The Dark Side of Passion: self-care for creative workers

Like other skills, self-care needs practice and commitment. That’s the message that Tracy Margieson from Arts Centre Melbourne and John Paul Fischbach from Auspicious Arts Incubator shared with delegates at this week’s Creative State Forum, held in Melbourne.

“When it comes to self-care, here’s the phrase you need to remember,” said John Paul, opening the workshop….

“I know what to do, I just don’t do what I know.”

And how correct is that? Most of us know exactly what it is that we need to do to take better care of ourselves mentally and physically, it’s the habit of prioritising and taking action that we struggle with, especially when we’re creative artists tied to our work.

And that quickly became obvious during this one-hour session. When the facilitators asked the group of about 50 who struggled with self-care, 80-90% raised their hands. When they asked how many had experienced burnout in the past 12 months, it was a similar response.

“We’re in an industry that’s very emotional. We’re in an industry that’s high-pressure. So it’s to be expected that we experience these things.”

There are financial stressors, an inability to say no, the emotionally-taxing work, there are immovable deadlines and there are increasing blurred lines between the professional and the personal. But the person in charge of making the change is you. And that’s all about the way you create, respond, react and engage.

“It’s not about what happened yesterday or today, it’s how you responded or reacted,” explains John Paul. “That moment between reaction or response – there’s always a moment where you have that split second of respond or react.”

So, how do Tracy and John Paul break it all down? They’ve split many of the barriers to self-care into three distinct themes, which all of us have experienced. The Hamster Wheel, The Show Must Go On and The Dark Side of Passion. Let’s unpack the strategies associated with each.

The Hamster Wheel

We all know what this feels like. You’re in a situation where the work just keeps rolling on. You finish a day and there’s just not enough time to get everything done. One project piles on top of the next. There’s no clear space between projects and you lose the big picture. You’re on the hamster wheel and you’re running and you can’t stop or you’ll fall off and get hurt. This is often a product of saying yes to everything. You don’t get to pause and look at your business because there’s no time for reflection and you’re not progressing. The real symptom here is that you’ve pushed wellbeing to the bottom of your to-do list. Or perhaps it’s not even on the list.

What to do?

  • Our experts recommend you debrief and defuse and understand the importance of doing so. Debrief at the end of a project, the end of the day or the week, or after a milestone (whether big or small) – and it only has to be a couple of minutes. Ask what went well, what do I do differently, what do I want to sit with and take on for the next project?
  • Debriefing can be scary, especially when things aren’t going well and tensions are running high. When that’s the case asking ‘what went well’ might not actually go well. But you still need to defuse in that situation. Get people together (or do it yourself). Say things like ‘that was tough, we’re all feeling wrecked, let’s go home, let’s make sure we do acts of self-care, let’s come back tomorrow.’
  • Make sure you empty the bucket. One of the speakers shared a story about a worker in a dry cleaners, whose job it was to feed wet tea-towels into a drying press. One wet tea-towel after another. Thousands of tea-towels. But before she could ever get to the bottom of the bucket, someone would come and dump more tea-towels in there. She eventually asked the team to wait until the bucket was empty and immediately had a sense of achievement emptying a full bucket before it was refilled and the work continued. Make sure you have conversations, reward the milestone and move onto the next job or project without taking everything from the last one with you.
  • Put simply, we just don’t do it enough. When you just celebrate big achievements, you get the dreaded highs and lows. Projects finish, there’s lots of emotional energy and then you crash. By celebrating the small wins you celebrate lots of successes on the way. No-one else is going to reward you for getting through all your emails. You’re the one who needs to stop and celebrate that.
  • When some of those strategies aren’t available, at the very least, just pause. Just let the bucket be empty. Notice the empty bucket before you start on the next one.

The Show Must Go One

In the creative world, we’re usually facing immovable deadlines, all the time. There’s pressure to perform and we need to shift the way we think about this concept practically so that it’s less of a barrier to investing in self-care. 

What to do?

  • One of the issues here is that often our only goals are around the ‘show’ or the finished piece of work. When that is the only goal you may as well add ‘at all costs’ to the end of it. There are lots of different goals that need to be included when planning your projects. For example, if you make wellbeing a goal and that includes taking care of everybody, then that becomes one of your measures of success and it’s easier to prioritise things a little differently.
  • We need to break some rules too, because this industry has a lot of unspoken rules that we take for granted. Like the work coming together at the last minute, or grants being submitted right on deadline. One of the strategies here is to look for moments of finish. Another is to structure your own deadlines and finish line differently. Make your deadline for finishing a work one week before its presentation and then use that week for self-care, reflection and other tasks.

The Dark Side of Passion

This could actually be the barrier to self-care that feeds all the others and this one is all you. The main reason that self-care is hard to prioritise is that when it comes down to it, you care more about the work that yourself. We often value our creative and artistic output so highly that if it comes at the expense of our own physical and mental health, then that’s OK.

Oftentimes, we don’t see where the work starts and we stop.

When our jobs are so closely tied to who we are, our creative output becomes an extension to ourselves, and we begin to blend who we are with what our output is.  Where this becomes really dangerous is when our judgement of how successful a work is becomes a judgement on how successful we are.

The good news is that you can love yourself as well as your work.

So what are the strategies you can use to break down this barrier?

  • Watch your storytelling and stick to the facts. Bad things are going to happen. We’re literally working in the emotions business when we work in the arts so emotional things, stressful things, are going to happen.
  • Think about what you’re thinking about. The person you have the best relationship with and the most conversations with is yourself. So…. What are you thinking about.
  • Be prepared for the question ‘what do you do’. A friend of mine often says “do you mean for money or for pleasure?” It disarms the person asking the question and helps folks move beyond labels. Another response is to frame it in terms of the now. “Well, today I’m a grant-writer, but usually I’m a visual artist.” You’re way more than your job. Make sure you know how to talk about that.
  • Play the long game. Know that how you’re feeling today is possibly different to how you’ve felt before. Keep a notebook or journal to help track the blue moments as well as the golden ones.

The session wrapped up with a quick exercise asking participants to make a list of things that help rejuvenate them. For me, that’s walking, listening to music, gardening and reading. The whole idea being, that sometimes acts of self-care are about giving yourself and others simple, pleasurable moments with time and space to focus on self rather than on your work.

What helps rejuvenate you?

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