Breaks, Burnout, and Self-Care
Years ago, a friend bought me tickets to see Billy Porter in Kinky Boots. It was a short, special run for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. After seeing the show, I became a huge Billy Porter fan. I love Billy Porter for a number of reasons. First, he is from my hometown of Pittsburgh, so I feel a serious affinity to him. Second, I love him for his courage. He chose to be himself in a business that wanted very badly to mold him to its standards. It took over 25 years for that to pay off in his career. Now he’s the star of the show Pose, and he is able to show up unabashedly on the red carpet in dresses.
A few days ago, I read an article where he said he stepped away from Broadway for thirteen years.
It made me think seriously about what I have gone through over the last year in my artistic life. I hit a serious burnout roadblock about a year ago. A lot was going on in my non-musical life and I could not understand why, seemingly all of a sudden, my motivation dried up. I had never been the type to burn out. Even the word “burnout” scared me. However, what I realized over the past year has made me a much stronger, understanding, and more resilient person.
If you are also going through something similar, I want you to know you are not alone in this journey.
For many freelance artists, burnout is not an option from a very practical standpoint. If you have never worked as a freelance artist, this is extremely hard to understand. For many years, if I wanted to eat or pay my bills, I had to work. Turning things down was not an option. The lack of understanding from most of the people around me made this worse. Then, around a year ago, I finally got a decent job for the first time in my life. I was finally paid well and in a non-toxic work environment. At this point, my motivation tanked.
I immediately got scared. I did not want to see performances beyond the ones my students were in. I had no desire to learn new repertoire. I was not interested in doing auditions. I had no desire to look for new students. The last thing I wanted to do was put on a self-produced recital or concert.
I had hit a wall.
This seemed odd to me. I had never had an experience like this. I had always been motivated to do things. I was always finding new projects to do. I finally resigned myself to the scary truth:
I was burned out.
I had spent over ten years working constantly and never having a minute to breathe, and it was all catching up with me. I thought burnout was far more overt. Something you could see and feel. I thought I would be doubled over from exhaustion, or something dramatic would happen. This was far more insidious. It was simply a lack of motivation. A complete lack of want.
Friends, please understand that this is a sign that you are burned out.
If you have hit this wall, here are a few things to consider that helped me over the last year:
Combat/question the negative self-talk going on in your head.
When we were cavemen, our brains developed to deal with the perils of life in the prehistoric world. We were born with a built in mechanism to save us called the fight/flight/freeze mechanism. I will save you the science, but I highly recommend Dr. Faith G. Harper’s book on the subject. Her description of what goes on in the brain is very easy to understand, and I find her risqué delivery very funny. The first thing that came to mind when burnout started for me were the words of all the people who scared me into thinking that a break was bad for my career. As I read on the subject, I realized that in order to win the battle with these voices I needed to combat what they were saying. I needed to question their authority and dig deeper. Who said these things? Does this still hold up? Who was the source of these thoughts? What hang ups did that person have about their own career or life?
Often I hear this referred to as “the tyranny of the shoulds”. Basically speaking, it is all of the things you tell yourself you “should” be doing. Now, I want to put a disclaimer on this section. Some things are simply socially acceptable. You should take a shower. I am all for showers so you do not smell terrible at work or other public places. However, the “shoulds” of your career are a completely different matter. The only “should” you should listen to is this: You should do what is right for you.
Self-care, or as I prefer to think of it, self-compassion.
Self-care is a big buzzword right now, and frankly the terminology bothers me. Self-care conjures a lot of images for me or self-indulgence. Not that there is anything wrong with being self-indulgent every once in a while. (I need a Snickers bar and pedicure from time to time like anyone else!) But, I don’t think that’s helpful in deep burnout. I am a fan of the idea of self-compassion as a route to true self-care. The woman who has written the definitive work on self-compassion is Dr. Kristen Neff. Her book on the subject is very long and cerebral, so unless you have a great interest in the subject, here is a quick visual summary. The basic goal is to talk to yourself as you would speak to a friend, and recognize that humanity, as a collective struggles with largely the same things.
Unplug, especially from social media.
One of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quotes is “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Social media is a great tool for networking, but can also breed feelings of inadequacy. Even though it’s an intense approach, I really like what Cal Newport has to say about Digital Minimalism. I have found that even a few days away from social platforms does me a great deal of mental good.
I know the question in your mind is, “What is a micro-action?”. Eventually, I plan to write an entire blog about this subject, but for the purposes of this blog I will give a short description. A micro-action is an extremely specific small action that you can do today. For example, instead of “write blog”, a micro-action would be, “brainstorm blog for 5 minutes on a blank sheet of paper” or “post preview to blog on social media”. In burnout, when motivation is slim, doing small actions feels much more doable than tackling large projects.
Recognize that burnout is just information.
A few years ago I worked with a career mentor. Every time I got a rejection letter, or any other form of criticism she would say, “It’s just information.” It took awhile for this to seep into my brain. Burnout is really just information. It is your body and brain trying to tell you one thing:
Take. A. Break.
Now, I know is the toughest one on the list. I am a Type-A, go getter, rust-belt raised person. Hard work is in my DNA. I am a classic case of can’t-sit-down syndrome. However, trust me when I say this:
Forcing yourself out of a case of burnout does not work.
One of the toughest things about burnout is that you have to let it run its course. It took me a about a year to get back into writing about artistic careers, coaching new repertoire, and working towards personal and professional musical goals. Forcing yourself to try to do things will not work in your favor.
As a final thought, I want to talk about two quotes that have carried me through the past year. A few years ago, I went to lunch with a friend at a Met competition. At the time he lived in New York, and I was still in Pittsburgh. I was seeking his advice and he said something I will never forget:
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
It’s easy in our modern society to look at the overnight success of people and not see the years of sweat and turmoil leading up to it. Success can also be short lived, you never know when or if your career will peak.
“No one takes your singer card.”
I love this quote, and I have started to use it a lot with my students. I have seen many people leave the world of singing and come back years later. I have also seen people completely change careers or move to singing part-time.
So, my friends, find your path and do whatever feels right to you. You have the power to determine where your career and life are going to go.