For most of us, 2020 brought stressors and weight on our minds that we’d never encountered before. No matter what your experience of the year that was, the changes to the way we work, the events dominating the media and social discussion, and the fact that our “norm” could change at any moment, were present for all. For some, this reality is lingering well in 2021 and even though there may be a glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel, a lot of us are burned out by life right now. Whether it’s been lockdowns, homeschooling, redundancies, losses, work-from-home, or simply being restless with what is.
So we need to look at how we will first strengthen our mindset, and then regain motivation and energy. I’m here to tell you that a creative outlet is a powerful way to do that. I want to help you write, draw, paint, sing, create again. Your mind, nervous system, and optimism will thank you.
We all have a creative streak that we say we’ll get back to when we have time. Creative self expression seems to get left on the cutting room floor in the adult pursuit of happiness and success. It’s cast as either a frivolous and irresponsible pursuit (“not a real job”), or as a luxury only available to the lucky few. With the experience of 2020 throwing our happiness and success into such unknown turmoil, we have a unique opportunity for a creative renaissance. Art is the exploration of life itself. It is the language of our shared human experience. We all saw videos of Italian streets singing together from balconies, zoom-compiled harmonies, and stunningly eerie photographs of empty city streets. The stirring feeling you get when you connect with a piece of art, is it’s alchemy at work.
So the potential power in creating that feeling for yourself through your own practice is medicine for our COVID-fatigued hearts. A creative practice helps to process and regulate your emotions, build our sense of identity, enter in conversation with ourselves, observe how we are feeling, clarify where we want to go, to bring comfort, to develop mindfulness in the present moment, and most importantly connect us to joy. This shit is real.
But let’s wind back. The burnout we are experiencing is also real and without tending to our mindset we run the risk of turning a creative practice into one more point of pressure.
2020 has made the need for self care that much more important, yet ironically it can also make it that much more difficult to actually do. Not only out of exhaustion or busy schedules, but out of subconscious brain activity. Our brains tend to look for the path of least resistance, or the “known”, to help us categorise and order experiences. With so much unknown our nervous systems may have become locked into a continuous state of stress. So how can we repair, soothe, and strengthen our mental wellbeing after such a tumultuous year?
1. Explore REAL rest
We need to normalise rest rather than ‘pushing through’ or labelling it ‘lazy’. Yet there’s a catch, what does real rest and relaxation mean for you? Hint: it’s not all sorted by a Sunday morning sleep-in and a bubble bath. Do you need to prioritise your sleep or your screen time? Do you need to decline some invitations or events? Do you need to negotiate flexible hours where possible at work? Do you need to consider hiring a cleaner for the house, or a babysitter for the kids? Begin to get clear about your relationship with rest, and notice if you’re just giving it lip service by pouring a glass of wine and plonking yourself on the couch. Similarly, notice when you have some downtime if you always force it to be productive, be it by making a ‘head start’ on a work project or immersing yourself in household chores.
Remember, you don’t EARN rest, you NEED it. At all times, yet particularly now, we need to begin giving rest the same importance as work and productivity. Our brain and nervous system need rest to be able to function and to respond to events and experiences rationally.
2. Be discerning with what media you consume
Self care is not all about what you GIVE to yourself, it can also involve what you take away. 2021 is already continuing to challenge us through current affairs and information saturation, so a necessary act of self care may be protecting yourself from people, things, environments and experiences that jack up your nervous system when you’re not feeling centered or well enough to handle it. There’s a difference between preserving your energy when it comes to information and interactions, and simply ‘putting your head in the sand’. Begin to note down what triggers your anxiety, judgement, frustration, or irritability and observe the patterns. Do you find that every time you do a Facebook scroll you wind up short-tempered? Or when you look at your phone first thing in the morning it makes for a more anxious day overall? Perhaps when you discuss a certain topic you notice that you get snappy with the people around you, or when you go to a certain place you feel overwhelmed and panicky. These are all clues as to what is hijacking our nervous system and slipping by our awareness to then hijack the mind.
Again this is not about becoming mute to important conversations, pleasing people, or being in denial about world affairs, rather it’s discerning to-what capacity and when can you engage in a healthy way? A good place to start is your media consumption - news media, social media, advertising media, internet use, even the books and literature you are reading or the podcasts you are tuning into. Are you feeling oversaturated, overstimulated, overwhelmed and under pressure?
