Recognising and Recovering from Creative Burnout

As a creator or entrepreneur, it’s easy to lose sight of the thin line between passion and burnout. Creative burnout is a big issue in industries that rely heavily on creative output and originality. From writers to artists, business owners to thought leaders, anyone engaged in creative work can experience the draining effects of burnout. 

In this article, we will explore creative burnout as a concept and the elements that distinguish it from mere fatigue. We will also examine the twelve stages of burnout and share effective strategies for recovering from it.

Understanding creative burnout

Creative burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that happens when one is stressed for an extended period. It usually affects people who do creative work like writing, art, design, music, and entrepreneurship. Unlike ordinary tiredness, which can be remedied simply by resting, creative burnout runs deeper, impacting one’s passion, motivation, and overall well-being.

Creative burnout typically manifests as a gradual decline in creativity, productivity, and satisfaction with one’s work. The creator may develop feelings of apathy, emotional drain, and demotivation. It might become very difficult to develop new ideas, meet deadlines, or maintain their usual level of enthusiasm regarding their craft. They might even develop physical symptoms like headaches and insomnia.

Several factors contribute to creative burnout, including:

  1. Monotony and boredom: Many creative tasks can be repetitive, which can lead to boredom. Work environments or projects that don’t encourage creativity and variety may drain a creator’s enthusiasm and passion over time. A creator should be allowed to carry on different projects that explore their creativity.
  2. High expectations and pressure: Constantly pursuing perfection and improvement can contribute to burnout. Pressure from external parties like bosses and coworkers can also take a toll on creative professionals. Unrealistic deadlines, demanding clients, and competitive environments can also contribute to stress and burnout.
  3. Overwork and work-life imbalance: Long hours, tight schedules, and a lack of work-life balance can lead to burnout. Creators who invest significant time and energy into their projects while neglecting their need for food, rest, and leisurely activities are on the pathway to creative burnout.
  4. Self-doubt and criticism: Because of the subjective nature of creative work, creators may experience criticism or face rejection, which might cause them to doubt themselves and feel inadequate. These feelings of inadequacy might propel them to push harder than they should. This fear of failure or not meeting expectations can seriously contribute to burnout.
  5. Lack of support and recognition: When a creator feels undervalued or not supported in their creative pursuit, this can affect their motivation, especially where they have put in a lot of effort. A prolonged state of such feelings can also contribute to creative burnout. 

The Difference Between Fatigue and Burnout

At first glance, fatigue and burnout may seem similar, but they are quite different. Fatigue is a temporary state of exhaustion. When one is fatigued, they are exhausted from working and usually feel better after adequate rest. Fatigue is the body’s natural response to working hard and is usually only physical. With proper self-care, it can be fixed. 

Burnout, on the other hand, is a deeper state of tiredness. It involves emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from chronic stress and other issues. While fatigue may manifest as tiredness or drowsiness, burnout permeates every aspect of the creator’s life, sapping their enthusiasm and passion for their craft.

Exploring the 12 Stages of Burnout

How do we recognise burnout as it occurs? Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger identified 12 stages of burnout, providing a roadmap to help us understand its progression. These stages unfold gradually, starting with the initial drive and enthusiasm for work and ending in complete physical and emotional depletion. Recognising these stages will help us address burnout before it reaches a critical point. 

