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Finding the Common Denominator and How to Take a (Grown-Up) Gap Year: Coach and Writer Tina Essmaker on Creative Burnout

Posted by

Carolyn Yoo

Published on

April 8th 2020

Tina Essmaker is a coach and writer helping creative professionals navigate career transition and growth. After experiencing burnout both as a social worker and as co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Great Discontent, she realized the importance of boundaries and making time for one's self. We speak about false beliefs about work, the pressures of social media, and making small changes that add up over time.

What have your own experiences been with burnout?

My first career was in social work, helping runaway and homeless youth in Michigan. I worked at the same nonprofit for over a decade, both while I was in school and as an official social worker for six years afterward. Though it was extremely fulfilling work, it completely consumed me emotionally and mentally.

I eventually quit that job because I was moving out of state. I knew I was burning out, but I didn’t realize how bad it was until I quit and gained some perspective. It’s not to say anything bad about the job. I had really poor boundaries and was operating in a way that was signing myself up for burnout because I was buying into particular myths about how we have to work—mentalities that usually lead to overworking.

I thought that the burnout I experienced was because social work was a poor fit for me. I thought if I could do something creative, then I would be energized and I wouldn’t have to deal with burnout as a possibility. I was so wrong. By then I had co-founded The Great Discontent magazine and was working on it from home. Again, I had poor boundaries. I was working all the time and I saw everything as being put into one pot. I did that for six years total and ended up in that same place of burning out. That’s when I had to really look at myself and say, “Okay, there’s a common denominator here and it’s not the jobs. It’s you. So what’s going on?”

When I decided to become a coach for creatives, I was worried I would go back to that place of burnout. This time around I’ve done things differently. It hasn’t been a perfect ride, but I’ve set some boundaries and am much more clear about what I need in order to have the energy to show up and work with people.

You mentioned you were buying into false beliefs about work as well as poor boundaries. What were some of those beliefs and what are the boundaries that you’re setting now to prevent burnout?

Growing up in Southeastern Michigan, there was this belief that you have to work really, really hard. If you’re not working hard and struggling, then it’s not really work. I grew up with this idea that work was going to be hard and that burnout and tiredness were just part of being an adult.

The other thing was that I was really bad at saying no. I cared too much about what other people thought and I was letting other people determine what success meant for me. I felt like I had to take every opportunity, because if I didn’t then I wouldn’t be able to get ahead.

There are times in our careers where we can expend more energy and say yes to things. I do that seasonally—last year in the first quarter I did twelve speaking engagements, and then for three months I did not speak at all. I knew it was going to be a busy season and I wanted to do these things that aligned with my goals and my values, so I planned it accordingly.

Back then I had a scarcity mentality for sure. I thought there was never going to be enough so I have to take whatever opportunity is presented to me—otherwise, I didn’t know if it was going to come again. I was really driven by all of these external factors. My calendar reflected what other people wanted for me, not my own priorities and values.

When I was in social work, I was simply not making time for myself. I was married, working full-time, and on call for work at times. I began to give up some of the things that I did for myself that I really enjoyed. Work was about other people and my personal relationships, like my marriage and friendships, also became about other people and caring for them. I really stopped caring for myself in the way that I needed to which definitely contributed to burning out.

Do you think creatives are especially susceptible to burnout? What are the common reasons you see for burnout among creatives?

We’re all susceptible to it. But for myself and the creative professionals that I’ve worked with, I think we hold ourselves to a high standard. Our work is very much a part of our identity. Even if we’re employed full-time for someone else or working for ourselves, it’s really hard to clock out and forget about the project. We think about all of the nuances and sometimes torture ourselves about the details that we want to go perfectly.

Perfectionism is definitely a cause for burnout. Sometimes we think it’s what other people expect from us, when really it’s our own expectations of perfection that are pushing us into burnout. Because our work is so much of our identity, we want people to approve of it. This can lead to people pleasing because we want to make that pitch or proposal perfect. We want the first draft to come across really well because we want people to like our work and therefore like us.

Social media can really amplify the pressure to succeed. How would you support a client dealing with this sort of pressure?

We need to remind ourselves that social media is a highlight reel. No one is going to post, “I had a really shitty day and I lost a client and I’m not going to meet my goal for the month.” Social media doesn’t show all the aspects of people’s lives.

