Creating in the Age of Burnout: Creativity as a Tool for Empowerment
Burnout is rampant. Especially after two years of a global pandemic. We’re tired, stressed, and tired of being stressed. It’s the feeling of exhaustion and hopelessness that so many of us are feeling right now that has come from the oppressive combination of high emotions, overwork, and feelings of powerlessness. Burnout makes it hard to do the things we are required to do, like work, being social, and taking care of ourselves. Its effects go beyond that, though - it also makes it hard to do the things we want to do, including the things that are so important for us, like creating. I’ve heard from so many people who haven’t picked up their cameras, paint brushes, or pencils in weeks, months, or even years. These people, some of the most vibrant creators I know aren’t able to tap into their creative selves due to feelings of burnout. This has been me at times, too. Ironically, getting to work and creating can help combat feelings of burnout, if done correctly. So, how do get back to work in a way that doesn’t add to the stress? How do we create while running on reserves (or empty, even)? I have a few ideas.
The cause of burnout is multifaceted – it’s a combination of many things adding up over time. I’m not here to tell you to quit your job, turn off the news, or cut out certain people or coping mechanisms from your life. Realistically, none of those suggestions may be possible. We’re not talking about cutting anything out. Quite the opposite actually; we’re talking about adding to your already full lives. We’re talking about creating. If we’re going to consider adding the habit of creating into the mix, we must go about it strategically. The first step to adding creating back into your life is to set boundaries around how we think about it.
Creating cannot be seen as work. If we think of creating with the same mindset as we do our day-to-day jobs, it will only add to feelings of burnout. In our jobs we have deadlines, benchmarks, and overwhelming workloads. We work within the corporate parameters of productivity. For your creative process, there must be a mindset shift to thinking of your work as not work. Those same expectations that dictate your 9-5 cannot apply here. Part of doing that is setting realistic expectations that do not add to your stress. There are no expectations around your work outside of the expectations you put on it yourself. There is no boss, team, or entity dictating how and when you work. You get to make the rules here. You have the power here. If done right, your creative work can energize you and give you a sense of joy, accomplishment, and feelings of self-empowerment.
Jumping back into your creative work (or getting started for the first time) can be daunting, especially when we’re already feeling tired, emotionally exhausted, and detached. Part of creating a realistic practice is to start small. The worst thing you can do is try and take on too much at once and then fail because you didn’t set realistic goals for yourself. This can lead to discouragement which will only add to the burnout. Start small and grow into it. If you’re eager and want to jump right in headfirst, that’s a good sign! But slow your roll. Trust me, taking your time setting up your creative practice will benefit you in the long run. Burnout happens pervasively and over time. It’s a slow burn. For your creative practice, you need to approach it slowly too so you can create a healthy practice that is sustainable. This is especially difficult for people who have an existing practice. We are creatures of comparison. There is nothing more deflating than looking back at our former practice and realizing how far away we’ve gotten from those former habits. We look back at the bar we set. I’m asking you to not hold yourself up to that same bar you were previously at. The goal isn’t necessarily to get back to that level. Burnout lowers the bar. That’s okay. We’re setting a new bar. Even better yet, we’re throwing out the bar altogether. There are no expectations for what your creating needs to look like or turn into. Practice creating for the sake of creating.
I’m hesitant to even bring up the concept of self-care in this space. It’s been a buzz word for a while now, and although it is meaningful and important, it carries little weight for many people. Burnout pushes us to practices that may resemble self-care. When you’re just trying to hang on, one must hold onto the little joys and routines that help us go through each day. A creative practice, no matter how small, can help us feel like we’re active participants in our development. It’s tough, but creating something outside of ourselves gives hope. It’s tough to build up enough motivation to pick up your creative tools when you’re feeling burnt out. But doing just that may help you break away from that feeling. Maybe not completely, or even mostly, but it might just be what gives you back some sense of power, control, and happiness - three things we could certainly use some more of these days.
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