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Creative burnout

I have been very much stuck in a place of near total creative burnout for quite some time now. I didn't immediately recognise this was the case or even really know what creative burnout actually is. So I've done some investigating to get a better picture of what, I think, many of us are experiencing in these turbulent times.

What exactly is burnout?

Burnout is a condition that arises in response to our work or working conditions. It shows up generally as a state of exhaustion, ineffectiveness, and negativity towards your job. The term has been around since the 1970s but in 2019 the World Health Organisation officially updated its definition in response to the increase in burnout we seen globally.

This condition comes about as a result of long-term stress that is not compensated for by sufficient satisfaction. It's what happens when you keep pouring energy into your work but you're not getting enough of a reward, in any form, in return.

As is so often the case when it comes to mental health, we often feel shame when we experience burnout and this can stop us from doing what we need to do to address it and get better.

Creative burnout

Creative burnout is related to this but there are some elements that are unique to the creative industries.

One of the symptoms of general burnout is reduced creativity and when that's the source of your bread and butter, the pressure can quickly become intense.

As commercial creatives we need to be able access, on demand, a part of ourselves that is intuitive and spontaneous. Creating work doesn't require the mythical muse to show up, but often our best work comes about when we're in a state of flow. I've found that getting into that state of flow is near impossible when I'm in burnout.

What does creative burnout look like?

There are general signs and symptoms of creative burnout but each person will experience burnout in a unique way.

For me, this burnout has shown up the following ways:

  • I don't feel motivated to create illustrations, write or make things. But at the same time, I really, really want to create. I feel I need to do it but simultaneously struggle to start something.

  • I don't feel inspired by the things that usually inspire me. And I don't "feel" like anything. You know when you were a kid and you said to your parent or friend or whoever: "I'm bored" and they said "why don't we watch a movie, go outside, bake something, ride a bike, tidy your room, play Mario cart/ whatever" and you were like "NAH"? That feeling. In response to everything that normally inspires me.

  • I dislike everything I make. Or at best, feel nothing about it.

  • I feel constant, overwhelming pressure to be more productive and at the same time, have no idea how to do that.

  • My self-esteem, especially when it comes to my creative work, is very low.

But the good news is, there are a few great suggestions that I've found in my search. I've already tried a couple and it's helping.

Steps to recover from burnout

First: notice the signs. These are entirely personal. Are you procrastinating more often or for longer than normal? Are you exhausted all the time? Are you constantly irritable with others? It really helps if you can pinpoint the specific ways in which you're affected. Naming something often takes away at least some of its power.

Take a break. You are the only one who knows how long the break can or should be. Even if you can't take off all the time you'd like, take as much as you can. This time is entirely yours to do with as you wish.

Go back to the basics. What simple thing do you love doing but haven't done for ages? Make time to do it whether you feel like it in the moment or not. What is something you did when you first got into your creative field that you haven't done for ages? What is something creative you love to do that's not anything to do with your commercial field of work? Go back to some basic activity that simply brings you joy.

The challenge of course is to build a creative practice and career that is balanced and helps us avoid burnout. It's a lifelong pursuit! I'll be investigating ways of doing this and sharing my thoughts in another post.

Further reading

I've found a few articles especially helpful in my search for a better understanding of creative burnout:

  • Verywellmind has a good overview of general burnout signs and symptoms, risk factors and prevention and treatment.

  • This article from Ness Labs focuses more specifically on creative burnout and also goes into some guidance on how to prevent it.

  • This piece from offers a few slightly different points on how creative burnout presents and what you can do about it.

As always, please feel free to leave me a comment or get in touch. Share your views or tips on creative burnout.

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