Finding back home to your Soul and creativity after burnout

Lessons from the Road Lessons in Creativity

Hi and welcome to my new home on the web! Because my website has gotten a fresh, new look and this blog is new, I feel like I should introduce myself!

I’m Katja Maria. I’m a performing artist, singer, musician and writer. I’m also a voice and music teacher working with performers, aspiring singers and professionals to help them communicate fearlessly and authentically with effortlessness. A love for sharing my experiences, combined with encouragement from my own teachers, led me on the teaching path at the relatively early age of 17.

Performing, writing and teaching are all for me forms of connecting. l also love creating, and have been a maker and creator for as long as I can remember. I create music, writings and articles, learning materials, programs, courses, learning environments, communities, and performances. When I create and connect, I feel a flow and a deep sense of purpose. Some people would say that’s how you feel like when you’re living in alignment of your calling, using your unique gifts and talents. These are the two things that I love doing the most: create and connect.  

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today.

For the past three years I have been going through some big things that challenged my ability to create and connect deeply, meaningfully, and authentically. I was in a place where I lost sense of meaning to my work, all while at the same time being in a highly productive output mode, looking succesful to the outside while being completely drained on the inside. It’s super confusing: the things showing up in your life are the ones you once wrote down in your life goals, and you’re wondering why you feel empty. 

 

What happens when you lose the sense of meaning to your work, and go on despite of that?

When your creative well has dried up from over-exhaustion?

When you have become so out of touch with your body and your feelings, that you don’t even realise your whole system is in survival mode?

When you have become so deaf to the whispers of your Self, your Soul, that you can’t even hear the screams?

 

I’ll tell you one thing: it ain’t pretty.

I ignored being drained and kept on creating and connecting despite of that, which resulted in a burnout. Not as in “feeling burned out”, but as in a total meltdown kind of thing.

I’m writing this blog because I feel ready to talk about it. In fact, I need to talk about it, because one of the cornerstones of my work as a teacher and coach is to walk the talk. But how can I walk the talk and only share the good parts of the walk, the Instagram-worthy life wisdoms and high-five moments, the polished end products, performance and business successes, if I don’t also share the rockier parts of the road, the struggles and the obstacles? And more importantly, the lessons I’ve learned on that road. Until now, my work as a teacher and coach has been based on sharing what I have learned. And this one’s a major lesson.

 

The burnout map

Google “Burnout Symptoms”, and you’ll get a long list of signs of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The problem is, we might recognise some of the signs, but not quite know “how far down on the scale towards the meltdown” we are. So we keep on pushing it just a little bit more, because the show must go on, everyone around us is anyway tired and stressed too, and there’s never really a good moment of taking time off anyway. The problem is also, we might feel like we need permission to take a time-out.

I was one of those people who needed a permission slip.

In my case, the warning signs of creative exhaustion were already there. After two years of many exciting things happening in my career – performing, teaching, working on educational projects, creating, and constant output-mode, my creative well was running dry. When the subject of making a new show for a new theater season came on the table, I had no ideas. Nada.

 

I felt empty. Uninspired. I didn’t even feel like creating, singing or playing the piano anymore.

 

What happens, when you exhaust all your ideas and keep producing new ones despite of it, is you end up working on ideas that are not coming from a deep, genuine, meaningful place. You start working on “Yes” ideas. Or even on “Mwah, let’s see, perhaps I’ll get really inspired about this once I’m working on it” ideas. Rather than “Hell Yeah!” ideas. And because you are a creative, you can’t be in it half-heartedly. So when you’re doing the work, you’re all in, even if the idea or project you’re working on isn’t feeling totally right to you. Which exhausts you even more.

And voilà, ideas and inspiration leave the building.

This also goes for teaching and coaching. It isn’t possible to do that in some sort of half-hearted way. Teaching under circumstances or with content that doesn’t feel aligned to you, teaching content that you’re not in love with (anymore), is exhausting. So is repeating the same information without having the time to get curious about it from a new angle.

I had been pouring out creative work from a well that had dried up, and was pouring teaching inspiration from a well that was drying up, too.

My career was unfolding in rapid speed and I was having big, exciting career things suddenly appear in my life all at the same time. Really cool projects, my own theater tour, great concerts and collaborations with other musicians, teaching and mentoring performing artists and teachers, a teaching position at a performing arts school… I was on a roll, doing what I loved. This was a positive thing, but it came with a flip side, as many things were peaking simultaneously and demanding constant creative output. I was unable to realize that I needed more input time, because so many people around me were publicly celebrating being hyper-productive. Nobody was talking about the flipside of the coin or about inspiration-wells drying up. 

 

I was losing interest in the two things that I loved the most: creating and connecting. This was extremely painful and confusing to me.

 

Staleness, that’s what was happening. In their book “Power Performance for Singers – Transcending the Barriers”, Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas describe staleness as an overall physical and emotional state that hinders your ability to put all your energy into your performances. You feel lethargic and unmotivated, end up skipping practice, planning, and research.

Not having any ideas at all was highly unusual for me.

Being uninspired is a HUGE warning sign for any creative person.

Staleness is an early warning sign of burnout.

