It’s Halloween, and the things that scare me aren’t the ghouls and goblins associated with this holiday; rather, I’m concerned with creatures of a different breed:


Call them naysayers, Negative Nancies or Debbie Downers. The Germans had a word for it: schadenfreude. Whether they are your relatives or even close friends, some people in this world would prefer not to see us succeed at our at-home business ventures. And when we do experience some success, these naysayers feed off our good vibes, sucking us dry of our hope and determination. Personally, I call these folks vampires.


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These are typically clients who are either just starting out or who are languishing in their own business and need your brains to “resurrect” them and their business. However, without a fully alive partner who knows just what kind of services he wants- and who can actually pay you for them- you end up “turning” too. This doesn’t bode well for your career.

How to Slay Vampires

Part One: Vampire identification

You create an incredible affiliate website about baby strollers and boast about it to your friend. She listens quietly, then mentions that those strollers are being recalled. The next month, one of your clients stiffs you on a payment; your friend goes on and on about how “she’s here for you” and how “you can tell me anything.” Yep, you might have a vampire on your hands.

Fortunately, there is scientific research that can help you fend off vampires.

In a 2011 report in Cognition and Emotion, van Dijk and colleagues ran psychological tests on some undergraduate students. These students were first tested on their cognitive abilities and then falsely told that they were either really smart or really stupid. Then, all the students were told a supposedly true story about the misfortune of a fellow student who had either done poorly on his or her thesis or had accidentally driven his car into a canal. The students were asked to report their emotions while hearing these stories.

The students that had been told that they were rather stupid scored much higher on feelings of schadenfraude than those students who were told they were really smart. In other words, when the students felt threatened about their own self-worth, they took greater pleasure in hearing about the misfortunes of others. Interestingly, when low self-esteem subjects were complimented on their astute observations, their schadenfreude levels decreased.

In another study reported in the journal Emotion, van Dijk and colleagues first tested the actual self-esteem of a group of undergraduate students, after which all students were read a supposedly true story about a high-achieving student. The students were asked to report on their feelings about this high-achiever. Afterwards, the students were told about the scholastic misfortunes of this high-achieving student and again asked to report their emotions.

The students with low self-esteem scored the highest in terms of feeling threatened by the high-achieving student. Not surprisingly, when later told how this high-achiever had failed on an academic level, the low self-esteem students also scored the highest in terms of their schadenfreude. In other words, the students with low self-esteem were threatened by the successful student and consequently felt very happy to hear that he or she had run into some bad luck.

Part Two: Vampire neutralization

What does this teach you in terms of fighting off vampires and not allowing them to suck you dry of your positive energy? First of all, it’s important to recognize that vampires carry around feelings of low self-esteem and therefore, are actually threatened by your work-at-home business success. Vampires don’t feel happy when they hear that you’ve “made it” on some level. In many cases, they might even envy what they perceive to be your easygoing, get-up-at-noon lifestyle.

To banish vampires, you have three options: either avoid them altogether, compliment them to boost their ego, or tell them about your work-at-home business troubles and seek their “advice.” Alternately, ask vampires if they’d consider having a work-at-home business of their own. In most cases, vampires will shy away from taking the entrepreneurial route, but asking this question does throw them a curve ball that they can’t immediately swat away. And, for all you know, you might just provide these vampires with something else to focus on besides your hopeful downfall.

How to Kill Zombies

Part One: Zombie identification

In order to kill zombies, you must first identify them. What are the characteristics of zombies, and zombie freelance clients in particular?

Zombie clients, like all clients, need you for your brains. However, that’s where the similarities stop. Unlike regular clients, zombies cannot form a definite plan on how to eat your brains.

In many cases, you are given free reign to help them out with their business or customers. This autonomy seems great at first and you spend many of your working hours creating a business plan, marketing campaigns, logos, etc. You might even spend a significant amount of time at the actual work site of the customer, brainstorming how to make that business bigger and better.

However, unless you are presenting yourself as a consultant and thus charging a consulting fee, all this effort is for naught as far as your bottom line is concerned. Furthermore, any paid work you may have completed in this time frame is being lost out on in the process of “helping out a zombie.”

There is also a subclass of zombies who have specific plans for your brains but no real way to pay you until things pick up. Quite often, these types of zombies are found in start-ups, non-profits or even in your next door neighbor’s garage. You work like a banshee in order to promote their product or business in the hopes of one day being given a cut of the profits.

The problem with this model is that, unless you enter into a legal contract with the zombie, you have no legal right to any of the profits from the business. Your hours upon hours of work might simply be rewarded with a “thank you,” after which you are sent on your merry way.

Obviously, the biggest issue with taking on zombie clients, and especially too many zombie clients, is that, at least for the time being, you have no money coming your way. That’s not beneficial to the longevity of your work-at-home business. And the often-used compensation called “exposure” is not going to pay your bills. The bottom line here is that you need to get paid a living wage for your work.

Part Two: Zombie neutralization

How can you kill zombies? Personally, I already work with a charity or two, so I state that my dance card is full as far as volunteer work is concerned. For anyone else running a work-at-home business, I recommend practicing saying no in front of the mirror at least once a day. Then, do it for real with zombie clients who have great ideas in the making but no realistic way of paying you for your efforts. Or those zombie clients whose own work-at-home businesses are faltering and who need endless consulting time (for free of course).

The trick with saying no, and even knowing to say no, is to determine early on what the potential client’s budget is for your proposed project. Don’t meet 10 times with the client before you finally get down to discussing money and how you’re going to get paid for your services. Because, by the time you do discuss this subject, you’ll feel obligated to make good on all that free time you spent with her.

Remember that, in that at-home business world, time really is money. And if you’re wasting your time on zombie clients, you’re actually wasting money. You must save yourself (and your business)! Otherwise, you risk becoming a zombie too.

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Additional reading:

1. van Dijk, W.W. et al. Towards understanding pleasure at the misfortunes of others: The impact of self-evaluation threat on schadenfraude. (2011) Cognition and Emotion 25(2):360-368.

2. van Dijk, W.W. et al. Self-esteem, self-affirmation, and schadenfreude. Emotion 11(6):1445-1449.

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Join the Discussion

  • Sarah Li Cain
    Sarah Li Cain

    Loving the reference to zombies! I’ve encountered quite a few of those types of clients myself…

  • Lori Mauger
    Lori Mauger

    A real eye opener! Thanks for telling it like it is. Inspiring!

  • Katie

    I’ve dealt with my fair share of vampires in the past. It certainly helps to remember that their negativity has more to do with them than it does with me!

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