always be more upset if you hide it from me. I promise to understand if it’s an accident, but even if you were careless, or if you did it on purpose, I will always be less upset if you bring it to me right away.”

      Boy howdy, do I bring surface the stuff that’s going wrong right away.
      And as a consequence, I have less anxiety (look at it this way–the anxiety will last until you lance i; the sooner you tell people, the sooner it’s lanced).
      And–I feel closer to people, more trusted by them.

      Now, a client is not my mom, who is linked with me forever and who has every reason to love me and want the best for me (which, I should note, sometimes involved punishment and even guilt trips!). But I think it’s true for everyone.

      Also–remember that you don’t have to tell everything, or solve everything, in every communication. That’s one nice thing about text and email; you can send something out that YOU choose, even if it’s short (“I won’t be able to get to your project for a week or so”), and you can think of Sentence #2, or an alternate solution, later.

      So, I hope some part of that can help you deal with the anxiety!

  14. Oof

    OP, these things do happen, so please don’t let it take over your thoughts. Be prepared that your client may not want you working on the project moving forward, and that’s a valid response. Apologize, figure out a timeline, and allons-z! You can do it!

  15. Hei Hei, the Chicken from Moana

    I think many of us have been in a relatable position and Alison’s advice is of course spot-on. I’m just here to send you some healing, calming, self-forgiveness vibes. You are more than this one event! You got this.

  16. I'm A Little Teapot

    LW, I also want to point you to Captain Awkward’s blog as it may be helpful. She has posted a handful of articles about how to function with depression or anxiety, so there may be some helpful tips. If nothing else, it’s an encouraging read.

  17. TootsNYC

    upstream, Victoria Nonprofit (USA) wrote:
    January 7, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    Well, the contract (if it exists) should specify the options if either party if dissatisfied or unable to fulfill the contract.

    ?

    I feel like I’ve seen contracts that DON’T say this, and often a verbal contract doesn’t.
    But it IS a standard part of all well-thought-out contracts.

    But for our OP, who might face this again (and for the rest of us):
    Have a contract, in the future.
    Put this part in every contract.
    Having it might actually make it easier for you to send up a flag when things are looking dicey, or if something completely goes wrong. You might be less likely to hide, if the exit pathway is mapped out.

    Build in tools you can use to brain-hack yourself, or to simply provide for things going wrong.

  18. CD

    Not to be mean or attack the OP in any way, but I simply cannot understand people who drop off the grid as a way of solving their problems. I work with a lot of writers and they all do this to their editors. It makes no sense. Just tell them you need more time! Or better yet, set reasonable deadlines to start with, and stick to it! It is incredibly rude to just ghost someone. I hope people who read this story understand that, because Allison’s advice is spot-on.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      The problem is when in that mental state, their fight or flight is on perma “flight” mode. It’s like an emotional tornado, ghosting is their form of running to the basement and riding out an unpredictable storm.

      It doesn’t make sense to you because it’s not how you’re wired and it’s okay to be confused by it.

      I have locked myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes to get up the strength to tell my boss I’ve messed up. I’m grateful I’m able to push myself and my mind leaves enough room so the logical side still sneaks through after a meltdown starts to take over.

      It took me until I was on the verge of 31 to date because my mind was locked in “you’re gross and nobody likes you” mode. That was a helluva battle that I finally won a few years ago. Nobody understands. Heck, It’s my mind and I don’t understand my triggers except to know it was rooted in having a few bad people trample my self esteem as a kid.

      1. kitryan

        Yes, if the confrontation/admission of fault is the *worst possible thing* then it makes more sense as a response. For a long time my view of my value as a person was directly linked to how smart I was, so if something was hard or if I did something wrong, dealing with it sometimes put my entire sense of self at risk. In that mindset opting out of the difficult thing seems like the only way to protect yourself. If you don’t do the hard thing you can’t fail at the hard thing.
        Of course, you may end up with a reputation as a procrastinator, underachiever, flake, etc.

