Burn out is an insidious artist ailment that creeps in quietly and slowly wears you down over the course of time.
It doesn't always present as a fried, frazzled, bags-under-the-eyes kind of affair. The worst kind of burn out, in fact, is subtle, allowing you to keep on plugging for much longer than you should be. Eventually, though, burn out will grind you down - financially, emotionally, physically, and in your relationships. And, when you finally wake up to the fact that your circuit board is fried, you can't believe you didn't recognize it earlier.
Here are eight signs of burn out, and what to do about them:
1. You're physically tired on a regular basis, and you don't have an illness. Being tired without being sick is a big indicator you've been pushing yourself too hard for too long. Driving ambition is great when you're 25, but give it another 15 to 20 years and it will take its toll. There's only so much GO GO GO we can take. Remedy: Engage in some self-care (salt baths, yoga, deep breathing, long meandering walks in nature, etc.) and take a break until you can get your energy levels back up.
2. It's hard to muster up passion for the work. Where you once expounded effortlessly and at length about a creative masterpiece, you now mutter, "Eh. It's alright," when someone asks you about it. Or, you sit down to work and heave a heavy sigh thinking,"Come on now, I can do this. I can do this." Listen, if you're an artist and you aren't feeling passionate, this is a BIG red flag. Passion is your greatest fuel. Without it, you're steering your ship toward the rocks. Remedy: Stop working on anything you aren't passionate about and take a break. Come back to it when you really feel moved by the work. Don't put a timeframe on this. It might take weeks or months to get the mojo back. Let it unfold.
3. You feel bitter or jealous when you see other artists succeed. This one is a particularly accurate burn out indicator if you aren't usually prone to those kinds of feelings about other people. It stems, obviously, from being tired of not having your own success (whatever success means to you) and watching your peers (or, God forbid, your students) catch up and then pass you by. Remedy: Look back at your creative history and identify the places where you succeeded. Take stock of them and remember that there were others jealous of you then. When you're done with that, take break from comparing yourself to others.
4. You feel like things will fall apart if you stop moving. Artists prone to anxiety will identify with this one. In this scenario you're a juggler trying to keep all the balls in the air. You know that once one ball drops, the rest are soon to follow. If you feel like this, guess what? The balls WILL drop no matter what you do because you're coming at things from a place of fear and not from a place of love. Remedy: Enlist support, whether it be hiring someone or asking a friend to help, and take a break from the mania.
5. An offer comes your way that you would've jumped at in the past, but now feels more like a burden than an opportunity. I'm not talking about moving beyond an opportunity, which is a natural part of an artist's growth. I'm talking about something that would actually be good for you, but you just can't be bothered dealing with it. Remedy: Reassess your goals, visions, and dreams. Take a break from your creative work and come back to it when you're energized.
6. The business end of things takes up more time than the creative end of things. Of course this is unavoidable on occasion, but if you find yourself consistently dealing with administrative tasks, business meetings, plans, strategies and such, MORE than you're making your creative work, it's a big red flag. It's possible you're even using the business end of things to avoid making your work. Hmmm. Didn't think of that, didja? Remedy: Get an intern, or hire a part-time admin person. Take a break from the paperwork and give yourself some time to get into a creative groove again.
7. Inspiration is few and far between. Lack of inspiration is frustrating for artists. You know inspiration is all around, but you can't find it. Everything seems to have been done before. You've seen it all. SIGH. Remedy: Try something different than your usual MO. If you're used to going to a gallery for inspiration, spend some time in nature or listen to a podcast interview instead. Hang out with children (a.k.a. Inspiration Grabbing Machines), or consider taking a course to learn something new. And, take a break while inspiration finds you again.
8. You feel very alone in your practice. This happens to artists who don't work collaboratively or in a group setting. The sad truth about life as an artist is most people don't care about what you make. Just the same way you don't care about their accounting job. (I know, I know, your artwork is SO much cooler than their job! It is! But they don't know that.) Remedy: Find your community. Go to a class, or a studio tour, or an open mic. Get out there and connect. Start a writers group or a meet-up. Take a break while you find your tribe.
By now you've realized there's a common thread to all these remedies for burn out - take a break! No one is going to give you permission. Only you can do that. I can't stress enough the importance of this. I mean, what would you do if your car ran out of gas - would you get out and push it where you wanted to go, or would you simply fill it up with gas again? Taking a break is the equivalent of going to the gas station, friends.
What's that? You're terrified at the thought of taking a break? The secret no one tells you is this: it will all be there when you get back, and if it isn't you won't miss it. Trust me, I've been there.
And, while you're taking this much needed break, spend some time figuring out how you got fried in the first place. It's likely a combination of factors. For me, it was not taking care of myself financially over the course of time + unrealistic expectations about my creative work + not having enough support from a creative community. When you take stock of how you got to Burn Out Land, you can be sure to avoid that destination in the future.
Up with creativity, down with burn out!
Photo by Tim J Keegan//cc