There were other warning signs too. Big things had happened that demanded attention, but were left unattended.

As my career was unfolding, I was also going through big changes in my personal life. Letting go of a 12-year long relationship in an excrutiatingly slow and painful way, like pulling off a band-aid in slow motion. I was being unrooted from life as I knew it, and a part of me just wanted to put my belongings in a storage box, retreat from the world and figure out what to do next. Yeah, do that “Eat, Pray, Love” thing that Elizabeth Gilbert did after her painful breakup. Painful breakups should be celebrated with me-time. With input-time, not with output-time.

I didn’t do that, though. Instead, I found comfort and a sense of identity in the one thing that I at least knew I still did well: my creative work. (I include creating, performing as well as teaching into that). I didn’t dare to take a time-out with my career unfolding and all. I bought into my own fears about things like income, and told myself that I had to start working even harder now that I was a single artist-preneur.

After having moved houses for the third time within 5 months, while trying to keep up with the normal treadmill of life and all the creative output, I was so used to being chronically fatigued that it felt normal. It wasn’t until a year later when the fatigue got paired with insomnia, that the warning bells started ringing.

The breakup was emotionally draining. But there was more. I didn’t understand why I felt so exhausted after a long day of teaching, until I learned that part of the problem was that I was literally feeling other people’s emotions in my own body, and becoming emotionally exhausted as a result of that. That’s also known as being an empath and a highly sensitive person, extremely tuned in to everything around me, from sounds to sights and vibes, and picking it all up because my antenna is “on” all the time.

I’ve known this for a long time, but it wasn’t until the burnout that I understood what an impact it has on my life if I don’t learn to manage and protect my own energy, and to clear out energy I have absorbed that actually doesn’t belong to me.

There were all sorts of physical symptoms. My exhaustion manifested itself among others in headaches, that started developing into migraines. I remember having a particularly bad one in a big rehearsal. Not wanting to cancel, because it was the only time we could get the whole crew together, I rehearsed despite of the migraine. Trying to focus on what was going on, what the director was saying, running to the bathroom to throw up, then back to the rehearsal room again.

 

Leaving the rehearsal I was wondering:

is this what living my dream is supposed to feel like? 

 

I was also regularly coming down with a laryngitis, or a really bad case of the flu. Didn’t realise back then that those were warning signs either. Because “everyone had the flu”. To make things worse, I never took the time to fully recover.

Why?

Because I was stupid. Because I didn’t love and value myself enough. Because I was scared.

That is the real answer.

But I’ll give you the answer that’s focused on the external circumstances too, since it’s equally important.

  • Because I was either at the beginning of an important project or in the middle of a tour. You don’t postpone or cancel shows or bail out on a production team just like that. There’s tickets sold, audiences waiting for you, team-members depending on you. Investments have been made. I felt committed to my work, which I loved, and to my students, clients, band members, collaboration partners… I didn’t want to let them down.
  • Because of the freelance/self-employment trap: if you don’t work, there’s no bread on the table. I have come to learn that this freelance/self-employment trap is partly caused by the fact that most of us creatives, freelancers and self-employed artist-preneurs are working within models that are completely unsustainable. But the solution is not “quit being a freelancer/self-employed person and become employed” either. I tried both, so I can speak out of experience that things are not greener on the other side of the fence either. The part-time employment that I had at a performing arts institute, was also a completely unsustainable model.

 

So as I was lying sick in bed, I would be thinking about the amount of work that had to be done once I was recovered from my illness, worrying about how to fit that into my already crazy schedule without becoming sick again. A combination of feeling guilt that students would miss lessons if my colleagues also were unable to teach them (no external substitute teachers were allowed due to budget reasons), guilt that my colleagues who also were working so hard would have to deal with the consequences of me being sick, not wanting to cancel any shows, feeling worried about the thought of no bread on the table, and a strong sense of commitment to my work is a bad cocktail…and I’d return to work much too early.

 

And so the laryngitises and headaches and flus kept coming back and becoming worse and worse.

I got into a vicious circle with my voice and developed a chronic laryngitis. My ENT doctor told me that the shows I was singing wasn’t the problem. The problem was, the combination of performing and teaching so much meant that my voice never could rest. And I know he was right. I’m a voice teacher and singing technique specialist, after all.

Knowing I couldn’t go on like that, I started the road to recovery. I started making adjustments in my schedule, and made my own vocal health a first priority. I took up meditation practice, prioritized my yoga lessons and physical workout again, went to see body workers and energy workers, started seeking out the help of coaches and mentors.

But I was already much too far into the burnout, and making adjustments here and there was like patching up a rotten floor. At some point you can’t patch up anymore, you gotta give in, take a time-out and change the floor.

The Permission Slip

I wish I could tell you that all the above made me take a time-out. Well, it didn’t.

I didn’t realise it back then, but what I was looking for, was a permission slip. My body and soul were screaming for space. That word kept popping up in my head after I’d meditated or been on the yoga mat. Space! Space! Space!

But I was unable to give myself permission. 

Speaking up about the situation and taking a time-out was difficult, because I didn’t really know “if my burnout was serious enough”, or if it even was “real”. (How real did it still have to get?!)

