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I have creator’s depression. So do a lot of the coaching clients I work with. What exactly does that mean?

Creator’s depression is a term that comes from psychotherapist and creativity coach Dr. Eric Maisel. In his book The Van Gogh Blues, he says, “the depression that creative people face is fundamentally caused by their upsetness with the facts of existence and their difficulties in making and maintaining meaning.”

The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression was my introduction to Eric Maisel’s work, to the concept of creator’s depression, and to the work of creativity coaching. It is probably the one book that has had the biggest impact on my life (no, I’m not counting the Bible!). The Van Gogh Blues helped me understand the nature of my depression, and how it connected to my work and identity as a writer, and what I needed to be mentally healthy. It also led me to the profession of creativity coaching, which has led to good things for me and the clients I coach.

As part of my certification with the Creativity Coaching Association, I re-read The Van Gogh Blues in 2015 and wrote a response to it. The questions were written by the CCA. The answers are mine. I hope they help you understand more about creator’s depression and how creativity coaching can help.

In the “gestalt” of this book, what new ideas or added value did this book teach you about creativity as applied to yourself?

I first read The Van Gogh Blues in 2005, at the tail end of my recovery from a clinical depression diagnosed in 2002. The book confirmed my instinct that the medication I took and the therapy I did were only part of the solution for ending my depression – I also needed to write in order to feel like my life had meaning. And I needed to make changes to my life (quit my job for freelancing and reduce my volunteering, for example) and stop putting others ahead of myself so that I had the time and energy I needed to write.

The most profound idea that I gleaned from this book the first time around was that I alone was responsible for making my life feel meaningful. Meaning was not out there somewhere in a holy book or external trappings like possessions, status, or lifestyle. Meaning came from within, from my decisions about what mattered to me and my experiences of doing what felt meaningful. This was a scary but liberating realization, and after ten years I still haven’t reached the limits of its implications.

My second reading of the book in 2015 came right after a recurrence of depression. I had just published a memoir that I had been working on for three years, which marked the end of a phase of my life with travel and young children. I also went into a long stretch of unemployment. The loss of these two meaningful activities, writing my memoir and doing copywriting, was a big blow to my mental health.

Revisiting Maisel’s book reminded me how impossible it is to separate depression into biological and psychological experiences, because they are so intertwined. This recent episode of depression was triggered by circumstances and the meaning I was ascribing to them, but it quickly became a very physical experience, with loss of focus and energy and increased anxiety. I returned to medication to help treat the biological side, and I returned to therapy and coaching to help me respond to the meaning crisis that caused the depression in the first place.

It’s humbling to be reminded that knowledge doesn’t always translate into practice, and that meaning is something that must be constantly attended to throughout our lives.

 

How do the author’s ideas and concepts impact you as a creativity coach? What influence might this book have on your creativity coaching style?

Maisel’s theories about “creator’s depression” have shaped my entire approach and focus as a creativity coach. Working from my personal experiences of depression, I have positioned my coaching practice to specialize in working with writers and artists who are prone to depression. My tagline, Wrestling the Angel, is an allusion to the existential struggle to create meaning. I have also written a memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire, telling the story of my recovery from depression and how I’ve tried to create a meaningful life.

I have always been drawn more to working with the issues of psychology and mental health around creating, rather than teaching craft itself. I think there is a pervasive presumption that if you want to do something, you should just be able to learn it and do it, and if you can’t then there’s something wrong with you. If you invest a lot of identity and meaning into creating, and then that desire to create is thwarted, it can lead to a depressive state that no productivity technique or pep talk can overcome.

I appreciate the way that Maisel integrates a compassionate understanding of the existential challenges of creating with a pragmatic and optimistic approach to dispatching them. I try to model that approach by listening, empathizing, and affirming the difficulties of creating while also staying steadfast in my belief that these difficulties can be addressed and offering specific techniques and practices to do so.

Dealing with depression, doubt, and despair comes up often with the clients I work with. I appreciate having Maisel’s concepts to start from, getting the client grounded in an understanding of how meaning crises can manifest as depression and how to choose and align with their own life purpose to create meaning. It feels like work I’m especially suited for and find satisfying.

