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How to Prevent Burnout and Create Space for What Matters Most

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“We humans need connection: to self, others, to our creativity. Playfulness creates opportunities to connect. Connection reduces stress and makes us healthier. “ Lanie Smith, a registered Art Therapist, gave us in this article 5 tips on how she found the balance in her life.

When I was in college, I discovered art to be a valuable coping skill that helped me balance the stress of family dynamics, multiple jobs, and full time school. Often, I’d find myself rolling into work as a makeup artist or into the restaurants where I’d waitress and bartend using the spit technique to wipe off paint smudges from my elbow or forehead. Sometimes, I’d find my hair matted together where paint had dried the strands together like rubber cement. I would laugh it off and chalk it up to being artsy.

Fast forward to grad school: I might catch myself in a similar situation, but it became more important to look ‘professional’ and adhere to the dress code as I entered internships and practicums. I took my role as a therapist seriously and over time lost sight of some important wisdom I’d read just before I decided to leave the South for New York City:

Serious art(work) is born of serious play. -julia cameron

I was dedicated to my own art and I was passionate about bringing clients “real” art experiences rather than the recreational crafts that were often passed off as Art Therapy. This eventually led to packing a portable studio while traveling up to 200 miles a day between homes and schools and different programs in 100+ degree weather that baked clay and melted pastels.   I could be rather stubborn, but I soon learned to accept the limitations of being an Art Therapist in the Arizona desert. I also recognized its many gifts. Previous work in sterile hospital settings, a third world country, and an inner-city high school had reinforced my own ingenuity and shown me how to use just about any environment as a source of inspiration.

As the demands and realities of my career set in, I slowly found myself less and less able to keep up with my own creative endeavors. The long sessions of intuitive painting I loved were given up in favor of intakes, assessments, caseloads, documentation, and CPS reports. Occasional weekends were devoted to artmaking, but I began to lose my identity as artist while adopting the role of Art Therapist.   I soon felt more and more disconnected from my creativity and began to lose motivation, energy, and health as I lost myself in the service of others.

Let the Clinification Syndrome begin.

There’s actually a syndrome specific to Art Therapists that emerges when we feel like we don’t completely fit into either the art world or the traditional therapy world. Occasional workshops and the creative activities with my clients weren’t enough to feed my artist identity and keep me in touch with the raw pleasure of tactile, sensory experimentation that I associated with being a painter.

As the great John Belushi once said, “I’m a fucking artist. I’m sensitive as shit…I wish I could be a plumber but I can’t because I’m a fucking artist!”

Art Therapists are artists trained to use their gifts and interests in art to support others in a clinical setting. A desire for security can lead us to take positions that often do not consider the needs of an artist: the time, space, and materials to actually do the work that sets us apart from other behavioral health professionals. Artists need white space. I’d argue we all do.

Just like a work of art, the unmarked area or blank canvas is what allows the image to form.   This open space is just as important to a composition as the actual objects, lines, or shapes. Such breathing room is equally important in life as it is art…for artists and non-artists alike. It gives us room for spontaneity, curiosity, and exploration. These are the ingredients of play.

Play leads to joy which allows for growth and healing.

Sadly, we lose our ability to play, when we don’t feel safe. Many adults sacrifice play in the pursuit of security. Curious exploration is deemed unproductive. Lack of trust in the creative process fuels habitual obsession with getting results and controlling outcomes. When we’re in this mode, each day can become an exhausting chase rather than a practice of faithfully allowing creative energy to flow and life to unfold.

The value of adult play is greatly underestimated in our industrialized culture that values mass production, systemized processes, and machine-like output, but, ultimately, we are humans. We humans need connection: to self, others, to our creativity. Playfulness creates opportunities to connect. Connection reduces stress and makes us healthier. In turn, healthy humans produce higher quality work marked by creative solutions that only appeared in that playful white space.

I knew all this. I knew the value of play and how it’s often jeopardized when we put security above all else, but still… I spent several years sacrificing my creativity and playfulness in favor of professional goals and a steady paycheck. These days, I gratefully find myself in a more balanced place where I can prioritize white space and have learned to enjoy the process rather than obsess over outcome.

So how did I find my way back to balance and back to play? How can you find your own way there? These steps helped me to restore my own relationship with my creative self. I believe they can help you too. 

  1. Establish “white space” in your heart, work, and calendar. Let go of some obligatory tasks that no longer feel good. To do this, you can make a list to identify what you think you “have” to do and what you want to do. Even if this only opens up an hour a week, start there and use this hour to explore what would feel good.
  2. Of the things you believe you “have” to do…write down why you think you “must”. Words like must, need, ought, should, and have to insinuate life or death consequences. What will happen if you stopped? Establish intentionality by identifying why you choose to do these things rather than suffer the consequences of not doing them. For example, I choose to pay my taxes because I am grateful for the freedom to live and sleep in my own home rather than share a jail cell at the AZ State Prison!   This alone can shift obligations into choices. Spend as much or as little on this step as you feel called to and then go enjoy something that feels more exploratory and playful.
  3. If you feel afraid or guilty about taking a break and creating white space in your life, consciously ground yourself in a sense of safety and trust. Remember a time when you feared things would not turn out well but they actually did. Close your eyes and visualize this scenario while noticing how you feel in your body. Stay with this sensation for as long as you like.
  4. Now…time to play! Use the energy of this feeling and pleasant memory to do something you’d enjoy most. This could be anything…rollerskating, writing, painting, a nature walk or hike, biking, birdwatching, etc. I mention a lot of outdoor activities because that’s what I love, but this is your playtime so choose what you would enjoy. There was a time when my energy was low and restful activities like movies and books were most enjoyable. Follow what your heart is craving.
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