I encourage all of my clients to get offline and spend more time in real life with positive, supportive people who they can really talk to about what’s going on. I do this for myself as well. I have mentors, colleagues, and friends that I check in with and we talk on a regular basis about business and how things are going and what’s working and what isn’t. I find that to be extremely helpful because it paints a real picture of where people are, as opposed to the unrealistic portrayal on social media.

The other thing is redefining what success means for you. If you’re on social media and trying to keep up with what everyone’s doing, you’re going to feel like you’re never enough. Take a step back and decide: what does success look like for me right now? What would feel really good for my job, relationships, mental health, and physical health? Doing that takes practice and we need to step away sometimes in order to do it.

Often by the time we acknowledge burnout in ourselves, it’s too late to reverse it. What can one do in order to recover from burnout, apart from taking a really long vacation?

I went from one job where I burned out straight into another job where I was doing something new and felt energized. I would first say, don’t have magical thinking that if you can move cities or change jobs, the burnout is just going to go away, because it’s not.

One, it’s looking at what you can take responsibility for. What are you doing that is making space for burnout? Where do you have poor boundaries? Where are you not taking care of your needs? Where are you not acknowledging your needs?

When I was transitioning to leave the magazine, I was going through a divorce and also doing freelance work to pay the bills. Then I decided that I was going to get trained as a coach and open my practice. I looked at that whole year as a gap year. What that meant was in that gap year, I didn’t have to make any big decisions. I was going to pay my bills and really take care of myself.

That year, my full-time project was me. I minimized my overhead by moving in a roommate and was very frugal with budgeting. I did everything that I could do to financially give myself more freedom. My life didn’t stop—I didn’t go on a three-month sabbatical to some far off place, although that would have been nice. But slowing down without taking a complete timeout allowed me to recalibrate but also still have to deal with the messy reality of life. Taking a long vacation can feel great and allow us to physically and mentally rest. But if we haven’t worked on brushing up our ability to cope with burnout and stress, then we’re just going to eventually get back in the same situation when we come back.

I really encourage my clients to make small changes that add up over time. For me, that was seeing a therapist, going to the gym, and saying no to people’s requests on my time unless it was something that aligned with how I wanted to care for myself. I spent a lot more time at home reading and journaling. I went to visit family in Michigan and rekindled friendships that I had let go of because I thought I was too busy to keep in touch before. All of these were small changes that really helped. At the end of that gap year, I could look back and clearly see the transformation even though when I was in it, I felt like nothing was happening.

There are a lot of examples of burnout in the media from overwork, but I think we can also be burnt out from feeling under-challenged or neglected in our careers. How can working with a coach help navigate those kinds of situations?

Sometimes burnout can really be boredom or disillusionment with our work. Whether we work for ourselves or for an organization, I believe we have to take responsibility for our own fulfillment and career path. No one is going to come to us and say, “I know how we can combine all of your strengths into the perfect role that is going to challenge you and make you happy.”

As a coach, I help my clients come back to themselves and begin to understand the value they contribute to the world. What are their strengths, interests, and curiosities? What are their skills and experience? How do all of those things overlap into something valuable?

We also look at where the client wants to go and what they need in their work to feel more fulfilled and connected. People are often looking for the perfect job or company to solve their problems, but it’s not about that. It’s about them knowing themselves and what they need and then trying to create more of that wherever they are. A lot of times we have opportunities that exist where we are, but we don’t see them. That can come from not knowing what we want.

If someone feels they are burnt out from a challenging, unfulfilling job and has outlined steps to change careers, how can they maintain that job and navigate the career transition without burning out again?

A lot of that depends on the environment they’re working in. For some clients, the answer is simply to detach themselves as much as they can from the situation. It’s letting go and doing “good enough” work instead of being a perfectionist.

We look to our jobs to give us so much. It can be helpful to step back and ask, “Why am I working this job right now?” If you can identify a purpose, I think that can be helpful in getting you through it and remembering that it’s not going to last forever.

You can say, “I am going to stay in this job for six more months. I’m going to do my best work, but I’m not going to overextend myself and here are my boundaries around work. And for the next six months, the purpose of this job is to pay my bills and to save up money to give myself runway to do freelance work while I look for another full-time role.” That feels so much more powerful than, “I have to stay at this job for six more months and I’m going to be miserable and I don’t know how I’m gonna do it.”

Thanks to Tina Essmaker for the chat. Check out part one on how to identify creative burnout and tips to overcome it.

Carolyn Yoo is a writer & software engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is also the creator and editor of Modern Doing, a weekly interview series exploring how people find meaning through their work.

Illustration by: Punchy Lucie