It's week two of novena one: Turning Points and Breaking Points. This week, we focus on how to survive, even thrive, in the face of setbacks.
What do you do when the bottom falls out of your world? When things in your personal life have sent you into an emotional tailspin? You have to move on and keep functioning, but it’s not likely that your current state of mind will equip you for your high stress, creative job. We are often so demanding of ourselves that we don’t give our psyche the time and space it needs to recover. I have been on kind of a marathon of life change and crisis that began nine years ago with the birth of my daughter. A happy occasion, but a life changing one followed closely by my chronically ill mother becoming critically ill, my chronically ill father needing support and assistance, a cross-country move, starting the highest stress job I ever had. And things kept happening. Repeated hospitalizations for both of my parents, my mother’s death just a month before my son was born, my father’s sudden death two years later, being the executor of his estate, going through a house full of 30 years of living, emptying and dispersing the contents. This series of events only primed the pump for even more calamity in the form of dealing with a loved one’s addiction and mental illness and losing my job in the last year.
Sometimes losing myself in my work was the only way to stay sane. At others, focusing on personal accomplishment made me feel like the rest of my life wasn’t so out of control. I came across an excellent article on the subject of personal crisis for creatives on the 99%, one of my favorite websites. Author Bernie Michalik makes some excellent points about forgiving yourself and allowing yourself to work through crisis.
Letting go: the short term crisis
When something bad happens in our lives, we feel dislocated, removed from space and time of everyday events. Michalik explores how to use this time outside of time to redefine who you are, and what you really want in life. I will summarize some of the salient points here, but highly recommend you read his article:
1. This is an exceptional time in your life, don’t expect to be able to perform at the same level.
2. Pare down your life, focus only on what Michalik calls your “must-do-to-survive” list
3. Nurture yourself, in particular, get enough sleep to keep your reserves high.
4. Find your go-to people and use them.
5. Stay positive. This too shall pass and you need to look for the good in every moment and allow yourself to appreciate even things as simple as a kind word or compliment.
6. Reassess. You have just encountered a life-altering event. Use the big-picture perspective that such times inspire to thin about your priorities, what they are now and what you want them to be.
7. Be grateful and acknowledge the kindness of others in your time of need.
Making piece: the long term chronic illness or situation
Yes, piece as in a portion of something. Being disabled or chronically ill, or having to be a caretaker for someone who is, alters your energy, and availability for a long time, maybe even years. You need to put in place routines and support that allow you to compartmentalize your day enough that you can be fully present while you are in work mode and devoted to taking care of yourself/someone else at other times. The trick is to be as fully present as possible in each situation. Some important resources I have found helpful include:
1. Finding a support group: you will be surprised at the advice, examples and knowledge of resources you can gain. A group that I have been working with over the last few months has a great saying, “take what you like and leave the rest.” This is the ultimate value of support groups- their ability to expose you to information. Not all of it will apply to your specific situation, but some of it will, and you may find the portion that does immensely helpful.
2. Keep track of your goals and your path to reach them. You may need to give yourself more time than you did in the past, but track at least once a week what you have done to work toward accomplishing each goal. Why? Because our self-critical mind is impatient. We feel like failures when we can’t just go out there and live our dreams. We ignore all of the small things that we do, or wonderful things that are happening in our lives every day. When focussed on our meta-goals, we also often lose sight of all the small accomplishments it takes to set us on our way. Taking weekly inventory helps us not only see what we ARE accomplishing, but helps us see the little ways we can challenge ourselves further.
3. Nurture yourself. This seems counterintuitive, we don’t have time with all of the other demands, we don’t feel like it, we don’t deserve it. However, the best way you can cope with any bad situation is by taking care of yourself, body, mind and soul. It’s not selfish, in fact it is the only way you will truly shepherd yourself or your loved ones out of this time in your lives.
4. See that the struggle is the growth. This term comes from a lecture I attended that covered the work of Dr. Becky Bailey on Conscious Discipline. I have written previously on how to use this approach to deal with clients, but think it is also applicable in situations where the “rules” of engagement don’t really apply anymore. Instead of staying stuck in a situation that stifles your creativity, look at other non traditional ways you can find your creative outlet. Try making a list of your definition of an architect. Then look at it critically and determine whether some of these conventionally accepted definitions are even valid. Define what it means for you to be an architect and how you, right now, can work toward that goal. A great recommendation from Bernie Michalik is to frame your goals in terms of 1,000 days.
It can seem overwhelming and like things will never get better when bad things happen. But by staying positive and in the moment, adjusting yourself to what you can do right now, you may accomplish more than you think. As much of a trial by fire as the last nine years has been, they have also been a time of my greatest personal growth, self discovery, and some huge professional accomplishments. In the end, you may have to do some reassessing and redefine your role, but you only have to stop being creative if you want to. Please share your moments of creative crisis and how you worked or are working through them.