- by Judy Lui, MSc, CCC, RP •
Rejection and competition are part of the day-to-day life of artists. With time and experience, many folks learn to manage and adapt, even finding ways to utilize rejection and competition to help fuel and spark their work.
Burnout, however, is a different story.
A well-known state-of-being in the world of therapy, burnout refers to the effects of chronic stress and the inability to successfully manage it. For emerging artists, burnout is more than just a term. It has become a culture and an expected lifestyle, necessary for success.
On April 19th 2021, I sat down with Emerging Artist Wellness team member Ruth-Anne Yiu to learn more about what this phenomenon means from the perspective of an artist. Multiple dynamics were unpacked and discussed in our insightful conversation. In this article, I will share some of the things that I learned in our exchange and offer some tips and strategies that I hope will help emerging artists better recognize and manage burnout.
Burnout Pride & Competitiveness
In our modern capitalist world, nothing is more valuable than time. Burnout has become a measure of effort and hard work. In the world of artists, working oneself to the bone has become not just the norm, but a point of pride.
The satisfaction of honing one’s skills has unfortunately transformed into measuring the amount of sacrifice one is willing to make for their craft. In the world of emerging artists, stress is almost necessary. The hours it takes to become a professional in the field takes considerable amounts of sacrifice and dedication. Yet, we are not measuring our pride in growth, but instead measuring our achievement, and even satisfaction, through pain.
We measure our pride in the pain of working until our fingers bleed and blister, in the pain of staying up late until we’ve perfected a note or verse or artwork, in turning down invitations to play and socialize, in the decision to ignore our bodies’ needs to reach a goal…. the list goes on. If you have ever worked on something that you are passionate about, no matter in what realm, you have probably made some of these decisions before. While there is nothing intrinsically problematic with these scenarios, repeated decisions to make these kinds of sacrifices will lead to burnout, and eventually to the death of the passion that made these sacrifices worthwhile in the first place. If you must sacrifice and ignore your basic needs to achieve what you deem as success, if you choose to take pride in how much you’ve hurt and suffer to reach your goal, you will lose the ability to love the work that you made those sacrifices for in the first place.
“If you must sacrifice and ignore your basic needs to achieve what you deem as success, if you choose to take pride in how much you’ve hurt and suffer to reach your goal, you will lose the ability to love the work that you made those sacrifices for in the first place.”
We are left feeling dull and exhausted, but perhaps accomplished in our effort. The pride and satisfaction no longer comes from our work and our artistry, but rather in how much we push ourselves. It almost becomes a badge of honour. You may even be looked down upon if you don’t subscribe to burnout culture. Burnout is also competitive – peers one-up each other as a status symbol, all in the pursuit of not being left behind.
“It almost becomes a badge of honour. You may even be looked down upon if you don’t subscribe to the burnout culture.”
Productivity competitiveness between an artist and their peers perpetuates the cycle of self-abuse. Productivity becomes a status symbol. Failure and criticism don’t just attack the talent and ability of the artists; they attack the artist for not working hard enough to achieve their goals. In our conversation, Ruth-Anne shared that “for artists, there is a general sense of urgency to make it… to find your break out moment … if you don’t achieve it early on, you will miss your chance… it drives this idea that sacrifices must be made now, even at the loss of mental and physical wellness”.
“For artists, there is a general sense of urgency to make it… to find your break out moment … if you don’t achieve it early on, you will miss your chance… it drives this idea that sacrifices must be made now, even at the loss of mental and physical wellness.”
What do we do? Strategies for Managing Stress and Anxiety in Preventing Burnout.
I’ll start with the good news first: Stress is not the problem! For emerging artists, stress is almost necessary and sometimes a welcome mechanism for growth. The problem and solution lie in finding better strategies to deal with the stress.
Our bodies are great at keeping us protected and on alert when stress is detected. However, the level of alertness we feel may not always be helpful for the task at hand. Long-term exposure to such alertness is often what leads to chronic fatigue and anxiety. Here are some things to consider that are essential to burnout prevention:
Rest is Productive.
“It’s true that rest makes us more productive… we think rest matters not because it makes you more productive, but because it makes you happier and healthier, less grumpy, and more creative. We think rest matters because you matter. You are not here to be “productive.” You are here to be you, to engage with your Something Larger, to move through the world with confidence and joy. And to do that, you require rest.” – Emily Nagoski, Burnout.
Take a Break! Schedule breaks for mental and physical reset: stretch, drink water, grab a snack, go to the bathroom, call a good friend, go for a walk etc. on days where you typically work until you are absolutely exhausted.
– How? Set a timer, schedule it in, have a friend remind you, etc.
– This might look/feel like: Setting an alarm to ring at 3pm so you remember to check your water consumption
level. Take breaks in between work so we can go back to our task refreshed.
Rest as an Important Factor in Continued Success.
