I’m an adult, people should respect my boundaries. Especially clients! Right? Right.
I always have a nagging voice in my head (my own voice, whose else?) that bows down to everyone and agrees to everything. This nagging voice fights against a tiny voice that squeaks meekly that I don’t like doing some things, but I am weak! That voice very quickly gets shut down and stuffed behind locked doors in my mind, deemed as unworthy to be let out into the world.
What happens after is, in the context of a creative project, my needs go ignored. While I sit on the imaginary fence hoping people would understand my needs without me having to do much work (read: identify my own needs & boundaries to then later enforce them), picture a client running past the fence with the warrior spirit ready to attack wearing a red cape and waving an underwear on a pole as the flag.
They don’t care. Period.
They want to get their work done and move on. I end up feeling stupid for sitting there and hoping for them to treat me better and respect me more.
Clients From Hell
The Boundary Encroacher is the second in the series of Clients From Hell that I’m writing to learn as I go about navigating work as a creative. I previously wrote about how I’ve overcome my eye twitches and stopped myself from getting triggered when clients ask me to move the logo by 3 pixels.
I want to be able to grow as a creative and build better relationships with the people around me — clients & creatives alike. This is me sharing my journey with you (sometimes it turns out to be a rant, sorry not sorry!) as I jump past one hurdle after another. It feels like in client-designer relationships, I may never reach the finish line.
Tell me I’m not the only one who feels that way sometimes?
The Boundary Encroacher
Let me begin with a wonderful client I once had. Allow me to call her The Encroacher. Imagine her donning her spandex, flexing her muscles and striding in purposefully when I cue her dramatic entrance music.
She has one mission, to make me cower in fear in the wrestling ring where I lose my calm and drop all my marbles the moment I see her name flash across the large screen.
I joke. I would never admit to you if I felt weak! I am a strong independent woman capable of establishing her own boundaries…
I was on contract for design work for over a year for her. The work that came in was never the same. One day it would be business cards, the next day it would be marketing brochures in the early phases.
Simple enough, I thought.
Her company had a pretty good style guide for me to follow, I thought.
I was delusional. They didn’t have a current style guide — the one they had was old and not applicable to the brand anymore.
But did I raise the issue to her and ask her to commission me to make a brand visual identity at the beginning? No.
I try to think back now — and I can only tell you this. I think I was trying to please her for one, I was a sucker for external validation (still sort of am, oops). I thought I was under-promising and over-delivering when I volunteered to make it along the way.
I totally didn’t get the concept on that right. Yikes. So not only did I lose income from skipping past this step to please her to receive something other than her often unjustified critical comments, but I also grossly undervalued myself in the process.
As a designer myself, I know plenty of designers look for visual and brand consistency when doing creative work for multiple brands. It is through our consistency in visual communication that a brand message is strengthened over a period of time. But as a fresh graduate starting out, I took this to be my superpower without stopping to think of the value it adds to any project.
Round 1. I sold myself short and The Encroacher won.
The best part? She didn’t have to do anything to win, I did everything to lose and I hated myself for being the loser.
Now, taking a step back after all these years — I can tell you that I have met some wonderful clients who draw the boundaries for me.
They tell me that what I’m offering to do can be split up into multiple projects, or can be added to the work scope. Even better, they would be happy to pay me for it.
For being in my life, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for trusting me, watching over me even when I failed to be smart about these decisions myself. I value the respect you have for me, and I look forward to building my career as I support you in your endeavors.
What makes me incredibly sad to think about this is that my unicorn clients valued me more than I did myself at that point in my life.
Why can’t I be nicer to myself? Why do I undervalue myself? What am I doing wrong? Why am I selling myself short? Why can’t I see my own value but strangers can? Do I really hate myself that much?
This leaves an incredibly bitter taste in my mouth. I can tell you that I still struggle with panic attacks when it comes to issues about my self-worth. One voice in my head says I deserve better. But another voice beats it to death and says “I don’t matter” in what is a violent debate between my own thoughts in my head.
All this while I lay in bed burying my face in a snot covered pillow and losing the will to pick myself up on many days.
