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Ways to Push Past Creative Burnout

Two coaches talk about reigniting passion for your work

Photo by Tommy Martin via Flickr
Source: Photo by Tommy Martin via Flickr

In my last post, I whined about feeling burned out. That hasn't changed. I’m tired, uninspired, and suffering from deep ennui. The usual take a walk/exercise/do something else solutions haven’t done the trick. So I called on a couple of professional coaches for advice and insight: Val Nelson, The Black Swan Coach who provides career, business and life coaching for us quiet types; and Beth Buelow founder of The Introvert Entrepreneur. I hoped they could help me understand burnout better, and get some ideas for reigniting.

Beth’s description of burnout rings all kinds of bells for me.

“When I’m burnt out, I have almost zero motivation or ambition,” she says. “The ideas and work that usually fire me up hold little interest for me. I also notice my stories and fear-based self-talk more. I start second-guessing and doubting myself without my normal capacity to pull myself out of it. There’s an emotional aspect of not having access to my usual coping mechanisms, then there’s a physical aspect of diminished energy and inability to focus.”

Yes, oh yes. It’s not just the lack of focus—it’s also that awful feeling of “why bother?” and “nobody cares.” And, in my introvert, overthinky way, once I start down that rabbit hole, I dig myself in deep, until I can see no light at all. Burrowing into my own head like that only makes things worse, and because I’m introverted, I don’t naturally reach out to others to air out my worries. “We might carry around the feeling alone for a bit too long, when externalizing it sooner might help diffuse it and move us to solutions,” Beth says.

So that’s a downside for burned-out introverts. “But on the flip side,” says Val, “I think introverts are more likely to be sensitive to the discomfort, which could be an asset to catching it early.”

While acknowledging that we tend to be go-it-alone personalities, both Val and Beth encourage talking the feeling out with a supportive and encouraging friend or advisor—“but not super Pollyanna!” Beth says.

This sort of conversation is, of course, part of the job of a coach. “That’s a lot of what I do,” says Val. “I look for where they’re glowing and what they’re ignoring. When they talk about it, does their heart sink or does it start to sing? And I look for what their body knows and what they’re not naming or claiming.”

Digging out of the rabbit hole might require trial and error, to figure out what works for you. For Val, getting a long view—literally, such as a trip to the seashore—is tremendously refreshing. So is turning off all screens on Sunday—including her phone.

“As soon as I turn off the phone and power down everything, I can feel my body relaxing in a different way,” she says, adding that disconnecting has been easier than she anticipated—and more freeing. “Suddenly I have no leash.”

She points out, too, that sometimes we use the Internet, and especially social media, as a way of masking the symptoms of burnout. “It’s like having coffee when what you need is sleep.”

Stepping away from your desk with both body and mind might be enough to provide a new perspective not only on what you want to be doing, but also on what you should stop doing—what drudgery can you eliminate from your life? Val suggests clients list and rate their usual tasks on a scale of one to ten and then ask themselves, “’What am I most excited about?’ Look for the eights, nines, tens and don’t do any of the things that don’t get at least an eight,” she says.

Or maybe you don’t need to do something different, maybe you just need to do the same things differently. “Sometimes we can become attached to the way we do things and forget that there might be other approaches,” says Beth. “We’re burned out because we’ve gotten in a rut of assumptions and shoulds. What if we challenged every aspect of our work and asked, ‘Does it have to be done this way? If I was forced to change the way I do this, what choices would I have?’”

When you’re down in the pit, it’s easy to scare yourself with the certainty that reigniting your life will require burning down the house and starting over. But that’s not necessarily (and indeed is unlikely to be) the case. However, if the feeling lasts a long time for no reason you can pinpoint, Beth suggests, start asking yourself questions. How do you feel about your life, your work? Does what you’re doing still feed your sense of purpose in life? Or is there something in your life that you’re avoiding or neglecting? “If there’s resentment or a difficult conversation to be had, there could be emotional weight that’s causing the feeling of burnout, which probably has little to do with the work itself,” Beth says.

Chances are pretty good, though, that the burnout won’t require drastic measures and you can frame it as an opportunity. “Don’t fight it,” says Beth. “Acknowledge it and accept it. Recognize that it serves a purpose: to slow you down, to spur reflection, to challenge your assumptions. Notice it, but don’t give over all your power to it. See it as part of the ebb and flow of being a creative, thoughtful person.”

So—where did these conversations lead me? I’ll tell you in my next post.

Look for Val’s career and business column on the new website “Quiet Revolution,” where I'm also writing an advice column. Beth’s wonderful book, The Introvert Entrepreneur will be in bookstores in November.

Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go. Note that anything purchased after clicking through links to Amazon will earn me a few cents. Or, support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.

Want to hang out with a bunch of cool introverts? Visit my Facebook page.

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