Prevent Subconscious Sneak Attacks: Use Creativity to Avoid Burnout

I had a window office with a view of the Rocky Mountains. The winter sunsets would turn the mountains bright pink. I was third in seniority in my office. Doesn’t this sound amazing?

Most days, the mountains were my only consolation for a very broken work environment.

I had only been doing child protection work for about a year and all but two of my more experienced co-workers had quit their jobs. That left me and a half-staffed group of junior social workers to do all the work of saving children. At this point, the department had asked that we no longer investigate allegations of abuse in pairs. Each highly volatile report was a solo mission. One day, however, my coworker asked if I could go with her to check on some kids. We went rogue and ventured out together. I knew that when my co-worker asked for a favor, she needed my help.

I can’t give you all the details, but we ended up removing two small children from the home. Contrary to popular belief, this does not happen every day in child protection work. It’s a big event when this happens. And this day, it was a really really big event because had we not intervened that day, a baby would have died. We spent 17 hours with that baby that day, mostly in the emergency room. She had been so hyper-vigilant that she did not cry, and she did not sleep, and she did not close her eyes, until the very end of the day when I rocked her in my arms. I can still see her wide-eyed precious little face.

At the end of that very long and emotionally taxing day, I went home. A meltdown was imminent.

But instead of sobbing (which would have been a very reasonable response and helpful release), I wrote a song. This choice had an even more powerful effect on my well-being. There are parts of our experiences in healing and bearing witness to the suffering of other human beings that cannot be expressed by words. Even the parts that are awe-inspiring and alter our lives in positive ways can be hard for our logical brains to comprehend. Talking doesn’t always get us there.

The creative process helps us access the subconscious part of our brain.

When we ignore this part of our brain, it gets louder and louder until we listen. It pulls out all the stops. This includes meltdowns, irritability, physical illness, and the list goes on. On the contrary, when we acknowledge and support the processes that go on beneath our logical brain, we can release and transform the energy we are experiencing. We can make meaning, we can honor our full humanness. We can recognize that we need to grieve and we can take the space to do that. There will be no sneak attacks by the subconscious. So please dive into whatever form of creative expression works for you. This could be writing, painting, woodworking, making mixtapes, knitting, pottery, planning an epic trip to Bali, building a new business, and the list goes on. Creativity is endless. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as you take this pent up energy and channel it into something else.

There are many different ways we can use creativity to help us deal with the ever-lurking monster of compassion fatigue.

Let’s go through a few different approaches to bringing creativity into your self care plan. You must have a plan by now, right? If not, go to the bottom of this page and download The Cared to Death Safety Plan immediately. Don’t keep reading. Yeah you. You know who you are.

Back to business:

Here are some ways you can use creativity to prevent and overcome compassion fatigue:

Creativity to Process Emotions

This type of creativity is for purposefully working through any challenging emotions or thoughts related to your work. The song I wrote for that dear baby falls into this category. I needed to release all 17 hours of pain, frustration, sadness, and just plain exhaustion. I needed to illuminate the beauty in the child’s eyes and imagine her bright future. I needed hope and I needed meaning. I specifically set out to work through the trials of my day. You may find this to be helpful as well. This type of activity is probably going to work better for people who already embrace a creative outlet and are comfortable sorting through emotions.

As for the rest of you, I can hear your excuses being formed. I’m going to challenge you to try grabbing a few colorful pens and a few pieces of paper and just start doodling. Write things, draw things, use color to match your emotions. And for the love of yourself, don’t be a perfectionist. Some of you may be closet Picassos, but I’m guessing you’re not. Do it anyway. I promise it will not hurt you. I even give you permission to tear up all the pages and throw them away when you’re done (I mean recycle, of course. Or burn them. Lighting a fire is very satisfying.)

Creativity to Clear Your Mind

This type of creativity shifts your focus away from unwanted or stressful thoughts that are persistently swirling in your mind. It refocuses your attention to the task at hand. Should you use this to avoid those icky-feeling emotions? No. But sometimes you have to clear out the clutter in your brain in order to gain some perspective, to ease up on the troublesome thoughts and emotions, and give yourself a damn break. Later, when the swirling whirling negativity has subsided, you can gain some insights into what your emotions are telling you. But for now, just think of this as a creative meditation.

