Self Care for Creatives

Updated: May 22, 2020

I've been burnt out.

I mean the "every time I have to work all I want to do is cry" burnout. The serious stuff.

I haven't been able to draw anything, except dreadful scribbles. I haven't felt the need to crack out my paints in weeks. My instagram hasn't been updated in almost two months and I honestly just couldn't be bothered to care.

Usually when I miss an instagram post I guilt myself until I post again, and when I don't create anything I feel like I've let myself down. So the fact that I cannot be bothered to bring myself to even mildly care about that fact, is worrying to say the least. Or at least it would have been if I had any f***s to give about the matter.

I've been exhausted before. I mean, wishing I could be hospitalised so that I could have some sleep, exhausted. But burnout is something that I've managed so skirt quite effectively. I just lost all of my need to do anything. I was so desperately searching for a break, but honestly too wound up to even take one if the opportunity came. And it's a really horrid feeling.

That's what I mean about self-care for creatives. I'm talking about doing little things to make sure you don't turn into a husk, waiting for your ambition and spark to come flying back into your life.

Recently, I've realised something about the current state of the creative industry. We are so pressured to make, and make and make, without a break (it must be true if it rhymes). We are trying to compete with so many other industries for a slice of the social media pie, but we are trying to compete using something that takes time, which is really the opposite of what social media is about.

Creativity, especially in forms that require you to produce an end product of sorts, takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of energy, love, emotion and whatever else you can put into it. It's not something that you can batch produce or fake.

This really is why self care is so important for creatives. We have to look after ourselves, because burn out is a serious risk.

Before we go any further, I want to bust the myth that self care is always easy. It's not. Yes, sometimes self care can be rewarding, when you're three hours deep into your painting your nails while wearing a face mask and listening to all the podcasts zone. But sometimes it involves challenging yourself, stepping out of your comfort zone, and sacrifice. Sometimes it sucks in the moment, but just know that doing the hard-stuff now reaps plentiful rewards later on.

Okay, but really, what self care advice can a 23 year old, only just graduated creative give? A lot, actually. You are talking to a sacrificing your own health and happiness to please others professional here. Also, the worlds number one worst person at saying "no". Basically, a hot mess, just waiting to burn out. Baring in mind, that I am not here to preach the perfect self care lifestyle for creative people (If I was I'd be lying anyway, because what even is perfect?), but rather I'm here to share the pearls of wisdom I have gained from failing countless times, which could maybe help you not make the same ones.

Onward and upward, my friend.

1. Learning how to say "No"

This one is a big one for me, maybe the biggest of all the self care lessons I have to learn. Sometimes, you just need to say no.

I think there is an idea that is instilled into all young creatives, that jobs are scarce. That every single iota of work you are offered is a precious gift that must be treasured and never taken for granted. I've certainly been told numerous times while I was still studying, that you can't just graduate and go straight into freelance. There's not enough work. That it's okay to work as a hardly-paid to unpaid intern because it gets you into the industry. It creates this idea that you have to say "yes" to every job that comes your way (note my use of job instead of opportunity. Not all jobs are opportunities).

Let me say this clearly:


Poor grammar aside, you can't just go around saying yes to everything that is offered to you. Well, you could, but it wouldn't get you very far. Trust me, I know.

Not to be negative, but there are lots of people out there just waiting to take advantage of the desperate creative in their lives. A friend, a friend of a friend, someone you know through work who needs a logo, or an album cover or a portrait of them and their three legged pigeon. You know, the ones who you kind of feel obligated to do the work for because you know them, even though it's complete drudgery, for which you will probably be paid peanuts.

Big companies will also try to take advantage of you. They will purposefully try to undercut you and make you accept work that you know you should be paid more to do. And if you don't agree to it, they'll just find someone else who will, because there is always someone more desperate than you.

That said, you need to know your worth. And personally that is the scariest part of saying "no" for me. It's basically like one big announcement to the world that says 'I deserve better than that'. And for someone as decidedly unassertive as myself, this is a scary sentiment. I've been trying to learn that saying no doesn't make me a bad person, it doesn't lead to decades of disappointments I will never be able to overcome, it doesn't mean I will never be employed again.

It means that I understand my limits. That I know when I can handle taking on new projects and when I can't. That I know which jobs are opportunities and which are going to cost me more than they give me, and that I can accept the fact that I just don't have the capacity to say yes.

Saying "no" is more than just the act of rejecting a job. It's about setting limits and boundaries between you and your work, so that you don't become so consumed or overwhelmed by it, that you don't even know whether you want to be a creative anymore (doesn't accounting sound reasonable right now?). It allows you to create healthy habits around your work, and to hold on to the love that you have for creating.

(Wow, I really should listen to my own advice more...)

2. Getting enough sleep

This one is lame, everyone says it. BUT OH MY GOODNESS IS IT NECESSARY!

I didn't even realise that I wasn't getting enough sleep. I thought I was going to bed every night at a reasonable hour and that this is just what burnout felt like. Sure, I was tired, but that's because I've been working long hours. Yes I wasn't feeling well, but that's because my diet is bread and baked goods. Yup, I'm feeling emotionally unstable but that's just because I'm overworked and frustrated.

Nope. It's because I wasn't getting enough sleep. I had turned from this reasonable person with goals, dreams and desires, into a resentful creature filled with rage, emotional turmoil and the overwhelming inability to handle any situation without wanting to run away screaming or burst into tears.