One of my clients was a bestselling novelist who had fallen into depression and hadn’t written in a year, although she had another book contracted that was overdue. She was treating her depression with medication and therapy but still struggling with procrastination and overwhelm. Some of the things we worked on together were: 1) helping her reconnect with her love of writing, outside of the career pressures, 2) looking at her tendency to overcommit to others’ requests, and practicing saying no, and 3) revising her self-talk so that she wasn’t making herself feel ashamed and guilty for the need to rest, take her time with the book, and follow her own process.

Another client has chronic depression and anxiety and other health issues that she is working on with a therapist and physician. One of my important jobs as her coach is to help her hold fast to the meaning of her writing, affirming her persistence and her abilities, helping her recognize her own self-sabotage and make choices related to her projects, her writing process, and her support network.

 

What new vocabulary/terminology/phraseology about creativity did you learn from this book that you might teach to a client or use while coaching?

I appreciate the terms “creator’s depression” and “existential depression” for describing this particular affliction. Unlike depression that is more biological in origin, which “comes out of nowhere” or “for no reason,” this type of depression has a particular cause and strikes a particular demographic. The fact that it can morph into a physical illness makes it no less formidable.

I do also find it helpful to have the word “meaning” and all of its various compounds to talk about existential issues. A “meaning crisis” is good shorthand for the state of questioning the purpose or significance of one’s work, asking that question, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

A “meaning practice” as a habit of checking in with yourself and identifying the parts of your day that feel most meaningful or purposeful is also a useful term.

I also talk about “meaning containers” that can help collect or concentrate meaning, and I help clients develop dreams or projects that provide the structure they need.

“Meaning shifts” happen often as life circumstances change, projects move from beginning to end, and priorities or experience evolve. I encourage clients to notice these meaning shifts (often indicated by feelings of depression or doubt) and make new decisions about where to make meaning investments of time, energy, and identity.

In using this book with clients, I’ve encountered some pushback around the term meaning, which people feel is used as a catch-all or even, ironically, a meaningless term that Maisel throws around indiscriminately. With these clients, I try talking about “story” — the narrative that we develop around our lives and efforts, and the fact that we can change the story we’re telling if it’s not serving us. Stories are, in essence, a way of capturing what characters and settings and actions mean, so this approach often works well with writers, and also dovetails with the cognitive approach to managing one’s thoughts that Maisel advocates.

 

Are there any exercises that you can develop from this book to use with your clients? Or did the book contain any exercises from the author that you would like to use with clients?

The Van Gogh Blues is more conceptual than Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning, Maisel’s follow-up book, which offers a step-by-step plan for depression-proofing. However, some of the concepts do lead into exercises that I use.

One of my client intake questions is, “Do you have words to describe the purpose of your life?” If clients aren’t able to answer that question, I encourage them to work with it and come up with some statement that guides their efforts.

In dealing with anxiety, I have clients tell me or write down the thoughts and excuses that are keeping them from their creative work. Then we explore together what the underlying anxieties might be that prompt them to use these excuses. Difficulty choosing a project, for example, often masks worries that a project will fail or be a waste of time. So we question the definition of failure or come to grips with the real risks and rewards of committing to an idea.

I also have clients get specific about their goals or desired outcomes for a project, or even their creative career as a whole. This exercise helps us see where their meaning goals are short-term or long-term, goals that can be met in the creative process or only after completion, goals that are within their control or not. Then we can recalibrate to make sure that their needs for meaning are being met immediately, daily, in ways they can influence, so they can sustain their creative efforts.

 

Would you recommend this book to a client to read? Can you think of a situation when a client might benefit from this book?

The Van Gogh Blues is a book I recommend often to clients in conjunction with Rethinking Depression, which includes practical steps for creating a meaning practice. I recommend it specifically if a client mentions a history or symptoms of depression such as anhedonia (lack of enjoyment), sadness, or doubt about the significance of their life and work.

In September/October 2015, I ran an online book club for The Van Gogh Blues. We had 20 participants, and it was illuminating to see how they responded to reading the book and answering questions about each chapter over the course of six weeks.

Most of all, people appreciated having a safe environment where they could talk about their experience of depression openly, without worrying about stigma or judgment. We used Maisel’s ideas as a jumping-off point to share stories, encouragement, and helpful ways of dealing with depression. People appreciated being able to read in a group and think more deeply about the content.

Participants were also up-front about the limits of Maisel’s work, ranging from difficulty with his terminology (the vagueness of “meaning”) to some frustration with his ideas around “forcing” life to mean. Not everyone felt compelled by the book, but it gave us something to react to and work with.

