Creative Burnout

So, apologies to anyone who was waiting with baited breath and eager anticipation for blog post ‘My Budget (Bonkers) Bathroom – Part 2’ to come along, particularly when I promised so enthusiastically at the end of ‘Part 1’, on the 27th April (!), that if you’d enjoyed reading about my budget bathroom and would like to know more about it, “check back with me later in the week for the next instalment”. I know I must have disappointed legions of fans around the country who, in a flourish of heady excitement after reading my post, ripped all their tiles off the wall, painted their sink cupboard in Chalk Paint, and then waited, on tenterhooks, for what came next.

I have exaggerated a little to be honest because when I say ‘legions’ I mean one, and when I say ‘fans’ I do actually just mean my Mum. She has recently overcome her fear of all technology and learnt how to use an iPad so that she can 1. read my blog, and 2. look at her electricity bills. My husband and I became her IT Technical Support Help Desk as she navigated her way around getting online, learnt how to use her browser, got to grips with scrolling, and set herself up on email. My favouritist (real word), sweetest moment was when Greg was signing her up for something-or-other, and was busy entering her shortened name ’Nadia’ into a field on the screen, when she suddenly piped up “oh no, you best put ‘Nadejda’ in, as it will know”. It will know!! The internet is all-seeing, all-knowing, it knows your full Christian name, and you definitely can’t do your banking on there! Not that I’m any better…..I’m a little bit more au fait with technology, but not much, and I often have to resist typing into google questions about my future, as if the internet is a Tarot-reading psychic genius. In addition, Greg calls me ‘Magneto’ as he says I have some invisible magnetic forcefield around my body that just makes anything electrical break (computers, televisions, phones…..the list is endless).

Anyway, I was very proud of my Mum for learning a new skill and because she had a bit of catching up to do, she spent a few days reading each of my previous blog posts. Some of it was on the phone with me, “So, I’ve just read ‘The Enchanted Garden’ darling, do I just press the back button? Ah, yes, I can see an image of a cow, shall I click on that?”, you get the picture. Until one day I received another IT Technical Support call from her with worries that she’d broken it (the iPad), because she couldn’t see any more posts? I was tempted to tell her, in a very grave manner, that yes indeed, she’d broken the iPad that only a week ago we’d given to her, but I couldn’t do it; and it was with a guilty conscience that I had to admit to her that I hadn’t written any more blogs, not that week. And not the week after. Or the one after that. In fact, it has taken me two months to get my ass back online and start writing again. And although I doubt I’ve been seriously missed, I do think my Mum will be rather happy that she can dust off her new techie toy and keep up to date with my posts again!

For anyone who has read my previous posts, you will already know that the launch of this blog coincided with the closure of my interior design shop (Aunty Mabel’s Seat) in Knutsford. But the fact that these two incidents have coincided has been a bit of a coincidence (how many “co’s” and “ince” and “dents” can a girl get in one sentence?). I started planning my rebranding to Carnival Interiors, and the launch of this blog Carnival of Colour, probably about two years ago now. I didn’t have the name immediately but I had the concept and then spent probably the next six months playing around with words and ideas for the name, and fine tuning the direction I wanted to take my business in. I then got my website designer onto it, employed a marketing advisor to help with the rebranding, and coincidentally chose to close the retail shop and remove the brand of Aunty Mabel’s Seat altogether, making it all more streamlined and simple.

So, the question is, why on earth would someone plan the launch of her new blog so meticulously, take months perfecting the look and design of it with her web designer, spend hours writing her first six blogs…..and then disappear for two months without a word? (Apologies for speaking about myself in the third person, it’s unnerving, I know!). I wish I could tell you it’s because I took a spontaneous two month holiday to a far-flung island where I spent my days just lolling in the sun and eating coconuts without a care in the world or a thought for my blog, but sadly this was not the case. I was most definitely here in the UK, enduring whatever this weather is that’s meant to pass for spring/summer in our country, and living my normal life. The actual reason for abandoning my dream project so prematurely was less about physically escaping to a desert island, and more about escaping internally within myself; and it is only now that I’m emerging from whatever protective mental cocoon I’ve been squirrelled away in, that I realise that for the last few months, I’ve been suffering from ‘creative burnout’.

