Disaster of your own making? How (not) to handle burnout

Got burnout?

I’m tired.

Not like I-need-a-nap tired. I mean drained-of-all-resources tired.

As a designer, one of my biggest thrills is a blank space. It’s my job to take that blank space and fill it with things that have never existed. I synthesize information and shape it into something not only beautiful and unique but also useful and impactful. I rely on my primary tools of creativity and experience — ephemeral, hard-to-quantify elements borne out of experimentation that have no container, no border, and are seemingly inexhaustible.

But I got nothin’.

And my job is to create somethin’. Big things, small things, world-changing things.

The thrill of the blank space has turned to terror.

What happens when my tools are no longer available to me? What happens when I just can’t think and create? What happens when I got… nothin’?

What happens when the skill I rely on the most, the thing that defines my value, pays my bills and feeds my kid, is just gone?

Now, I’m no stranger to mental health issues. I’ve learned to cope with depression and anxiety. They’re part of my creative toolbox. I’ve even been through burnout before. Burnout is a special kind of beast because it takes a different ugly shape every time. But if there’s anything I’ve found that doesn’t change is how not to handle burnout.

Deny that your burnout is happening. Everything's fine! No problem here! Nope! Uh-uh! I’m smiling! Nothing’s wrong! Go team! Yay! *shakes pom-poms* We all know that the best way to cope with any adversity is to pretend it’s not happening and that it’s definitely not happening to you.(1)

No no. After a lifetime of therapy, you are too emotionally intelligent for that, right? Burnout happens to other people. But not someone as high-performing and perfect as you.

Deny yourself everything that brings you relief or pleasure. You don’t have time for making art and music! Because you have to work. Because you have to prove yourself. Because you have to pay the rent and the bills. Because after your partner is laid off twice in two years, you're the only one who can pay the rent and bills. So just keep working. Don’t take time off. Or, take time off, but make sure it’s only a couple of days, and make sure everyone knows that you’re still on email because you don’t want anyone thinking you’re engaging in any manner of self-care.

Don’t breathe. Don’t exercise. Don’t meditate. Because, honestly, who the fuck has time to do that? Look at that big list of shit you have to do today. How can you be so selfish? Definitely don’t take that time for yourself to empty your brain, or get your blood pumping. Sure, rationally you know that these are the things that might quiet the noise and the panic, but you are holding up the sky, girl! You can’t take a break!

Believe that you are holding up the sky.(2) That’s right. You and you alone, with your superhuman abilities, are keeping everyone and everything from utter ruin. There is no room for failure. It’s all going to fall apart if you stop moving.

Put off dealing with your shit until tomorrow. Or next week. Because things will be better next Monday, I swear. Once you push through that big thing on your list, you’ll feel better, and you can do that other big thing.

That really big thing you’ve been putting off because you’re just too busy(3) and don’t have the mental resources to devote to it. It’s too big, it demands too much of you.

It’s that deadline that you let slide and hope nobody noticed.(4) Really, you just have to get through this week. Then, ugh, wait, there’s that other big thing next week that you have to get through. Ok, so maybe you can deal with it the week after that? Things will be much better after that, for real.

Avoid... just about everyone. Definitely, the ones who might remind you about that missed deadline. Especially the people who might also remind you that you are not a total fuck-up. They don’t know anything anyway. Self-flagellation is for winners. Keep it up, champ.

Don't ask for help. Oh good lord in heaven, no. Nononononono. Don’t do this. Aaaaaurgh are you serious? Don’t you dare show evidence of your squishy, messy humanity. Even though the people who can help you are — gasp — squishy, messy, imperfect humans. I mean, they just wouldn’t understand. No one else on earth has gone through this before and they couldn’t possibly relate at all.

And finally: Panic and shut down. I think this speaks for itself.

Congratulations. You’re a heap on the floor.

Now you can do the real work. Now you’ve got to keep your money-maker back into shape. Here’s what I’ve found has helped me:

Admit that you’re burned out, and don’t put off dealing with it. Stop forcing your way through it,(5)and try to see it as a gift. This might get ugly. Burnout is your mind’s way of letting you know that you’re ignoring yourself and your own needs. Again, I know, it’s hard. You have to hit bottom so you can come back up.

Define what self-care means to you, and convince yourself that you are worthy of it. For some, self-care is a trip to the spa. For me, self-care is buying new bras. Why? Because it’s something I always put on the bottom of the list after making sure I met the needs of my family and my clients. But, nothing has made me feel like a quality human more than knowing my boobs are where they’re supposed to be.

We all have our things. Some of us find peace in the desert. Some of us find it in our own gardens. Whatever and wherever it is, give it to yourself. It’s ok to make your needs a priority. You are worthy of your own attention.

Get back into your body. You’ve been in your head this whole time. Find your breath again. Me? I’m “allergic” to exercise and I’m still too restless for meditation, so walking is something I can handle with minimal investment of time and money. I prefer to be in nature, which is challenging while living in the city, but not impossible. Simply walking, and looking out at trees or water, is enough of a reset button. I notice my breath, I put one foot in front of the other, I swing my arms. If I can’t walk, I make something with my hands. I paint, even if it’s crappy. I sweep my studio floor. Whatever I can do to connect to breath and motion again. Find what works for you.