Basically what happened was I synced my fit-bit to my phone.

One of the reasons I initially got a fit-bit was that I wanted to track my sleep to make sure that I was getting enough of it. I hadn't synced my watch to my phone in a while and I was so busy that I hadn't even realised it hadn't synced. Then when I saw the data it all made sense!! I had been existing on 5 to 6 hours of sleep (a night) for the past month.

That doesn't sound too bad though. That's only one or two less hours than you're supposed to be getting (I'm working off the 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night assumption here). But think about it. If that's an average of one and a half hours of sleep I'm missing out on a night, that's 7.5 hours in a working week. That is one whole night of sleep I have deprived myself of every week with out even realising it. If you did that for a month it's 30 hours, and a year that's 360 hours. THAT IS 45 to 51 NIGHTS OF SLEEP OF WHICH YOU HAVE ROBBED YOURSELF!

And the sad thing is, that just by getting that extra hour and a half of sleep, I have become emotionally balanced (well, in as much as I ever am), calmer and less stressed. My body feels healthy again, I don't feel on the verge of sickness all the time, I have the energy to do things like cook myself dinner and eat an actually nutritious breakfast, and I've only been sleeping properly for less than two weeks. Seriously, sleep is so important!

3. Take time for yourself

This one is also important. Yes, you are taking the time to get enough sleep, but you also need to be selfish and reserve time for yourself.

One of the saddest parts of freelancing is the whole 'no work, no pay' phenomenon. It becomes so easy to just work all the time. The more financial responsibilities you acquire, the harder it is to say: I need to take some time off, when that time off means three days without income.

Here in South Africa, full time employees are entitled to at least 15 days paid leave a year, and they get paid on public holidays. Freelancers don't have this same security. If you don't work on a public holiday, you don't get paid. If you want to take a week to go and stay with your grandma at the coast, that's a week of no pay, and if you are worried about not making enough money to cover your expenses, you 100% will want to work on those public holidays, and not visit grandma right now. That's cool, do what you need to do. But you also need to take time for yourself.

If that means taking a three month holiday into the depths of outer Mongolia where there is zero cell service and absolutely no chance in hell that your clients will be able to contact you, then that's great. But it can also be little bits of stealing time back for yourself.

It can be things like working a normal 8 to 9 hour work day. It can mean that after 5:30, you fastidiously ignore all "important" or "urgent" emails, and take the time to make your self dinner, or go to the gym, or read a book. It can mean taking an hour to go to the dentist at 2pm on a Tuesday, or getting your hair cut during the week so that you can maximise your weekend. Taking time for yourself doesn't always have to mean a grand holiday. It can just mean setting aside time for doing something that you want to do once a week.

This also goes hand in hand with setting boundaries. Especially now that a lot of us are working from home - the worst part is that our clients are working from home too. The boundaries that existed in working hours seem to have faded into obscurity and the idea of being available 24/7 has become normal (because we know you're at home and you've just ignored our 4th phone call in 2 hours). It's important to be firm and clearly state when you are and when you are not available. Even more than that though, it is important to stick to those hours regardless of how "urgent" anything is. In all likelihood, it's because of poor planning on someone else's part that is now negatively impacting upon your life, or because someone else is taking a chance that you'll say yes because it is convenient to them, and actually not all that urgent. Besides, the more you cave, the more they'll ask, so keeping your boundaries fastidiously intact really is vital.

4. Do things you love

I feel like the simple act of doing something you enjoy is overlooked. For whatever reason there is enormous pressure to be productive every single minute of every day and productivity is only realised if you have something to show for it. Right?

Well, what if you really love traditionally unproductive things, like doodling, or watching movies or playing video games? Does that mean you love doing those things any less, no, but it does mean, at least for me, that I feel guilty about doing them, or like I've wasted my precious free time.

The thing is, is if you enjoy it, you enjoy it. There isn't a big bad judgement fairy who is going to come and torment you based on how you spent your Friday evening. You are the one judging yourself for doing something you enjoy because social constructs make you feel like you have to do it.

But that's the beauty of social constructs, you don't actually have to listen to them if it does not please you to do so.

I feel like the act of doing things you love, brings some kind of magical, mystical spark back into your life. Even if it's small, and even if you're too burnt out to immediately notice it, that little spark is so important to your overall creative wellbeing. I'm stealing a brilliant analogy here, and I'm not crediting it because I don't remember where it came from, but you cant pour from an empty glass. If creative enterprises and actions are the action of pouring from the glass, the act of doing things you love, is you filling the glass. If you don't do things you love, you'll soon have poured all the liquid in your glass out, and have nothing left to pour (this is burnout). So by balancing the amount you are pouring out with the amount you are pouring back in (in the form of doing all the things you love, things that are good for you, things that inspire you, things that bring you joy etcetera etcetera), you are achieving the optimum level creative self care that we all strive to achieve.

If anyone has actually achieved this self care nirvana, please let me know.

I believe, dear friend, that this is where I must leave you this week. Next week I am hoping to dive into the actual, little things that I do as part of my creative self care. This week's post has been a bit airy-fairy for my taste, but I hope it helps, or at least entertains, in any case.

Thanks for keeping my thoughts company.

Lots of love,

Jam xx

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