Burnout - a modern affliction or human condition?
It seems that no matter the job, social background, personality type or financial status, every single one of us has experienced burnout at some point in our lives.
To put it simply, burnout is exhaustion. Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often caused by stress and overworking. We’ve all been there: the ideas don’t come, the energy isn’t there and you can’t seem to stay focused on the task at hand no matter what you do. It leaves us feeling uninspired, tired and unable to do even the simplest of tasks.
In other words, it sucks!
We tend to associate burnout with professional endeavours but it is not exclusive to work. It can sneak into our personal lives as well. Cleaning the kitchen, sending a work email, making dinner, keeping up with friends and family - all these things can feel impossible when you’re in a burnout state.
You are simply spread out too thin.
A brief history
Check this out: humanity has been experiencing burn out for as long as it has existed. We just didn’t have a name for it until the 70’s!
Some of the earliest mentions of burnout can be found in the Illiad, where Achiles tells Agamemmon that he doesn’t want people to think he is a ‘worthless burnt-out coward’. Not the exact expression used there, of course; but the fact that people in the 12th century B.C. suffered from burnout the same way we are proves just how universal this feeling is.
Another early presence of burnout can be found in the Old Testament, Numbers 11:14, where Moses complains to God ‘I am not able to bear all these people alone, because it is too heavy for me’. And so did Elijah, in 1 Kings 19, when he “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, it is enough.”
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Is burnout simply part of the human condition? Should we accept it and stop running away from it? Should we learn to live with and around it? Or should we see it as a disorder, as a problem and try to ‘fix it’?
The World Health Organisation recognised burnout syndrome in 2019 as a disorder, but only as an occupational phenomenon, not as a medical condition. So we all agree that it is a problem. But we are still not sure exactly how big of a problem it is, or if we should treat it medically.
Let me give you one more interesting fact and then we’ll move on to something else, deal?
Ok so the term ‘burnout’ has quite an interesting backstory. It was named by a man called Herbert J. Freudenberger who was working at a Free Clinic in New York in the late 1960’s. Free Clinics weren’t free in the sense that you didn’t have to pay, but they were free of judgment. Free of risk of legal action. So naturally, most of their patients ended up being alienated communities in the US at the time: hippies, commune dwellers, drug abusers, third world minorities, and other ‘outsiders’ who have been rejected by the more dominant culture. At the time, those people talked about ‘burnout’ to describe the way they felt about their drug addiction and life misfortunes: exhausted, emptied out, used up, with nothing left but despair and desperation.
Due to high demand, and being understaffed, Herbert J. Freudenberger had to work days and nights on end, with little to no breaks and high levels of stress. The term ‘burnout’ as we know it began as a self diagnosis, with Freudenberger borrowing the metaphor that drug users invented to describe their suffering to describe his own. By the 1980’s, everyone adopted the term, and everyone was burnt out.
In my mind, there are two types of burnout. The type of burnout you get when you are stressed. When you are overworked and exhausted, both emotionally and physically. It’s an automatic reaction to strenuous events that occurred recently. A symptom to a visible problem.
But then there is another type of burnout that I associate with creativity. It creeps up on you over longer periods of time without you realising. And all of a sudden you are out of ideas. Out of words. Uninspired. Unmotivated. For no apparent reason other than, most likely, having been creating for too long without taking any breaks. When I say breaks, I mean breaks in thinking. No planning the next project in your head, or mentally mapping out your new collection. You might be relaxing on a beach with a cocktail in your hand but if your mind is still at work, you are not truly relaxing. Sorry to break it to you!
I once had a burnout phase that lasted 6 months. It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t tired or stressed. Just out of ideas. It can leave you feeling broken, like something is inherently wrong with you because you just can’t come up with anything new. At that point, I had been thinking about and creating art for a good year and a half without any breaks. Even on holiday, I would still find a way to turn my travels into projects. Not good.
We need complete creative silence to recharge.
Let’s see what we can do about it
Creativity can be such a fragile beast sometimes.
It seems that there is a balance to strike between consuming content and delivering content. You can’t be producing 24/7, you will eventually run out of steam. At some point you need to stop and let yourself recharge. Let the world feed back into your creativity until it is whole and you are ready to generate ideas again.The danger of it, though, is that you can end up consuming too much, for too long, making you feel overwhelmed and clueless on where to pick things up again.
But I’m not going to say ‘find balance’ as my first tip. If only it was that easy!
Instead, here are some general tricks that have helped me get over burnout:
Rediscover your purpose
Reminding yourself why you do what you do can be very powerful. If you don’t know, even better! Now is the time to define your why. Do some deep thought work about why you’ve chosen this path, how it feels to create something meaningful, and how much you want to do it again. Restate your motivation. Write it down. Fall in love with your purpose all over again.
Go back to basics
When I am having a really bad time with burnout, I do this and it always helps. Go back to your comfort zone. Make something you enjoy, and something that you are good at. If you are a musician, maybe try playing simple scales, or that one fun song that you know how to play really well. In my case, I always default to painting portraits when I’m out of inspiration. It puts the pencil back in my hand and I usually end up inspired and fulfilled by the time I am done with it.
Check your environment
If you’re experiencing creative burnout, it might be worth taking a look at the environment you’re trying to be creative in. Is it full of distractions? Is it uncomfortable in some way? Do you find yourself fidgeting, trying to block out background noise, or being constantly interrupted? If so, make changes. Deliberately design an environment that fosters your creativity.
Check the time
The time you’re choosing for your creative endeavours can also have a big impact as well. But I am aware that most of us have very small windows of free time as it is so I am not going to stress this point too much.
That being said, apparently we are our best creative selves when we’re tired. Yeah, weird right? The reason behind it is that your brain is too tired to filter out negative thoughts or barriers (kind of like being drunk) which helps creativity to flow more seamlessly. Van Gogh did this, he lived his life in the afternoons and evenings, then spent the whole night painting and doing work before going to sleep at around 5am. I definitely noticed I am more creative late at night, so now I do a lot of my creative work late in the evening. Sadly I don’t have the same luxury of starting my day at 12pm though.
As I mentioned earlier, try to give yourself time to consume in between your creations. Books, movies, art, music, poetry, travels, food. Anything and everything can inspire you. Giving yourself the time to live and experience the world is a lot more productive than you might think it is.
It’s hard to know if you’re suffering from creative burnout, and it’s even harder to know what to do about it. But you have within you a powerful capacity for creation. If you’ve lost it because of creative burnout, you can find it again. And as long as you’re willing to put in a little effort, you will find it again. That is a promise.