What is Creative Burnout? And How to Recover Your Life

What is Creative Burnout? How to Recover Your Life

To know how to cope with creative burnout we must first agree on what it means.

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

But how can you burn out while doing something you love?

It’s soooo easy, let me tell you. I’ve been there and it creeps up on you.

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

Overwhelm: Let This Be a Warning

When you write your snappy artist’s bio it’s only a half-truth. 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, right?

Well yes and no.

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

Dreams are always on the move, 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, and let’s be honest, they’re better than reality.

Nevertheless, if you are 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 working hard now will allow you to relax later.

Except later never comes. 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

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

The problem with being an artist-entrepreneur is knowing when to stop.

Some people bumble along in life and never get anywhere while others will 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 don’t thrive on stress.

That’s why I suffered a complete creative burnout in my early 40’s.

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

There are few certainties, business is up and down all the time. Your income is insecure (and life) is insecure. You make a killing one day and nothing the next.

And so it goes on. There are days when a pay packet begins to look very attractive.

You end up driving yourself harder. What if tomorrow it all comes to an end? 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 never turn work down.

You’re hard on yourself and before you know it, you are working all God’s hours. You daren’t turn work away.

This happened to me. 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 prints, and spending my winters traveling. So what went wrong?

STRESSit’s a killer

I’ve checked Skillshare (affiliate) and found this very popular art-related self-care class. help. 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 strove to excel.

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

You must read this sister post: Do You Suffer From Artist Imposter Syndrome? You’re Not Alone

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

Inevitably there came a time when my body said ‘No More!’ and I was wiped out.

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 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, 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.

The only cure was rest and his advice was:

‘Change your lifestyle!’

He was suggesting the cure was to abandon my dreams!

My recovery was painfully slow, but I couldn’t throw everything away. Instead, I changed the way I work 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 targets
  • Took as long as I liked to do my artwork
  • Stopped doing commissions
  • Cut down my portfolio

And last year 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. This year I might get an electric bike.

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 refuse to deal with:

  • Galleries
  • Agencies
  • Publications

I don’t want to be at the end of a phone, have deadlines, or be at the whim of dissatisfied nit-pickers.

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

I decline commissions.

Refusing commissions comes as a surprise to most 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,
  • Take time off,
  • Turn work down,
  • Don’t compare yourself to others,
  • Don’t ignore family and friends.

I’m still working on my perfectionist streak. I think that’s inbuilt.

There are mindfulness and meditation classes you can join on Skillshare (affiliate). 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 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.

Artist’s burnout is real so…Take it easy!

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

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit: (Amazon affiliate links)

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what is creative burnout how to recover your life