        1. selena81

          I know someone who, at age 50, is still absolutely *obsessed* with the idea that she is much smarter than her friends and relatives. She’ll always find an excuse to brag about herself.
          The sad thing is that she actually is reasonably smart and well-read, although probably not as smart as she thinks, but her fear of failure has kept her from ever getting the slightest amount of proof of that intelligence (she’ll avoid anything that seems like a test). So in the end she comes of to strangers as a rather stupid person suffering from Dunnig Kruger.

    2. Me

      Can’t speak for all ghosters in all situations, because some people just are avoiders.

      But with anxiety – well it just doesn’t work that way. You don’t understand it because your brain works differently. As The Man stated, it’s believed now to be a really jacked up fight or flight response. A lot of people with anxiety have a heightened startle response. For example, I walk into someone’s office, with a normal expectation they will be in their chair. 9 % of the time that’s where people are. Or if their chair is empty that they aren’t in. So if that individual isn’t in their chair, but rather at their whiteboard across the room, and I came in looking towards the chair, them moving or speaking startles me. In a oh my god crap my pants way, not a oh whoops didn’t see you there way. You can almost gauge how bad my anxiety is by how easy I’m spooked. It’s not fun.

      And for me, I logically KNOW my reactions are not “normal”. I know it’s rude to ghost someone. I know that my body acting like I’m going to die if I do this thing is not true. But without help, sometimes with meds, sometimes with therapy, an always with all the hard work (and it IS hard) I do to counteract all the bad thought processes and ways my limbic system lies and works against me, I simply cannot always do what seems so simple and matter of fact for you.

      So I hope that you and others on who have commented, who do not understand and think it’s simple rudeness, read the comments like mine and others who do deal with anxiety and understand that mental illness is real and that sometimes people aren’t being rude – they are ill.

      1. paul

        We can know that and simply be unable to deal with that within our own business or personal needs though. And that doesn’t make us unfeeling monsters.

        If I can’t count on someone to even talk to me for a couple of weeks while on a project–even just to say that they’re having an emergency–then I probably can’t work with them.

      2. CD

        Why should people with anxiety be given carte blanche to avoid their responsibilities and ALSO avoid owning up to the customer? Nobody likes telling someone that they screwed up, but it’s part of being responsible and professional.

        I am just confused, I guess. At what point are we allowed to blame the person with anxiety? Is it not “fair” to say that the person with anxiety simply has a poor work ethic? Does the person with anxiety really feel that they don’t deserve to lose clients over this low level of professionalism? If the person is so afraid of failing, they can simply get their work done on time and everyone’s happy. And then in the rare case that the person actually does have an emergency, the client will be able to look at their previous stellar track record and be more understanding of any delays.

    3. Namey McNameface

      Yeah….having an understandable reason for ghosting does not make it any easier for the “ghostee” to deal with the aftermath. It’s awful to be left in the lurch with no idea of what is happening.

    4. rogue axolotl

      I can see it from both sides. I haven’t actually ghosted in a serious way, but I understand the temptation when your initial avoidance snowballs into increasing stress and panic about not having responded quickly enough. On the other hand, I work with a lot of freelancers, and I would always rather have the information as soon as possible if they’re not able to make their deadline. It’s really hard to know what to do when you just don’t hear back. So I can sympathize, but I also have to prioritize working with people who I can rely on.

      1. Me

        As you should.

        Understanding what mental illness is and can look like, doesn’t mean you should give people who don’t respond a pass. If I was the client, I at a minimum would never work with this person again in all likelihood.

        Mental illness is still heavily stigmatized. Which leads to difficulties being treated and having reasonable ADA accommodations. Chalking up behavior that is directly caused by a mental illness as just rudeness is kind of like chalking up a broken leg to the equivalent of a stubbed toe. Attempting to explain how it works or feels to someone who can’t relate is an attempt to deal with the stigma. It is never in any way a statement that a behavior should be ignored or forgiven because of mental illness.

    5. TassieTiger

      My boyfriend is now my ex because he had a habit of falling off the grid for 2 months at a time.