My online article Ten Signs of Walking Depression has attracted a lot of traffic and has been valuable in helping people recognize low-grade depression in themselves and connect it to their thwarted creative drive. Maisel’s book provides a portrait and diagnosis of creator’s depression that points people in the direction of the remedy they need.

 

What are your 3-5 favourite sentences or paragraphs from this book that you would like to remember for all time and quote to your clients?

I used two quotations from The Van Gogh Blues in my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire, and they are some of the most frequently highlighted passages in that book, according to Amazon.

“Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavour to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning. This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: It is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing because she is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow. Even creating well can be depressing because of the lingering sense that what she is doing is only veneering meaninglessness.” p. 5-6

“‘What is my right path?’ ‘All paths are the same; they end up in the same place. What is important is to ask yourself, ‘Does this path have a heart?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that is the right path for you.” p. 185

I also appreciate these quotations:

“I believe that depression in creative individuals is best thought of as a meaning crisis caused by chronic, persistent uneasiness, irritation, anger, and sadness about the facts of existence and life’s apparent lack of meaning.” p. 19

“If they can overcome the emotional blocks to this examination, if they can come up with a personal creed that they find believable, and if they can learn to recognize how every second either supports or endangers the meaning they intend to make, they have a decent chance of living a life that feels meaningful to them.” p. 35

“This is the conversation about meaning that contemporary people fear they will have and expect they will have once they admit that meaning is a problem. They recognize that, like Ionesco, they are victims of the righteous demise of blind faith, the installation of materialism as the world’s reigning philosophy, and the widespread meta-analysis of belief that casts all belief into doubt. They recognize they are victims of increased knowledge, increased awareness, and a paucity of meaning options. To the question, ‘Why not have a little conversation about meaning?’ they are inclined to answer, ‘No, thanks! I know where I’ll end up, which is more depressed than I am right now.’” p. 42

“How many creators feel like parasites? Like untouchables? If you are one of these creators, you have to change your mind and heal your heart. You have to tell yourself, ‘I am the beauty in life. It took a whole universe to create me and here I stand, fully human.’ The song you write may be beautiful, the research you conceive may be beautiful, but you are the real beauty in life. Your sense of your own beauty will colour everything and bring you a measure of peace, even as your trials continue.” p. 120-121

 

I’m wondering: what do you think of creator’s depression? Is it a helpful concept? How have you dealt with creator’s depression yourself? 

If creativity coaching sounds like a good thing, you can find out more about how to Work with Me.

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My last post was about emotional labour and how it contributes to creator’s depression. I wanted to continue with some thoughts on how I manage the demands of emotional labour (AKA what I do when putting my hands over my ears and yelling at everyone to leave me alone isn’t an option).

Recognize and name what you’re doing as emotional labour.

There is some confusion out there in the popular media about the overlap between emotional labour and household management. As a technical writer, I appreciate and highly recommend Haley Swenson’s article, Please Stop Calling Everything that Frustrates You Emotional Labour, because it defines emotional labour as separate from 1) labour that creates feelings, 2) activism, 3) scheduling and mental load, and 4) educational labour.

Here’s an example. Scheduling my son’s dental appointment is not emotional labour, it’s logistics. The emotional labour comes in deciding when to tell him about the appointment, listening to him freak out about the appointment while staying calm myself, making sure we leave early enough so that I don’t have to rush him, reminding him of how he’s gotten through these appointments before, refraining from scolding him for not brushing his teeth, squeezing his hand tightly while the dentist inserts the freezing, sitting in the corner reading a magazine during the procedure, and hugging and praising him afterward. That’s the emotional labour of managing my own and Nico’s feelings so I can get him into the dental chair.

As I’ve noticed myself doing this stuff, I’ve given myself a lot more credit for it. I’ll notice when a weekend is emotional labour 24/7 and Monday morning feels like a vacation.

Noticing helps me stay realistic about my capacity. So I’m less inclined to beat myself up for not writing because I know how hard I’m working at other things.

Get someone else to do emotional labour for you.

Family and friends often get tapped to do this, and it’s an important part of relationships. You need someone to listen when you’re complaining about the kids’ latest antics or feeling anxious about money. But emotional labour between friends and family may not always be reciprocal, and they may not be good at it. (No shade here, feelings are just not everyone’s forte.)

This is where I highly recommend calling on a professional.