Admitting that I had a burnout and needed a real time-out was F***ING SCARY.

This wasn’t something I could repair by taking a couple of days off here and there. I was way past that point. A time-out meant a longer break. But how long? A week? A month? Two months? Six months?

And then what?

I couldn’t wrap my head around the many consequences, not just for all the people I would have to let down, but also for myself. If I would take a real time-out, how would I pay my bills? I was a single, self-employed artist. I was making enough money to cover for my living costs, but I didn’t have a huge buffer stocked up somewhere. My part-time employment didn’t cover all my monthly costs, so even if I would have had a paid sick-leave from that job, I’d end up losing income from the self-employed part. Taking a time-out would have a huge impact on my finances.

And then there was shame. So much shame. Shame for having allowed myself get that far.

And fear. Oh, the fear. Not just the fear about how I would pay the bills. But also about how admitting I had a burnout would affect my career. Fear of being perceived as weak, as a failure. That’s probably because I felt like I was failing. 

I was also afraid that if I’d let go, I’d never find back again. That I’d completely lose it, if I’d have nothing else but space. That I’d never find back to my creativity, to myself. (How wrong I was about that one!)

In the couple of weeks before my meltdown, I had just recovered from a persistent flu that lasted a whole month, and yet another laryngitis that made me lose my voice and have to cancel work and shows.

I was exhausted beyond the point that could be fixed with a couple of nights of good sleep, a walk in the park, or 10 minutes of meditation as a desperate attempt of keeping the ship from sinking.

Forget “a good nights sleep”. By that time, the insomnia that I had struggled with for four months, had developed from being able to sleep 3-5 hours per night into having completely lost my ability to sleep. I taught a full day at the school, sometimes didn’t sleep a single hour, and went back to teach the next day. My brain felt foggy and I had a hard time linking two thoughts together. But despite of that, I still didn’t dare to call in sick or to admit that I perhaps was “a bit” exhausted. I’d try sleeping in another day. CRAZY!!! I know.

It was two of my colleague musicians that made me make the call. So there it was, my permission slip. Just on time: the week after I called in sick, I was floored down in bed with a high fever for a month.

And that’s when I admitted to myself and to the world that I, Katja Maria Slotte, had a burnout. That it was REAL.

Reading my own words now, I think: “you’re CRAZY to have pushed through for that long!”. Reading it makes me feel SAD that I’ve been so damn HARD on myself, so scared, that I didn’t love myself enough to give myself permission. The voice inside me, my true Self, says “Don’t be sad. I’m glad you found back home”.

I wanted to share this long and difficult road to admitting the burnout was REAL, because I wish I had realized WAY much earlier that:

You don’t need permission.

Just as you don’t need permission to create, or to sound like you want to sound, or to make the kind of art that you want to, you don’t need permission to do what you need to do in order to feel good, be happy, to function as a human being. And by doing so: to be inspired and able to create.

As long as you don’t intentionally harm and abuse other living beings, of course. But you don’t need permission to say:

  • “I need a real lunch break”
  • “Can we work out another way to do student reports, because this is draining me and robbing my time and energy from what I’m good at doing, which is why you hired me”
  • “This project has to be postponed to next year”
  • “I can’t do this right now”
  • “I’m sorry, but I have some big things going on in my personal life right now and I need to take some time off for myself”
  • “I can do this part of the job but not that part”

You don’t need permission to say: “I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, numb and uninspired. I need a time-out.”

You don’t need to wait until it gets REAL. You don’t need to measure it by someone else’s definition of what’s real. Because it IS already real. To YOU.

How to deal with the fear and the inner hurdles you have to overcome to give yourself permission, is another thing. So is overcoming scarcity-mentality and looking at the world with the “starving, suffering artist / self-employed person-glasses”.

If you won’t put yourself in first place, nobody will. And there’s a reason to why they say “Put on your oxygen mask first, before helping others”.

What I have learned on my long road to recovery is that burnout is not (only) about “being overworked”. It’s about being out of alignment with your core. Having lost your boundaries, and the connection to your own inner compass. 

Burnout is about having lost ownership of your art, your career, your life. Not because someone took it from you, but because you accidentally handed it over.

You handed it over while bying into the starving, suffering artist mentality. While allowing external things, like the market, “the way it’s always been done”, or other people’s expectations define how you work. While being more tuned into what was good for others than what was good for yourself. While neglecting the little voice inside you (that speaks your own truth). And that’s how you become “overworked”, creatively, physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. 

But you can claim back ownership. Sometimes it has to happen the hard way.

I have learned to be grateful for my burnout. It pointed me back on the road I was drifting away from: the road of my Soul, and demanded me to start living and speaking my own truth again.

 

Photos by Ingrid Vente

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Oonagh Evertsz
    January 4, 2018 at 4:40 am

    ❤️

  • Reply
    Channah
    January 4, 2018 at 11:43 am

    Prachtige blog, Katja! Zo goed en knap verwoord!

    • Reply
      katjamaria
      January 10, 2018 at 11:58 pm

      Dank je Channah!

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