Creative Burnout: What is it? and How to Recover

What is Creative Burnout? How to Recover Your Life

Are you wiped out just getting out of bed every day? Are you physically and mentally fatigued all the time? Has your creative energy died? It could be the symptoms of burnout, it happened to me. So what is creative burnout?

Creative burnout is physical, emotional, and creative fatigue. It’s total exhaustion that brings all aspects of life to a halt. It’s an overwhelming combination of anxiety, stress, and guilt that can take weeks, months, or even years to overcome.

But how can you burn out doing something you love?

It’s so easy. I know from my own experience. I’ve been there and it creeps up on you, unexpectedly.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Burnout: Let This Be a Warning

When you write your snappy artist’s bio it’s only a half-truth, right? Inevitably, you end up highlighting the best bits and editing out the crap. To the outside world, your life is amazing and you have a dream life.

Well maybe, and maybe not.

Unfortunately, a strange thing happens when you chase your dreams. They disappear as soon as you get there.

Dreams are always on the move, they’re one step ahead. It’s like chasing a rainbow, the pot of gold that is forever out of reach.

And that’s the way it should be. Dreams are important, they give you something to strive for. Nevertheless, if you’re like me, you pursue your dreams with a passion and give it everything you’ve got. The good life is always just around the corner.

But here’s the rub, you don’t realize what’s happening to you.

Striving for tomorrow stops you from living for today.

You chase the dream and neglect what really matters. You become detached and driven. You convince yourself that all your hard work now will let you relax later. Except later never happens.

Work piles upon work. You are driven to succeed and you won’t stop until you reach your goal, and then…your body shuts down.

What Causes Creative Burnout?

A breakdown is caused by excessive stress levels.

Creative burnout occurs when a combination of stress triggers combine to shut your body down. These include; self-doubt, perfectionism, long work hours, strict deadlines, money worries, relationships, and over-ambition.

The problem with being an artist-entrepreneur is knowing when, or how, to stop and take a step back. It’s almost impossible to separate your work life from your home life because being an artist is a lifestyle. How do you get away from it?

Your to-do list gets longer and longer and you switch back and forth, starting one new project after another, and there’s not enough time in the day to do everything.

You have to do the following:

  • Create saleable art,
  • Print them,
  • Find a way to sell them,
  • Do the Marketing
  • Despatch them.

Each stage involves several tasks. In the meantime, you have to establish a website, open an online store, or upload your images to 3rd party sites like Etsy. Then you have to post images on social media and answer emails. And on and on it goes.

Everything involves learning new skills in the limited time available.

You have no work-life balance and your personal life goes to hell. You can’t do everything yourself, and yet you can’t afford to outsource the work.

This post will interest you: Are Online Drawing Courses Worth it? I Chose 5 of The Best For You!

As you take on new work, your creative juices run dry, simple tasks become an overwhelming burden and the quality of your work suffers.

We all want to get ahead, but it’s seldom clear how best to go about it. Some people bumble along in life and never get anywhere, while others knuckle down and race ahead.

But what if you are somewhere in between? You aren’t lazy, but then again no one would call you a workaholic.

That’s most of us, right?

I haven’t got boundless energy, I need a good night’s sleep, and I certainly don’t thrive on stress, yet that’s how I behaved.

As a consequence, I suffered from creative and professional burnout in my early 40s.

You see self-employment is supposed to give you more freedom, but for many, and I’d argue for most, it’s the other way around.

There are few certainties in business, things go up and down all the time. Your income, and your life, are insecure. You make a killing one day, and nothing the next.

That’s the reality for any small business, but artists, have to find the time, and headspace, for the creative process too. That’s not easy.

There are days when a pay packet begins to look very attractive.

You end up driving yourself harder and harder, in case tomorrow it all comes to an end. Self-doubt follows you around, maybe you’re an imposter. Perhaps you’ll be found out and people will stop buying.

So you make hay while the sun shines and on you go. You’re hard on yourself, and before you know it, you are working all God’s hours. You can’t afford to turn work away.

This happened to me and I had no idea it would be this way.

On the face of it, I had achieved everything I set out to do. I was working in the summer selling my art prints from a market stall, drawing in between customers, and spending my winters traveling in the tropics. So what went wrong?

STRESS – it’s a killer

I’ve checked Udemy and found this popular art-related self-care class. Take a look for yourself, it has good reviews.

When I was selling, I didn’t stop, I didn’t take breaks, I stopped socializing and I worked all day, every day.

I’m a perfectionist and I would beat myself up for not being sharper, richer, more talented, or happier. I even felt guilty if I was late for work. How crazy is that?

You must read this sister post: How to Overcome Self Doubt for Artists (Imposter Syndrome)

Winter would come around and I’d fly straight to India with all the cultural overwhelm, noise, and conflicts that are part and parcel of traveling through that country.