Now, to people who aren’t creative in their normal day jobs, the term ‘creative burnout’ might seem absurd and over-dramatic, and my use of the word ‘suffering’ might appear over the top. And even if you can comprehend the term and its implications for a creative person, you might only think it applies to super-successful, super-talented, well known ‘artists’ who have a lot of pressure on them to continue succeeding. But it can happen to anyone when they are using high levels of creativity within their day to day lives, whatever their creative outlet is, and whatever their success level is; and it happened to little old me. And for me, the word ‘suffer’ seems about right, because I’ve spent the last five months terrified that whatever creativity I ever had, was gone, and wouldn’t be coming back any time soon. And even using the word ‘terrified’ makes me feel a little like a fraud, because I wasn’t being chased by a grizzly bear hell bent on eating me, I hadn’t been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and I hadn’t had an awful accident and been told I had to have both legs amputated (dark imagination, I know!), but what I did have was a low-grade, constant fear that everything I had worked so hard to achieve over the last fifteen years, all the endless passion and long hours I’d spent trying to carve out for myself my ideal career, had been utterly pointless and a complete waste of time.

As I closed my shop and enjoyed the initial relief to be free of its shackles, I faced my ‘rosy’ new future of hard-earned and longed-for brands and blogs and exciting new times, and waited for the motivation to kick in. Where was that high energy and passion and drive that I always experienced when I thought about all my various projects? Why wasn’t I feeling anything for my ‘exciting new times’? Instead, all I felt was apathy and a complete lack of interest for what I was doing, not to mention the confusion I felt that my fifteen-year obsession with interiors should suddenly seem to have disappeared into thin air. After months of trying, but failing, to become interested again in my work, I began to seriously think about giving it all up. I’ve read that creative burnout is not so much about “Can I do this?” but more a case of “What’s the point if I do this or not?”, and that’s exactly how I felt, I couldn’t see any reason for me to carry on doing what I do.

Fortunately I hung in there and didn’t do anything drastic and tried to just ride the wave until it finished, which I think it has, fingers crossed. And looking back, I can see quite easily how it happened and why. The five years spent creating and running Aunty Mabel’s Seat were some of the most enjoyable and rewarding I’ve ever had, but also the most stressful and gruelling. I experienced a constant roller coaster of emotions as I struggled during a recession to make enough money to cover my overheads and bills; there were huge highs where I felt elated and joyful, and there were the monthly awful lows where it was difficult to cover my invoices despite having had what I thought had been a promising month. I put in very long hours, I never switched off mentally, and I put my general health at risk by eating the wrong foods, not exercising enough and running my body at a stress level it wasn’t used to. No wonder, once it was all over and I was suddenly allowed to relax, that I found I had no energy left to put into my creativity. I had expected a grieving period, maybe, for the shop that was no longer, but not a burnout. So when it arrived I didn’t recognise the signs.

For those of you who were just being nosey about where I’ve been for the past two months, you’ll probably want to leave us here, disappointed that I didn’t have a tale of debauchery and devilment to tell! But for anyone interested in finding out more about creative burnout and what the signs are to look out for in yourself, or someone you care about, you might want to carry on reading.

For me, the best explanation of creative burnout came from Scott Berkun, a best-selling author on many subjects, one of them being creativity:
“Burnout means you’ve pushed your creative energy beyond the point of recovery. Like a well of water, creative energy replenishes itself slowly over time. A person who has pushed their creative well too hard for too long will, like its watery counterpart, one day find it empty. Usually by the time you notice something is seriously wrong, there’s little energy left to work with.”

