Overcoming Creative Burnout

I always had this image that burning out was something that only happened to people who worked for big ad agencies—those large firms that built you up, sucked you dry and then left you feeling resentful, tired and used. But burning out wasn’t something that could happen to me.

Until one day it did.

Early in 2003 I burned out. Thinking that I’d reached my limit creatively, I panicked and a huge ball of anxiety filled my body. Design had always been my passion, my drive and my desire?yet sitting at my desk, design had become a pariah. My whole identity was based on what I did for a living, and after spending 12 years in the career that I loved, I wasn’t sure if I even existed.

I tried to "escape" from what was happening by using alcohol and drugs, and over the course of the next three days my condition became so fragile that I was admitted to a psychiatric facility. At the age of 32 I was burnt out, in the loony bin and left wondering how that would look on a resume.

You see, burnout is a slow, methodical process, and although there had been many signs of it years before, I didn’t recognize the symptoms. The growing frustration, the recycling of ideas and the notion that I was being taken for granted seemed part of the company attitude where I worked. My employer thought that it was something from home that I’d brought into the office. As my behavior became frequently erratic, they offered to pay me to look for another position. It never occurred to me how serious burnout was until I spent three months in a hospital overcoming the effects.

While in treatment, I learned that thoughts cause feelings and that I was ultimately responsible for what happened in my life. Learning that what I did for a living didn’t define who I was as a person, I gained a sense of power and rediscovered the creativity that I thought was lost.

Burnout is a serious issue in this industry, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to them. For employers, it means understanding that careers should never overshadow employees’ lives; for individuals, it means being assertive with yourself and everyone you interact with. Asking for help and being realistic with expectations are essential parts of living and holding true to what we do. No longer feeling the need to take on more than I can handle, I know that I’m an incredibly gifted designer who’s better than my last project.

Bouncing back from burnout has been an interesting experience. My previous employers don’t want anything to do with me, refusing to allow me to return. And although I’m legally entitled to do so, I understand their position. My network of associates and contacts has led to freelance opportunities, but nothing concrete has surfaced—and they’ve even questioned why I’m going public with what I experienced.

I’m doing so to bring awareness to the impact that burnout has on individuals, families and companies. I want to thank my partner, Jennifer, and my family for being supportive. And I’m glad to be one of the few who can say that, when I burned out, I only got slightly singed.

Now does anyone want a copy of my resume?

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  1. Pingback: Staying Creative | Paulo Canabarro

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