Getting away didn’t slow me down. Far from relieving the stress, I compounded it. I thought I was living life to the full and I didn’t know it was happening!

Inevitably there came a time when my body said ‘No More!’ It was mental and physical exhaustion.

What Are The Symptoms Of Creative Burnout?

The symptoms of creative burnout include:

  • Chronic Fatigue,
  • Dizziness and lack of coordination.
  • Slurring Words
  • Stomach problems
  • Mind Fog
  • Headaches,
  • Shivers and Trembling.

I had all of these symptoms and, believe it or not, at first I thought I had the flu, but the physical symptoms didn’t go away.

Perhaps the worst symptom, looking back, was my temper. I was wired to react. I suppose it was fight or flight, my adrenaline raced through my body while at the same time having no strength to get out of bed.

Eventually, my physical health was so bad, I had to visit the doctor.

Test after test revealed nothing and to cut a long story short, a specialist diagnosed ‘burnout’. He’d seen the same symptoms many times with city traders.

He assured me the only way to recover my health was to rest, and he had a simple solution.

‘Change your lifestyle!’

He was suggesting the cure was to abandon my dreams!

My recovery was painfully slow, but I had to continue somehow. I couldn’t throw everything away. Instead, I changed the way I worked and traveled.

How Do You Overcome Creative Burnout?

Listen to your body.

As soon as I realized I was pushing myself too hard, I pulled back and calmed myself down.

Your business must serve you, not the other way round.

I’ve managed to reduce my problems by reassessing my priorities in life and cutting out unnecessary stress.

  • I cut down my hours
  • Stopped setting unrealistic targets
  • Took as long as I needed to do my artwork
  • Stopped doing commissions
  • Cut down my portfolio

And I finally gave up my van. What a relief.

  • No more traffic jams,
  • No road rage,
  • No parking fees (or tickets),
  • No more insurance and breakdown cover,
  • No repairs
  • No road tax,
  • No fuel costs,
  • No vehicle test

I got a pushbike and a trailer instead.

When I need a car I rent one. There’s a scheme in my town that allows me to hire a vehicle for only one hour at a time. Brilliant – perfect for small jobs.

I have no responsibilities, I keep fit and save a ton of cash while I’m at it.

I also cut out as many people in my business as possible.

I deal with the guy who does my printing and that’s a relationship of trust. Things still go wrong now and then, but we resolve them.

If a company asks me to do work, I turn them down. I’ve set boundaries.

I refuse to deal with:

  • Galleries
  • Agencies
  • Publications

I don’t want to be at the end of a phone, meet deadlines, or be at the whim of dissatisfied nit-pickers. I’ve changed my idea of work-life balance.

I make enough money selling my art prints and that’s good enough for me.

I decline art commissions.

Refusing art commissions comes as a surprise to most people, but I never enjoyed drawing or painting other people’s pets anyway. Especially the dead ones, which I might add, are most of them.

Each commission comes with its own emotional baggage. YUK, no thanks.

Now I cut out everyone I can. I set up my market stall, trade, and pack away. No one is else is affected.

There’s just me and my customers and that’s the way I like it. If they like what I do that’s great, if not, that’s fine too.

These are the lessons I’ve learned to keep myself healthy and prevent creative burnout:

  • Avoid conflicts at all costs. There is nothing to be gained by negative confrontations. Your work environment must be stress-free.
  • Plan ahead. Give yourself some structure. Work to a routine and prioritize your tasks. Organize your daily to-do list and set realistic deadlines.
  • Take time off. Be kind to yourself and recharge your batteries. A free mind dreams of new ideas. Build breaks into your daily routine
  • Turn work down. Learn to say no. You can’t do everything yourself. Focus on fewer creative projects and do them well. Outsource work when you have sufficient resources.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. There’s a niche for everyone. Concentrate on your strengths and your own creative work. Turn off your inner critic, or put it on mute.
  • Don’t ignore family and friends. You need the emotional support and encouragement of loved ones to help nurture your creative ideas and stay healthy.

I’m still working on my perfectionist streak. I think that’s inbuilt. Even so, if your personality allows it, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.

There are mindfulness and meditation classes you can join on Skillshare. Take a look at this one by Jonathan Van Ness with over 20,000 students!

Creative Burnout: Final Thoughts

I know after all these years that a few bad days or weeks is not the end of the world. What I lose at one point, I will gain again at another.

It’s all swings and roundabouts.

When I do my end-of-year accounts I’m always surprised by how well my income tends to balance out.

The whole point is to maximize my freedom and happiness and not to make as much money as possible.

Your approach to business has a profound effect on your physical and mental health and you ignore it at your peril.

Don’t lose track of why you are making and selling your art in the first place. It’s supposed to make your life better.

Creative burnout is real so…Take it easy!


Baby elephant playing. A pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Balancing Act’ by Kevin Hayler

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