Cue my other superpowers, depression & anxiety.
Sorry I know I was supposed to be talking about working with a client from hell — but all of what I’m recounting here only confirms that the problem begins with me.
Going back to my one year in hell with The Encroacher.
Pretty soon, I was tasked to make visuals for ads. Google Ads, Facebook Ads, etc — you get the idea. I made them diligently within the set deadlines and delivered with edits or changes based on feedback when needed.
I was hustling, and I was so proud of myself at that point. I had managed to establish working remotely with clients — it meant I could travel and work from where I pleased. I was living the dream! It wasn’t tough at all to give clients a heads-up about me not being in town and establish regular communication channels despite the distance.
Even though The Encroacher always texted me late nights and I would respond, I never chalked it out to be a problem for me before. I preferred to start late and work late into the night, especially if I was working from home. I always replied if I was on.
Communication quickly turned sour when I shifted to my travel and work lifestyle — I was expected to respond to her immediately regardless of what timezone I was on.
She would always text when it was inconvenient for me. If I didn’t respond within 10 minutes of her texting, she would call me.
The Encroacher: Hey, did you get my text?
Me: Hey, I’m out right now and unable to do any work right away. I will take a look at the messages, however. I’ll get back to you when I sit down to work in a couple of hours.
The Encroacher: I’m running these ads, and I’m spending a lot of money on them. I need the graphic changed ASAP — I’ve paused the ads for now, but time is ticking and I need to get them going again.
Me: How long do you have before you need to start them up again?
The Encroacher: Uhhhh. I needed the changes done ten minutes ago.
Eventually, it felt like I was on call for her 24/7. I was suffering from the lack of proper structure being in a freelance contract, and I definitely had no guts to go back and establish that structure for the whole process back then.
My solution back then? Suffer in silence.
Alright, alright. I’ll admit, it’s not much of a solution.
I can tell you that when I went to visit my parents & grandparents — I insisted on bringing a wifi hotspot and laptop around anywhere in case this client called when I was out. I don’t think this did anything to convince my parents I was “living the dream” or get their approval.
I can tell you that when I went to Siem Reap, I insisted I don’t spend more than half a day out exploring the Angkor Wat temples during my time off in case I had to deliver work for this client.
I can tell you when I visited India, I got worked up about wanting multiple internet routers/ hotspots/ dongles in case the signal ws not strong enough on one so I could upload files diligently.
I can tell you when I visited South Korea, I woke up early mornings and spent days holed up in my Airbnb working on design work I was supposed to deliver because The Encroacher decided to ask for last-minute work.
Was I really travelling? Did I really have work-life balance or was I lying to myself? Did I compromise the quality of my life? Was I responding to the whims and fancies of The Encroacher instead of actually laying out the path for the design processes?
Changing My Approach
The thing about The Encroacher is that I like her as a friend. We spent time either before or after meetings and got coffee. She would sometimes drive me and I enjoyed the camaraderie.
Why didn’t she extend our friendship to work? Why did it feel like she saw me as two different people — one as the designer that I am, and the other as her “outside work” friend?
At work, it really felt like she had no regard for what my needs were. But honestly, I don’t think I knew what my needs were until they went unmet.
This was not going to be a sustainable gig for me. I felt my soul being sucked out of me sooner than I could recuperate from the stress & anxiety of dealing with her. I found myself to be always on edge ready to respond. My designs also suffered because of the lack of reaction time — I didn’t have enough time to think my designs through.
Eventually, I got to a place with even lower self-esteem. I thought I was already at rock bottom, but life decided to scoff at me and show me the reality. The one thing that I was good at and proud of myself for, my design abilities, didn’t show in my work anymore.
I beat myself up. I lost so much more than I could afford — an income from being too anxious and/or depressed to take on other gigs, my sleep, my energy, my appetite and even my hair as evident from all the hair on the floor of my room.
This turned into a vicious cycle — I had never felt so trapped before. I was to blame for my own suffering. I had dug my own grave.
