Creatives can suffer from burn-out just as easily as those in any other line of work. Psychologist and author Ellen Bard shares her ideas about what self-care is, why it matters for writers, and how to deal with the obstacles we often face when we think about taking care of ourselves.
How often are you your ‘best self’?
How often are you relaxed, buzzing with creativity, in flow, words of brilliance pouring out of you?
How often are you enthusiastic, energized, and ready to take on the world?
The world moves at a much faster pace than the environment for which humans evolved, and the amount of information and stimuli in our day-to-day keeps on increasing.
In order to juggle the kind of life most indie writers have to – where being creative needs to be balanced with marketing, social media, family, friends, hobbies and perhaps even a full-time or part-time job – we need to invest in regular self-care.
What is self-care?
Self-care itself as a term is somewhat of a buzzword at the moment, but essentially just means taking accountability for your own emotional, mental and physical health.
When we don’t keep up our self-care we can burn out by running on empty for too long, and eventually make ourselves ill. And even if things aren’t as bad as this, by not paying attention to our self-care we can live a diminished life, where a fog of tiredness or exhaustion lies over our activities.
Or we might end up with a life with a level of internal discomfort that tells us something is wrong, without us really understanding how to fix it.
From London to Bangkok
My own journey into writing was sparked by the need for a break from my management consulting job in London, six years ago. I’m a work psychologist and was doing 60 hour weeks every week, and fighting two chronic health conditions.
I realized it was time for a couple of months’ sabbatical. I traveled, ended up in Thailand, discovered I could create a much more flexible if unusual life – and never went back.
Now my life consists of freelance consulting in SE Asia and the Middle East (I’ve worked in twenty countries and counting!), and working as a hybrid author, writing indie fiction (paranormal romance) and non-fiction (personal development) with a publisher.
I’m based in Thailand, travel is a regular part of my life, and I even met a wonderful partner to share my atypical lifestyle with.
As part of that journey, I took accountability for my own wellbeing and explored the area of self-care. I realized I wasn’t alone, as my professional life working with clients showed me many of us live lives where we rarely stop to ask ourselves what we need.
We live on autopilot, perhaps doing similar activities each day, and don’t give ourselves time to check-in with ourselves.
[Note from Joanna: You can also listen to an interview with Ellen on Self Care and Productivity for Authors here.]
A simple but powerful question
I suggest to my clients and readers to start their self-care with a very simple question: What do you need right now?
Sometimes, we need a break. Sometimes, an apple. Sometimes, a nap. Sometimes, a hug.
But whatever the need, if we’re constantly living our lives reactively, in response to others’ demands – the email in your inboxes, the long to-do list, feeding your hungry social media – our deeper needs can go entirely unnoticed.
Get to know yourself
Many writers have rich inner lives, which is a great start for thinking about self-care. The better you know yourself, the easier it is to work out what your self-care might look like.
Because one of the challenges and blessings of the area is that there is no ‘prescribed’ self-care, it’s entirely personal to you.
Draw or print the matrix below. Consider, what people, places, physical things, and activities nourish you, in an emotional, physical and mental sense?
Here are some of mine as examples:
Already this should trigger some ideas about ways in which you could be kinder to yourself.
What are the obstacles to your self-care?
The response to the kind of activity and list above is often a litany of excuses as to why, exactly, you can’t do any of the things in the matrix right now. Money, guilt and time seem to be the three most common.
Money – Self-care doesn’t have to cost a lot. While green smoothies, the latest vitamins on the market and fancy spa days might all be nice, you’ll see many of the things in my matrix above are free or relatively cheap or are based on things I already own. Consider what you already have access to in your life that nourishes you, and add on the more costly self-care as an occasional splash-out.
Guilt – It’s common for people to tell me they couldn’t possibly take the time to spend on themselves, as they have too many things on their list for others. But if we don’t spend at least some of our time taking care of our own needs, and replenishing our energy with self-care, we will run out of energy, and be empty. We’ll be no good to ourselves – or anyone else. It’s a cliche, but we really do need to put our own oxygen mask on first before we attend to others.
Time – Start small. Don’t make self-care another ‘should’ or chore on your list. Make a list of small pleasures, and include some of these in your week, and give yourself permission to enjoy them. Help your subconscious get the message that this is part of taking care of yourself.
Creativity and self-care
I would argue that the expression of creativity is a basic human need, and part of all of us in the same way that hunger, thirst, sex, safety, and love are. Creative activities can be a great way to practice self-care.
They can be a source of relaxation, help us solve problems more effectively, improve relationships and our emotional wellbeing. Workplaces also seek creativity, as people who can do things in novel ways can often do them faster and with less effort.
And of course, for writers, nourishing our creativity is crucial to our profession.
I found The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, a wonderful experience in creative self-care, in particular, her idea of the Artist’s Date.
For this, we should regularly take ourselves on a ‘date’ to fill our creative well. This means we should do an activity that will sustain our creativity, which can only flourish when we provide it with input and stimulation.
Examples might be:
Going out for an hour in your neighborhood, and taking photos of anything red you see.
Picking up and reading three magazines at random about topics on which you know nothing.
Being a tourist in your own town by doing something from the top 10 activities on Trip Advisor or similar.
Looking at a random Instagram account and making up a comic-book-style story from the last 20 photos
Your Artist’s Date doesn’t have to mean leaving the house, but it should involve spending some time alone, seeking inspiration from things that are new or different for you.
Self-care is a responsible thing to include in your day.
Self-care isn’t a panacea, and neither is it a one-off thing. Just like writing, it’s something that builds over time, that we need to invest in, where many small steps can add up to make a real difference.
But just like writing, we need to start somewhere.
Implementing some of the ideas above won’t make life perfect.
It will give you the opportunity for experiments to be kind to yourself in small and big ways, and to see what works for you – and make your life a little bit better, every day.
What’s your favorite activity for self-care? Ideas from others can often spark new ways of thinking about how we take care of ourselves! Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Ellen Bard is a work psychologist, writer and digital nomad. Her 18 years’ consulting experience helps her bring practical, useful and fun personal improvement ideas to those who are long on interest and short on time.
She’s the author of This Is For You: A Creative Toolkit for Better Self-Care, as well as several paranormal romance novels. She has been featured in a number of high profile publications – including the Huffington Post, The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 and the Financial Times – as a thought leader in productivity, and the challenges of work-life balance in the modern fast-paced, technology-enabled world. She is based in Thailand with her partner.
[Legs on table image courtesy Ales Me and Unsplash. Thailand image courtesy Mathew Schwartz and Unsplash.]
Cat Michaels says
Ellen and Joanna, The self-care matrix is especially impactful because it gets ideas out of my head and focused onto paper by stepping out exactly HOW. My fave resets must have movement…walking the ‘hood, hitting the gym, going to yoga with girlfriends. A biggie for me is taking breaks from social media for a few hours or (gasp!) days -:D.
Leanne Regalla says
Thanks Ellen, great post. I really like thinking of self-care this way! Super helpful. I’ll be saving this.
William Ablan says
Outstanding. I like the idea of the “Artist Date.” When you sit down at the old keyboard and you don’t want to do it, that should be your clue you need to take a break. My Wife and I often got for lunch at the park, or to the museum, or someplace just to get away from stuff. It works.