Common signs to look out for include (again, taken from Scott Berkun):

• You don’t care about something you were passionate about
• You dread waking up (unless this is not usual for you)
• Everything seems grey and pointless
• You’re drinking or eating more, or showing whatever your signs of depression are
• You find it hard to relax
• It’s a struggle to do even basic work

The important thing to say here is that these symptoms are extremely similar to ones for depression and other mental health issues, so if you are experiencing any of the symptoms, it’s important that you rule out any of the more serious causes first. And as Scott says, before you chalk it up to burnout, look at any particular areas in your work, family and personal life that may be causing you to feel like this, and try to deal with these matters first. I was sort of fortunate in my case, because I’ve had depression since I was a teenager (yay! lucky me!! No seriously, I’m fine, we’ve contained the beast!) and even though a few of my symptoms were the same, I knew from experience that I wasn’t depressed. I felt perfectly fine about everything in my life, except my work and the mysterious disappearance of my long-standing passions. And that was why I was so confused. It was only as it went on for a few months and I turned to the internet for help (I told you that I thought the internet was all-seeing, all-knowing!), that I began to read around the subject, recognise the signs in myself, and discover ways I could help myself. There are lots of tips on the web, but these are the ones that I found most useful:

1. Stop trying to fight it. This is where I went wrong the most. I’m a fixer when it comes to emotions and inner life, and I wanted to analyse why I was feeling what I was feeling, and find the solution. I wanted to force my passion back into existence, and each week it didn’t materialise, the more demoralised I felt. It was only when I accepted things as they were, and stopped trying to force matters, that my passion began to percolate its way back in again. I read a great analogy that it’s like having the flu, that you can treat the symptoms but nothing will cure it except letting it ride its own course. In our busy, success-driven society, we have to realise that it’s ok to have creative ruts, and not to put too much pressure on ourselves. Everybody has them, they just don’t necessarily talk about them. And that leads me to……..

2. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Don’t just pick the first person who comes along and tell them all your woes, chances are your 8-year old daughter hasn’t got any great insights to offer you on creative burnout and the next friend you have lunch with might be having a meltdown of their own. So I chose who I spoke with carefully, one a fabulous fellow interior designer and one a gorgeous marketing agent who is potty about interiors, and both of them were great and encouraged me to stick it out (thank you so much girls). And timing is everything. By the time I chatted to my marketing friend, I was in a much better space as I’d done some research on burnout and had been doing some of the things I’m discussing here to help. We had such an exciting chat about all the things we could do to fire my passion back up and all the different directions I could take my business, that by the end of the afternoon, I actually had that high-energy buzzy feeling that I used to get about my work. So your friends can be invaluable and the more you talk to people and the more they share about themselves, the more you realise it happens to them too. You’re not on your own.

3. Break tasks into bite-size chunks. Despite how I was feeling, it was important for me to stay professional and carry out the work that I had committed to with clients, as well as keep my business afloat. In order to do this, I had to ignore my endless, lengthy lists of tasks (and I do like a good old to-do list!), as looking at the big picture just made me feel overwhelmed and reminded me of how little energy I felt for my work. So at the beginning of each day I would prioritise a few important tasks, and just take them one at a time, as slowly as I needed. By using this method, I never really felt the passion I used to feel, but I was able to continue servicing my clients and keep my business going, while I rode out whatever was going on. It also meant I didn’t have any guilt about letting anybody down, which would’ve simply exacerbated how I was already feeling.

4. The simplest one in the book – exercise! I know it seems to be the cure-all for almost anything, but it really is. The mind is not independent of the body, and exercise produces all sorts of lovely endorphins and stuff that make your mind happier and makes you want to do more of the things that make you happy. It’s a win-win isn’t it? So why is so hard to actually do? I’m the worst culprit for this. I knew that I had absolutely no energy and passion for anything I normally did, and I knew exercise would make it better, but my lack of energy made me just want to curl up on the sofa and watch TV. Which I did, for four months. But hey, guess what, miracle of miracles….a month ago I dragged my sorry ass back to the gym and went back to my pilates and yoga and aerobics classes, and shock-horror, I’m feeling energised and interested and passionate again. Why do we do it to ourselves? Just break the vicious cycle and do something, anything, that will get those lovely chemicals buzzing round your brain!