“Staying on the treadmill is one thing, and I do think it’s related to staying true to our commitments even when we’re not comfortable. But getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again, is in my view even more reflective of grit. Because when you don’t come back the next day—when you permanently turn your back on a commitment—your effort plummets to zero. As a consequence, your skills stop improving, and at the same time, you stop producing anything with whatever skills you have.” – Angela Duckworh, Grit.
– Get Organized! Break down your goals into smaller tasks and set a routine and schedule that is realistic. Have
you packed too much into a day or a week? What can you realistically accomplish without being so exhausted
that you can’t get out of bed the next day? Be sure to include times to step away from work to destress when
– Practicing Mindfulness! Take a moment to notice what is going on in your body, both physically and mentally,
during those long days/nights. Take a moment to pause and reflect. This does not have to be in the realm of deep
breathing and mindful meditation – you can stare out your window and notice what is going on outside, take a
moment to stretch and think about other thoughts, take a coffee or tea break by yourself or with others, etc.
Taking this quick moment to pause and reflect will help you take note of your mental and physical well-being, and
give you the necessary information to readjust your day accordingly.
– How? Add it to your practice. Set rules and boundaries for yourself.
– This might look/feel like: I’m only working until 10pm tonight; my arm is a little sore today, I need to ice it in
between practice and take more breaks; there’s a nice breeze out the window today so maybe I’ll take my
coffee/tea/snack break outside; it’s been a while since I’ve talked to my friends, let me reach out; It’s been a while
since I’ve had a break, so I’ll make sure to take the weekend off this week.
Shifting from Pain as Progress Orientation to Positive Goal-Setting Orientation.
“The moral of the story is: We thrive when we have a positive goal to move toward, not just a negative state we’re trying to move away from.” – Emily Nagoski, Burnout.
“There’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.” – Lori Gottleib, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
Shift your goal orientation from measuring pain and suffering as progress to one of change and effort as progress.
Setting new ways to measure and define success:
Set new expectations of what it means to be successful in honing our skills. Dispel the idea that suffering means working hard. Let go of measuring success through how much pain and sacrifice you are experiencing.
– How? Make a list of what would be better markers of effort and success. Ask ourselves if at the end of the day,
we are still finding passion and meaning for what we are working hard on.
– This might look/feel like: Suffering does not mean we are working harder, resting does not mean we are being
lazy, I know I’ve done my all today without over exhausting myself, I can feel proud in those efforts and rest today
knowing that I owe it to myself to refuel my body and mind.
Celebrate the positive instead of taking pride in the painful:
Giving ourselves the permission to acknowledge what needs to be worked on, while also acknowledging what was accomplished in our work that day.
– How? Rethink what success and progress mean and turn our markers of success to focus on the progress
made, rather than sacrifices made.
– This might look like: I made improvements today to my work that were not there yesterday; I faced setbacks
today but continued to move forward anyway; I stopped myself from overworking myself and chose instead to
sleep earlier tonight.
Final Words: Fuel Your Passion by Fuelling Your Worth
“Most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way.”- Lori Gottleib, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
“Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show the highlight of what they’ve become.” – Angela Duckworth, Grit.
Change and progress require time, effort, and countless trials and errors. If there is one thing that artists understand well, it’s that failure and setbacks are a necessary step towards success. It is important to remember that mental well-being and balance require that same trial and error process.
This article touches upon just a small fraction of the trials and tribulations that folks in the creative industry experience. It is my hope that it gives you a place to start your path towards self-care and reducing burnout. Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in reducing burnout because we all walk different paths in life. I sincerely hope this article will inspire you to arm your wellness toolbox with new tools that you may not have considered before!
Some other tools to help you get started (please note: we are in no way affiliated or sponsored by these products):
• A good old manual timer
– Egg timer
– Passion Planner
– Panda Planner
– Google Calendar
– Yoga with Adrienne
– Any meditation videos out there you might like!
– Ten Percent
– Althea Therapy
– Burnout – Emily Nagoski
– Grit – Angela Duckworth
– Daring Greatly – Brene Brown
– Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life – Monica
– No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh
• Ways to find professional help
– Psychology Today Directory
– Healing in Colour Directory
– Althea Therapy Directory
– Affordable Therapy Network Directory
– Speaking to your family doctor for referrals
Judy Lui is the founder and clinical director of Your Story Counselling Services, A private practice clinic in Vaughan Ontario offering Individual, Couple, Family, Sex, and Trauma Psychotherapy Online and In-Office across the Greater Toronto Area.
As a Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor, Judy is passionate about creating change and making mental health services more safe and accessible to the public. Judy believes in working collaboratively with others so that they can get back to themselves and their preferred way of life and living.
To learn more about Judy and the services she offers, click here.
If you have additional questions regarding the contents of this article please feel free to contact me and we will be happy to answer you.
As always, should you ever have questions or inquiries regarding counselling and the process of counselling, we offer complimentary 15 minute phone consultations. Judy can be reached by completing the contact form on our website here, by phone at 1-416-473-3333 ext. 1 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org
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