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Heading Back to Work: Self Regulation for the Self Employed and Freelancers

Freelancing and self-employment has a few blind spots - one of which being the lack of HR personnel to guide your development as a professional or access to self-development courses related to this. As we brace for a soon (but still not certain) re-entry into ‘’normal’’ life which comes after over a year of frayed nerves, delayed or cancelled work. Well, it is almost like the whole playing field has changed…

Self-Regulation is a psychological process we all naturally undertake, but how can it help the self-employed in their job? Emotions are a natural response to the world around us and often we find ourselves at their mercy, especially powerful emotions like anxiety and anger, and when we do, it can make us feel out of control. Especially in the workplace, when it can expose vulnerabilities and comes as a surprise.

We often refer to the ability to regulate our emotions as self-control, impulse control or anger management. Though, anger is not always the negative emotion we need to manage - especially for women or non-binary folks. It’s really the ability to regulate your thoughts, then your feelings, then your actions. It’s something we all need to practice; and like all things, some people are naturally more capable in this area, while others need more practice to learn skills to aid their self-control.

Having a framework for self-regulation is a useful tool – and one that can help you make a conscious decision about how you’re feeling and how you can react to any given situation. A traffic light system is a simple and effective example of this. Yes, something designed for children is evidently more than appropriate for trainers, managers, owners and bosses! It reflects the science: that different parts of our brain are working at different times to support us - and in this module, we focus on three. Let’s make the connection between the brain and the traffic lights...

Imagine that we have a traffic light in our brain, and whenever our brain shines either red, yellow, or green, it's trying to tell us something. It's our job to listen to it. Most scientists would agree that the human brain comprises 3 major brain regions: the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex. Think of it like this:

  1. Our Neocortex Is Our Green Brain
  2. Our Limbic System Is Our Yellow Brain
  3. Our Brain Stem Is Our Red Brain.

Each of these brain regions has corresponding emotions, meaning that when we feel a certain emotion, we are functioning out of either red, yellow, or green brain. Our emotion(s) then translates into a specific behaviour or action. The focus of the stoplight approach is emotional awareness to allow teachers, trainers, bosses and management to recognize the effects of functioning out of red, yellow, and green brain; and why it is imperative to operate out of green brain when learning. The stoplight approach makes this possible by giving tools to both trainers that help to bring trainees and teams you manage back to green brain - and how to keep them there.

Let’s think about it a little differently, and in a way, focus on those who deal with painful clients or teaching challenges in their roles.

Green (Go) Feelings

Are “good to go” emotions. They’re emotions that are appropriate for all situations, and show control e.g. calm, happy, focused or content. They’re also appropriate feelings for interacting with others (being social), learning and working.

Yellow (Slow down) Feelings

Are “proceed with caution” emotions. In the Yellow Zone, you’re in a heightened state of alertness, but still have some control over your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Examples of Yellow Feelings are: stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement and confusion.

Red (Stop) Feelings

Are “out of control” emotions. They’re emotions associated with being in an extremely heightened state of alertness, having intense feelings – anger, rage, explosive behaviour, panic, terror, elation – you’re not in control of. In this state, you need to stop and re-gain control.

When you’re able to acknowledge what colour zone you’re in, you can then use strategies to calm down and regain control. Different strategies work for different people, but some examples are: deep breathing, relaxation, taking a break, having a cold drink, talking to someone, asking for help, and exercise.

It’s important to remember that no feelings are ‘bad feelings’, not even anger. What’s important is how you react in heightened states of arousal (i.e. yellow or red zones). Yellow and Red feelings can prompt unhelpful reactions, but if you use the above framework to assess your feelings and reflect on what you can do to be closer to Green, you’ll find you tend to be less reactive and more in control, especially when strong emotions arise.

It is easy to think that what occurs, in reality, is all that matters, but the power of perception is stronger than we realize. For instance, it is easy to think that physical safety is all that is needed in order to learn or function well. However, this is false. The feeling of being safe is just as important - if not, more. And science proves why. 

It is also easy to think that it is possible to overindulge or give too much to our teams, employees, staff or trainees or when you are self employed or freelancer - yourself! - but that is simply false. It’s honestly something lazy white men started saying when they did not want to put the effort into being a decent human. Just as with feeling unsafe, feeling unacknowledged or attended to or unvalued also hinders learning and functioning well. Again, science proves why.

Feelings and emotions are one of the key components of the traffic lights approach and what makes it so powerful. Being able to identify and name emotions actually decreases the intensity of negative emotions, helping us to calm down quicker and return to a better state of mind - which in turn will impact those around us.

Green Brain

Brain science has determined that operating out of the green brain is the best region of the brain from which to learn. This is because when we are in a green brain, we are using 100% of our IQ, and we are ready and able to learn well. Makes you certain someone like Donald Trump or Elon Musk has never used their green brain - or maybe they have, which is worse.

This state of mind is best for any person to function out of. One of the most important aspects of green brain to note is that when we are in the green brain, we feel safe, seen, productive and valued. Just because it is a workplace it does not mean people do not deserve to feel this way. You’d want to be in a Green Brain state of mind if, for example, you are going to put together an application for funding or support. Being in this state of mind is harder for self employed people or isolated freelancers, but awareness is the first step in improving and growing.  

Yellow Brain

Functioning out of the yellow brain means that it is more difficult to learn than when in the green brain. This is because when we are in a yellow brain, we are only using 75% of our IQ.  One of the most important aspects of the yellow brain is that when we are in the yellow brain, we may feel safe, but we do not feel valued. To get back to a green brain, we need to feel appreciated and valued.

Red Brain

Operating out of the red brain means that learning is extremely difficult and there is little point in even trying to learn. This is because when we are in the red brain, we are only using 50% of our IQ.  One of the most important aspects of the red brain is that when we are in the red brain, we feel unsafe (along with feeling unvalued), and therefore are doing everything in our power to make us feel safe again. To get back to the yellow brain, we need to feel safe.

Reflecting on these states of mind can be really important as our mental state is once again under a new pressure of situation thanks to this pandemic. We wish you the best in navigating this, and developing awareness in a way that makes you feel less isolated or vulnerable.

Do your thing, not your taxes