At the peak of my depression, I preferred to keep to the contract work with The Encroacher because I wasn’t well enough to go out and bring in other projects — and this was, well, a consistent source of income. I did this even though I knew extending the contract with her would mean reliving through the same issues without any resolution.
Which part of this was going to change and allow me to break out of this cycle?
What I Do Differently Now
The most important things that help me find some calm during troubled times are perspectives. This only comes after I wallow in my own sorrow enough to feel like the pain becomes unbearable.
I allowed myself to watch my thoughts as I lay in bed depressed until I was able to decipher the answers. I reflected and mulled over the pain I felt, wondering why or how to find some relief.
What was I guilty about? I was guilty because I want to stand up so badly for myself, but failed to do so over and over. I felt like I wasn’t there for myself but expected to be able to do so. And I wasn’t kind to myself when I failed to stand up for myself.
Why was I unable to identify my own boundaries? I grew up not knowing what my own needs were, let alone be able to enforce them. I had to first to identify my boundaries. This started with me noting every time I felt like I wanted to mentally punch The Encroacher. This meant that she had crossed an invisible boundary that I now had to make visible by drawing a line there mentally. I mentally placed myself in the middle of a large field and drew an “X” to mark the spot every time she walked over a minefield until I identified as many as I could.
Why was I unable to stick up for myself? I lacked the right language and words to express what I wanted to say. Ideally, I wanted to state what I felt and assert my boundaries without coming across like I had 50 daggers pointed at The Encroacher. I wanted to nurture my relationship with her, not lose the trust she placed in me or my work. I learned the phrases for how to tell her to back off, give me a heads-up for new work that was more feasible, and communicate better by learning from people around me who did these things well.
“Hi, I am unfortunately unavailable to take on your request at this moment. I understand the importance of this work for you and I would like to assure you that I have placed this at the top of my priority list. The work is complex and requires 3–5 days for me to get back to you with the first draft. Until then, let me know what your concerns are and I’ll note them along the way. I will do my best to reach it to you ASAP.”
“Hi, I’m off work right now. I will get back to you tomorrow morning at 9AM when I sit down to work — I’ve noted your feedback and will work on it.”
Why was I so deeply affected by The Encroacher? What bothered me a lot was my own inability to be there for myself and draw my boundaries. Every time I experienced that, I felt helpless and somehow became the victim of my own story. When I looked at the larger picture, I was disgusted with myself for being the victim of my own story. Understanding this gave me the will power to change that narrative. I learned to identify the missing micro-skills I needed to communicate better and worked hard on developing them.
Why was I constantly on edge? The anxiety almost always began with The Encroacher herself, and I always felt more anxious after my interactions with her. I only eventually realized that she was stressed, to begin with. The stress I was feeling was just a spillover from what she was feeling. She was handling multiple things on her plate, and she looked to me for support to get the work done ASAP because her priority was to check things off her list. She thought I was her friend, and she leaned on me (in these troubling ways) to allow her to finish whatever was on her to-do list and work through her own anxiety. I had failed to empathize with her. So I didn’t understand the deeper mechanics of the requests that came from her. Learning how to talk business with her helped me understand what work is truly to be prioritized versus work that just landed on her desk because she was cleaning up after someone else. The latter type of work could wait, not all work is equally important though she panicked over her growing task list.
Armed with these new insights, I began to put them to practice. It is a combination of looking out for myself, as well as looking out for The Encroacher too when I had the capacity to or when it absolutely had to be done for my own sanity.
I learned to take advantage of my friendship with her as a client to move us both to the endpoint with fewer sleepless nights.
I am very glad to tell you that I haven’t chopped her (or my own) head off yet. We are both alive, and still on good terms. I moved on to a more fulfilling role eventually. Work got better with her when I learned these essential skills and the sky now rains pink roses when I work with her.
I am committed to my work as a creative, building my relationships with the people around me — clients & creatives alike. Join me as I share more about the different types of clients from hell and what I’ve learned from such interactions! So far I’ve compiled a list of 15 types of clients from hell & counting — this is the second in the series.
If you’re a fellow creative, I would love to hear your stories and understand your experiences. Write to me to start a conversation if you were able to resonate with any part of this!