Implement a gratitude practice. I’m going to admit that I put off doing this for a long time because it felt new-agey and hokey. And yes, it is hokey. BUT it’s also a necessary step in finding those little positive gems in your life that feed your soul. A gratitude practice puts positivity back into focus. Over time, patterns emerge and you can see what’s most important to you.

Take control of your time. I’m guilty of "time drift." I’m also guilty of being “too busy.” So, I started imposing a structure on myself. I make a timeline of my day, then subtract meetings and appointments. I give myself a time block to work on a particular task. I block out breaks. This builds in a sense of urgency that is completely under my control and keeps my drift in check. And I feel way more productive at the end of the day.

Take time off. I don’t mean simply taking an unstructured vacation (though that’s a good start). The master designer Stefan Sagmeister famously shuts down his design shop every seven years to take a year-long sabbatical. Many agencies offer paid sabbaticals to employees who have achieved employment milestones.

The normalization of extended time off to refuel is a step in the right direction. But, this option isn’t available to everyone — definitely not to a primary breadwinner who divides her time between smashing the patriarchy and shooting rock stars. I find “time off” where I can and try to make the most of it. I take small trips to look at art or volunteer with my favorite organization, Girls Rock Campaign Boston. It’s all with the intention of shaking myself out of my comfort zone and re-embracing the core of my creativity.

In fact, by the time you read this, I may be on my own mini-sabbatical, joining some musician friends on a brief tour through the deserts of Nevada to the mountains of Colorado. I’ve never done this before and I’m thrilled at the prospect of just shooting and filming without a plan but with the intention that I’ll capture some magic. It’s the ultimate blank space. Also, there will be no children.(6)Win.

Let people in. Transparency, like gratitude, can be a practice. I work on it daily. We have to rewrite the script that shames us into obscuring our struggles with bullshit. You are not perfect, and it’s ok to show it. If you have trouble asking for help, perhaps reframe it as inviting people into your reality and welcoming what help they can offer. Not everyone will be ready and willing to help, but at least you’re then free from the burden of performing “okay-ness” when what you really feel is not ok.

One way that I embrace transparency is on social media, the space where we often feel pressure to perform our best selves. Sure, I have lots of cute pictures of my kid and our adventures. But, I also use social media as one way to express my mental state. This way, it becomes a creative challenge, a small act of doing, when sometimes burnout renders us inert.

I don’t do it for attention. I don’t do it so people can remind me that I’m awesome (I know I’m awesome, thanks). I do it because I want others to find some affinity and comfort in knowing they’re not alone. I do it because I want to feel like I’m not alone. So many friends have messaged me to say that they’re struggling, too. I would never have guessed it based on their feeds. We’ve got to talk about this stuff. We’ve got to show this stuff. We’ve got to bring it out in the open. We have to stop feeling so alone.

Take your lumps, but don’t take any shit. You’re going to disappoint people and things might fall apart. You’re going to have to reckon with the damage. You’re going to have to pick up the pieces and hear some difficult things. Make amends where you can. Not everyone will understand, and that’s ok. Take a moment to see your burnout as an opportunity to gain clarity. It might be a sign that you’re not where you’re supposed to be, or you’re not doing the work that really sustains you. When you’re ready, you’ll get back to being the badass that you are. You don’t have to fall on your sword completely. Things will recover. Just like you.

I am just one creative person with my own unique challenges and ever-changing coping strategies. What I’ve learned over the years is that burnout can be a fertile place to rebuild from, as long as you find what works for you.

I’m still working my way through burnout. The flow of ideas is slowly coming back. The blank page is regaining its thrill. But there is still a ways to go before it feels easy again.

For now, I’m grateful for the deep work recovery allows me to do so I can be a better, stronger creative.

[1] LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.
[2] Surprise! You’re not.
[3] You can’t see it, but I’m making air quotes around busy. You’re not busy. You just suck at time-management. And you like telling people you’re busy because it makes you seem important.
[4] Oh, they noticed. Believe me, they noticed.
[5] Years ago, a friend of mine was in a horrible accident where his car flipped over several times. This was before airbags were standard. He walked away from the wreck shaken but uninjured. Why? His experience as a surfer taught him that if you’re about to wipe out, the worst thing you can do is tense up and resist the fall. At the moment he realized he couldn’t regain control of the car, he took his hands off the wheel and went limp. He went with the motion instead of resisting it, and probably avoided fractures as a result.
[6] I love my children. No, really.

Jenny Bergman is a really fun, really nice, and really blonde designer living in Boston, MA. In addition to serving as 3%’s Design Director, she has lent her unique skill set to some of the world's top brands, including Staples and TripAdvisor. Now she works for rock stars, leading her own design shop, The Secret Bureau of Art & Design, specifically geared towards the independent music scene.

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