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself: Burnout usually begins this way: the creator has so much ambition and a desire to prove that they can succeed. Many creators feel this way, and while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do great work, it gets dangerous if they suffer from imposter syndrome and don’t feel good enough. Or if there’s external pressure from stakeholders. This drives them to do more.
  2. Working harder with an unrealistic dedication: Flowing from this desire to prove themselves, the creator works more and more, typically without any sense of balance. On their calendars, they put in more tasks than they can handle, are always available for a call, and lose their sense of work-life balance. Like a hamster on a wheel, they keep going, seeking the next win. 
  3. Neglecting personal needs: Because these creators are constantly working, they soon neglect their needs. They don’t eat when they should, and they find it challenging to take a break. When they try to rest, that time is spent thinking about work instead of allowing their minds to ease into a state. of calm. In this phase, they also begin to neglect their relationships and hobbies. All they want to do is work.
  4. Displacement of conflicts: Here, they recognise that something might be wrong but dismiss it as mere overwhelm, failing to interrogate the deeper issues hiding underneath. Instead of asking hard-hitting questions, they throw themselves deeper into work and may show signs of irritation and anxiety. 
  5. Revision of values: At some point, the creator recognises and maybe even acknowledges that something is wrong, but instead of sticking to their values, they modify them to accommodate the new lifestyle they have chosen. So, for example, a creator who once prioritised family and lived a balanced life might decide that excellence will become their new focus. This makes it easier for them to continue down their chosen dangerous path. 
  6. Denial of emerging problems: With the change in their values, they discover new problems. They might starting finding their coworkers lazy and their clients annoying and become increasingly critical, dispassionate, and intolerant. When asked what the issue is, they might blame lack of time, the weather, or the amount of work they have to do, instead of recognising their role in their current state of being. 
  7. Withdrawal from social contacts: The creator pulls away from their friends and families. Because they are so focused on work, they isolate themselves from others. This isolation can be very dangerous as it can open up doors to dependence on substances like alcohol and drugs to cope with the pressure they are facing.  
  8. Obvious behavioural changes noticeable to others: At this point, friends and family members may begin to notice the individual’s behavioural changes and express concern, reminding them to take breaks and rest. 
  9. Depersonalisation of coworkers and clients: Depersonalization feels like being outside your body and looking in. Many creators who are burned out start to feel like a shell of their former selves. Work has lost all excitement and joy, and they now find themselves going through the motions of daily life.
  10. Inner emptiness: The creator feels they have lost their essence. They no longer see themselves or their work as valuable and find all their efforts worthless. They may think about quitting their work or changing their careers and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to feel better.
  11. Depression: The creator at this stage has become completely tired of life, emotionally, mentally, and physically. They feel a complete and utter lack of enthusiasm or passion for life. One must bear in mind that this stage is not the same thing as “Clinical Depression”, which typically needs a diagnosis from a licensed professional.
  12. Burnout syndrome: This is the final stage of creative burnout. Here the creator suffers a total physical and mental breakdown. At this stage, medical attention is required and they might need to leave work for an extended period of time to recover. 

As we can see from the above, each stage has unique challenges and opportunities for intervention. By recognising the signs of creative burnout early on, proactive steps can be taken to prevent it from escalating. 

Stages of Recovery from Creative Burnout

Recovering from creative burnout is not a one-size-fits-all. It would differ, depending on the individual and their lives. Generally, one should look into the root causes of burnout while also ensuring that the creator’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being is properly catered for. Doing this typically entails the following: 

1. Acknowledging the problem: As with other health concerns, the first step towards recovery is acknowledging the presence of burnout and accepting it as a legitimate concern. Reflect on the extent of the burnout and how it has impacted the various aspects of your life, including your relationships, work, and personal well-being. 

2. Identifying triggers: Pinpoint the factors contributing to the burnout you’re feeling. Are they internal? Like perfectionism, imposter syndrome, loneliness, and poor work-life balance? Or are they external, like pressure from family members, work-related anxiety, competitive work environment? A mix of both? Identifying what the causes are is a good step to fixing them.

3. Reflecting and making changes: Reflect on your values, goals, and aspirations, and realign your actions to fit your core beliefs. Let go of whatever triggers affect your life; where these are impossible to let go of, find ways to establish balance. Set clear boundaries (write these down!) that would help you protect your time, energy, and mental space. Learn to say no to additional commitments that would overwhelm you and prioritise self-care.

4. Seeking support: Sometimes, restoring your health and well-being takes a village. Contact friends, family, or a therapist for emotional support and guidance. Hang out with the people that matter to you and just talk. Sharing your struggles with trusted individuals can alleviate isolation and provide much-needed perspective.

5. Practicing self-care: Take care of your body, mind, and soul. Prioritize activities like exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature. By doing these things, you will reconnect with yourself and rediscover the aspects of creative work that sparked joy and inspiration in you.  

6. Experimenting and creating freely: Experiment with new techniques, projects, or collaborations to reignite your passion for your craft. While doing this, release the pressure to be perfect and embrace the beauty of imperfection. Allow yourself to make mistakes, take breaks, and enjoy the creative process without judgment from yourself. 

7. Learning balance: Learn to work, play, and rest. Schedule regular breaks, vacations, and downtime to recharge and rejuvenate. Creative work needs play. It’s the moments where you least expect it that foster the inspiration you need. 

8. Monitoring your progress: Slipping into old, familiar patterns is very easy. Track your progress as you recover from burnout and celebrate small victories along the way. If possible, assign someone to keep you grounded and remind you to take breaks. Be patient with yourself and recognise that healing takes time.

Read: Creators Share Their Experiences Navigating Burnout

Creative burnout can be a terrible experience, but with the right awareness and support, you can heal from it and improve. By recognising the signs of burnout, understanding its stages and the pointers it gives, and implementing the stages of recovery, you can reclaim your passion, creativity, and joy in your creative pursuits. Remember, it’s okay to take breaks. Prioritise your wellbeing, and watch your creativity bloom.