    6. Owler

      Picture whatever bad habit you have that you wish you didn’t have. Do you actively think “I can’t wait to make my desk more messy”, or “today I’m going to only eat junk food for lunch”, or “I promise to yell at my kid even more than yesterday” or “I’m planning to be late for every afternoon meeting”.

      Similarly, no one decides to ghost someone. It’s small decisions, like running out of time to work on a project on Friday and deciding to email the client later that night, only to be stymied on what to write. Maybe it’s late, so you decide to write in the morning. And maybe the project is a stretch for your skills, and you want to show *some* effort before you write the late email, and so you wait a little longer…and each decision digs a deeper hole and adds shame. Each decision by itself is small, but then you add in the guilt, shame, and embarrassment that accompanies the anxiety that you didn’t reply in a timely manner, and the result is that writing a short apology becomes overwhelmingly hard to do.

      1. selena81

        That’s a very good way to put it.

        Nobody is saying that this kind of behavior should get a pass just by waving a ‘mental illness’ card. But it’s good to get the word out that there *is* a difference between people who just don’t care about inconveniencing their client, and people who get stuck in a spiral of self-doubt and shame.

  19. Formerly Arlington

    I am on the other end of this—I work at an advertising agency that relies on freelancers— and have been ghosted before. Because it was a client deadline, I had to get another freelancer to start from scratch and it took a lot of time to train someone new. If had gotten a heads up that she wasn’t going to meet the deadline, I could have saved face, but it caused a colossal train wreck and absolutely burned a bridge. I agree with Alison that a heads up is everything in this situation. Being late is so much different than ghosting!

  20. Penelope Garcia

    When I was a freelancer I had an agreement with a fellow freelancer, let’s call her JJ, to contact each other’s clients if needed. One time I was dealing with a near breakdown and could not contact this one person I needed to. So JJ phoned and said I was unwell and talked to them for me.

    1. Agent J

      High five from a fellow Criminal Minds fan. And even more so since JJ was the Communications Liasion (probably why you chose that name ). :)

  21. Me

    No additional advice, just kudos to the LW for seeking treatment and working to right as best they can what has occurred.

    Many do and many have been, are, or will be where you are. You aren’t alone. Keep moving forward.

  22. FabTag

    This is a fantastic script from Alison. Her example refers to “health issues” and I suggest you use that and not “mental health issues”. I suspect people are more likely to perceive past “heath issues” as something that has been overcome, whereas they may fear “mental health issues” could crop up again.

    I have hired hundreds of freelancers over the years, and I understand things come up, including health issues. Submitting something later than expected is usually not a huge issue for us. My company has more flexibility than I imagine many clients might have. We may have wanted to publish something new in February, but it’s usually not the end of the world for us if it takes a month or so longer.

    Something that used to shock me was the number of freelancers missing their deadline who would say “someone close to me has died” as the reason they would be missing the deadline, always on the day before the project was due or on the due date itself. While such a tragedy could have coincidentally happened with some of the people who’ve been late, to have it used as an excuse by perhaps 80% of those missing deadlines (dozens over the years) is disheartening. I heard it so much one year that I almost wanted to warn new freelancers that their loved ones could be in danger on the project due date! Please, freelancers, just be real with your clients.

  23. Namey McNameface

    I’m going to suggest LW should give a discount even if it is not feasible. Or offer a full refund and allow someone else to take it.

    Ghosting mid project is kind of a big deal…even if totally understandable. There really needs to be some kind of reasonable financial compensation.

  24. ghosts 2019

    For the OP or anyone experiencing similar issues, I’ve found it helpful to write and save certain email templates in advance, using some of the scripts people have suggested above.

    I can’t claim to understand anxiety and mental health issues, but I find that wording difficult messages ahead of time can take a lot of stress out of sending them. So if you find just a moment of reprieve in between debilitating attacks, all you need to do is type their name and hit send.

    I’ve never judged someone for telling me they need to pull out of a project last minute due to unforeseen issues. If they disappear for a few days, that’s obviously confusing, but following up would usually leave a good impression…as long as you don’t make a habit of constantly going MIA.

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