If you are going to dive into a creative pursuit to clear your mind, I recommend trying something new and/or challenging. If you crochet as well as my mom, please pick a different activity. She can crochet and watch TV at the same time. Which means she is counting too. Which means she could also probably stew on all those worrisome thoughts, like what my step-dad didn’t cross off his honey-do list. If you have superhuman skills like my mom, you can do one of two things. You can (1) try a more challenging pattern that puts your skills to the test, or you can (2) try something new, like welding. Make yourself a bicycle rack or something.

Creativity to Rewire Your Senses

This type of creativity is sense-ational! (That was for my Dad, the king of puns.) When you dive into a creative project, the more senses you can use, the better. In your work, you are using all your senses. When you experience something stressful, you hear it, you see it, you smell it, you feel it in your body, and you may even taste it (ewww). If you can intentionally engage all these senses when you are creating something, you can rewire those sense and shift the stressful inputs to something more pleasant. You can feel like being human is a good thing. Planning and cooking a great meal would hit all the sense-ational points (okay I'll stop). Slow it down and observe all the parts and pieces of your recipe. Take a magnifying glass to the individual leaves of your fresh basil. Feel the weight and texture of the lime in your hand. Can you hear the sizzle of your organic, free-range chicken stir-frying in the wok? Walk out of the house and re-enter the kitchen with a fresh nose. I’m getting hungry now.

Creativity for Release

Let's get physical! Sometimes creative things make us use muscles we didn’t know existed. I’m feeling like we need to get a hammer involved in this section. When’s the last time you tried to build yourself a piece of furniture? I guarantee that if you have not sanded something by hand, you will feel the wonderfully human sensation of a muscle cramp after about 5 minutes. It may be those little muscles between your carpals (of course you know what those are because you work in healthcare). It may be your back muscles because you’ve been bent over in a Twister-like position with your right hand on red.

I used to do karaoke just to get the physical release of singing. There’s nothing like a little Janis Joplin scream to let out all that anger at the those a$$hole parents who abused their children. In fact, you don’t even have to do anything creative to let out a good scream. Try it. I double-dog dare you. Okay great. Now that that’s done, you can get to work planting your garden. Lug those giant bags of dirt. Pull those weeds. Rake the leaves out of the flower bed you neglected for the last two years. See? There are lots of ways to be creative and release emotions without being touchy-feely.

P.S. Dance!

Creativity to Contribute Beauty

But let’s get back to a little bit of touchy-feely. Sometimes the work of helping and healing people can start to look very grim. People are sick. People are mad at you because their family members are dying. People are pissy because they had to wait an extra fifteen minutes (or hour…whatever…suck it up). People are in pain. Or they pretend to be in pain to get more opiates. Whatever grim looks like for you, I promise it is not as bad as it seems. There is still beauty in this world and the best way to find it is to reach deep inside yourself and pull some out. It’s there. Pick whatever means you have to create something beautiful and share it with the world. We need to see it, hear it, feel it, taste it, smell it. You need to know it.

You don’t have to do this for anyone but yourself, but you may be finding it hard to summon the energy to do anything for yourself. (FYI martyrdom would look much better in a pile on your bedroom floor. You don’t have to wear that sh#+ anymore.) For now, let’s accept your martyrdom. Try creating something beautiful to honor someone else (ah that feels better). Get inspired by the beauty you see in your favorite patient and create something to honor the light they bring to the world. Paint a new picture frame and update that picture of your children on your desk. I’m sure they are at least 6 inches taller by now. Bake cookies for your favorite dog (I know, they are all your favorites). There’s nothing more beautiful than a dog that can be bribed into good behavior.

Do you want some help integrating creativity into your self care plan? Do you want help making any kind of self care plan? Check out the Burnout Brainstorm and my other “Cures for the Plague.”

And don't forget:

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