5. Eat healthily and get a good night’s sleep. Again, probably as obvious as exercising, but the more you look after your body, the better your mind is going to be. I used to love cooking but lost all joy from it over the five years of the shop. I have started learning to enjoy it again.

6. Be creative for yourself. This might sound a bit strange, seeing as we’ve just established that if you’re going through a creative burnout, your well of creativity is well and truly empty. But what I realised a month or so ago was that for the first time in fifteen years, I didn’t have a home to decorate, and as a result, the only time I was being creative was for someone else. My own personal creative outlet had gone. So I wondered (if we’re going to really work this ‘well’ metaphor!) whether my creative well was completely empty, or was it just empty of creativity-on-demand…..did I have some small reserves for creativity-for-pleasure languishing at the bottom? So I’ve started looking into a couple of courses on photography and embroidery, two crafts I’ve wanted to learn for ages, and already I feel excited by the prospect. I can almost feel my well of creativity filling up as we speak! (It’s not unpleasant, don’t worry). Try a creative outlet that is just for you and maybe even completely different to the one you use for a living.

7. Take some time out for yourself, guilt-free. I say guilt-free because most people in today’s busy-busy society always feel a bit guilty when they’re doing something for themselves, so try really hard to allow yourself some indulgences and to enjoy them. I’m getting rather good at this one! For the five years of the shop, I felt awful if I wan’t ‘working’, but over the last few months I’ve really allowed myself to do things that are pleasurable as I know that ultimately they will help me with my creativity and my career. So, I’ve taken the dogs on walks in the sunshine, met up with girlfriends for coffee, taken a couple of days away on holiday, read a book or two, and I am gearing myself up to learning a bit about gardening, because everyone I’ve spoken to says ‘digging’ is the most therapeutic occupation ever!

8. Change your work environment. All the literature I have read on creative burnout says to change your working environment is some small way. If you can leave the office, maybe work from the park on a hot day, or try a coffee shop. If you are stuck in the office with no escape, rearrange the furniture or buy some plants to brighten things up. Apparently just changing your environment will make you feel more positive and more likely to feel engaged in your work. This wasn’t exactly applicable to me because I was in limbo, with no real fixed working space. One thing that has helped me to engage with work is to find a proper office for myself, organise all my tools of trade there, so that it can become the place I associate with interior design and somewhere that I can look forward to going to, rather than feeling disorganised.

9. Create an inspiration file. Pinterest has helped me out in the darker deeper moments of creative burnout!! (oooh how dramatic does that sound?) One of my scariest moments (and it had nothing to do with spiders surprisingly) was when I purchased a couple of my favourite home magazines, and then I just turned the pages endlessly and felt nothing but boredom. I was completely uninspired by what I saw and I decided it must be because I now, officially, hate interiors. But a friend said maybe it wasn’t ‘interiors’ I hated, but the particular ones in the magazines were uninspiring and boring me. So I got myself onto Pinterest, looked at all my boards of images of rooms that I love, and reminded myself of why I love decorating. It wasn’t long before I was looking at crochet and pincushions, techniques on embroidering French knots, tutorials on making bookends out of toys, and I was lost in a world of creative heaven. It really did remind me of all the things I feel passionately about.

So there you have it. Why I went AWOL for two months and what I did to get myself out of my creative funk. If you have any questions or want to share your own experiences with me, I would love to hear from you.

And I promise you that ‘My Budget (Bonkers) Bathroom – Part 2’ post will be along soon. But I can’t promise you that it will be as good as Terminator 2! x