Rehearse the positive rather than replay the negative
When under stress it can be difficult to break out of constant thinking on our problems, as the body is in “fight or flight mode” or heightened arousal. 2020 is a clear example of how we may spend the majority of our time replaying the past or in worried concern about the future. We might attempt to “think our way out of it” with repetitive attention, when actually it’s just immersing us even deeper into it and keeping us fixated on struggle. This may look like looping thoughts, constantly telling the same story, journaling on the same issue without progressing, or catastrophising possible scenarios and interactions. There is certainly a place for self care practices that assist you in working through difficult emotions such as journaling, therapy or counselling, breathwork or other modalities, yet we need to notice when we are keeping ourselves unnecessarily stuck.
Try imagining or rehearsing the best case scenario rather than the worst, or writing from the perspective of your incredible future rather than your negative now. A daily gratitude practice will also help to bring you back to the hopeful every day and flex your muscle of optimism and possibility. There are plenty of free guided meditations online that can lead you in gratitude or future visualisation.
So, from this place of rest, calm, and hopefulness let’s come back to getting creative.
But I'm not creative
The most common thing I hear is “but I’m just not that creative / artistic / crafty / imaginative.”
There’s no such thing as a non-creative person, just a limited definition. You don’t have to be paid for your creativity for it to count, nor be practising at any particular level. It can be as public or as private as you want it to be. If you think you’re tone deaf, have two left feet, and can only draw stick figures, you can still receive the joy and connection of letting your creative spark burn. The fact that you're a conscious sentient being who can be inspired, IS the proof and certification of your creativity. You've just judged your imagination and inspiration as not enough. I promise you, there's more to it than that.
To the Greek philosophers and ancient eastern religions, creativity was regarded as who we are, how we think, and how we choose to be. The value in our expression is the way it makes us feel, not the way it markets to the world. If no-one ever bought a Lady Gaga album, I guarantee you she’d still be singing. She would answer that impulse regardless of recognition, because it’s the beat and lyrics of the very soul. An approach to stimulate joy and alignment throughout the rest of your life.
Start flirting with that and then tell me you're not creative. If the term still makes you shrink, then call it self expression instead. Any expression that makes us feel electrically charged, and gets us out of our heads, is creativity. For you it may be painting, film, dance, pottery, writing, fashion, poetry, makeup, yoga, drawing, photography, flower arrangement, interior design, cooking, knitting, the way you dress, or even just creative exploration. The list is endless because our self expression is endless, but one thing I know is that we all have it.
The next thing you’re likely to tell yourself is “but I’m not ready, I’m not good enough yet.”
This is where we need to put our ego in a box and just start. High expectations and the rigidity of an end result means we’ll never feel the state of readiness we seek. Your creative self is ready, yearning to be expressed, and wants to bring you the joy that is waiting. Your fear of not being ready, being judged, or failing is a sneaky illusion created by the ego because it hates not being “the best” at everything.
Break this illusion down by checking what else you feel alongside fear. You might find anticipation, exhilaration, curiosity, or bravery. These sensations feel very similar, so try swapping the word fear with curiosity and see what shift that brings to your willingness to start. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment of hours or expensive courses. Spend an hour doodling, dust off the old guitar and have a strum, do some colouring in with your kids, go flower picking and make a bouquet for the house, create some handmade cards to send to those you’ve not been able to see lately. Just start.
Swap perfection for play
Play and creativity go hand in hand, while perfectionism stifles both. Perfectionism (in extreme cases) can cause conditions such as anxiety, stress related illness, eating disorders and obsessive tendencies. It’s time to uncouple our creativity with the need for achievement, and return to the reason we do it in the first place - joy. Express yourself without worry about the results. It doesn’t matter if no-one comments on it, sees it, hears it, buys it, or even likes it! What matters is that you’re in the energy of creating. When you do this, you shift your vibrational frequency from control, overthinking, and people-pleasing to flow, intuition, and trust.
A profound example is the Tibetan monks who spend days creating intricate, beautiful mandalas together from coloured sand only to finish and sweep them away. The joy, creative process, and meditative state of creation remains with them whilst teaching the impermanence of things. So next time second guess your creative endeavours stop and ask “what would this be like if it were fun?”