I don’t have to take care of my therapist AT ALL. I don’t have to ask questions about how she’s doing or remember things about her life. I don’t have to censor or modulate any of my feelings. I can just lay the whole messy pile on the table and she will find the patterns, give it some shape, help me dispose of some feelings and keep others. I can’t even tell you how nurturing this is. When I’m in my therapist’s office, I know I’m safe. She won’t get angry with me or disappointed with me. I won’t suddenly have to apologize or kick myself for saying the wrong thing. Whatever I’m going through, she can handle it. (Side benefit: seeing her perform emotional labour with such skill teaches me how to do it better.)

It’s okay to name your emotions, even when you’re regulating them.

I’m super-conscious of not making my kids responsible for my emotions. It’s not their job to look after my feelings. But sometimes I do such a good job of staying calm when I’m angry, or upbeat when I’m sad, that I worry I run the risk of making them think that their actions aren’t affecting me at all. I realized that there’s a difference between expressing my feelings and making my kids do emotional labour for me.

Now, I try to remember to state how I’m feeling so my kids are aware. For instance, I’ll say, “When you wrecked my [insert personal item here], I felt sad and angry.” Or “I’m really frustrated because we’re late.” Then I feel like my humanity has been acknowledged and they get a chance to be more thoughtful. (Side benefit: they copy my modelling. The other night my 10yo son said, “When Lia [does that sibling thing], I don’t feel safe or respected.” !!! Proud mama moment, that.)

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

No one can make me do emotional labour for others. I don’t owe it to anyone. I have promised it to my husband and kids, but I can still set reasonable limits with them.

But people-pleasers like me have a hard time exercising their right to say no. So maybe here is where the naming and noticing emotional labour can be put to good use. Say I’m in a conflict with someone—I’m upset with them or they’re upset with me. In the past, I might have done everything I could to resolve things to reassure myself and them that I’m a good person. Now I check my boundaries first. How much am I willing to extend myself? Is this relationship important enough to demand the emotional labour required? Then I make the decision based on my capacity and willingness to repair the relationship. I might engage or I might just let things go. And that’s okay; I’m just one human, after all.

One big insight that came to me during a parenting class I took this fall was about how boundaries are protective, not punitive. They’re protective for me, yes, because they preserve my energy and keep me from getting resentful. But they’re protective for other people too. Boundaries stop others from taking advantage. They communicate that I’m a safe person who can be trusted to take care of myself. They teach others about what’s appropriate or legitimate to ask for. And boundaries help people learn to take responsibility for their own emotional labour.

When I set and enforce a boundary, I’m not trying to punish the other person. I’m just reminding us all who I am, where my responsibility starts and ends.

I think I’ll end it there for now. I’d like to know from you, how do you manage the demands on your emotional labour? What works for you?

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My family doctor first diagnosed me with clinical depression in 2002, when I was twenty-nine years old. Despite the fact that I had experienced stress and depression in high school and university, it was still a shock to admit that I was a person with mental health issues and that I needed to get treatment.

Coming to terms with creator’s depression

Reading Eric Maisel’s work on depression in creative people was a big help in reconciling me to my condition. Instead of seeing myself as sick, weak, or broken, I recognized that I was someone who had a high need for meaning and self-expression. That pull toward meaning felt like a strength, a positive quality. Yes, it made me prone to depression, but it also made me sensitive, motivated, and thoughtful, driven to live from a clear sense of purpose. I was able to embrace my experience of creator’s depression, to own it, and to be public about it, because I could see it as an occupational hazard of my vocation as a writer, not as a defect.

Creator’s depression is Eric Maisel’s term. He says, “the depression that creative people face is fundamentally caused by their upsetness with the facts of existence and their difficulties in making and maintaining meaning.” (The Van Gogh Blues, p. 223)

I was also attached to the idea of leaving depression behind, walking away from it. I worked really hard on healing—taking medication, seeing my doctor regularly, going to numerous therapists and counsellors, and changing my life to reduce stress and prioritize my own dreams and goals. I’m proud of the work I did. I faced some hard truths about my limiting beliefs, like “If I do the right thing all the time, nothing bad will happen to me,” and “I can’t be happy unless everyone else is happy.”

This story, of my first deep encounter with and recovery from depression, is the story I tell in my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire. It’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end—a full walk of the labyrinth, the inward journey of Release, the still centre of Illumination, and the outward journey of Reunion. I believe it’s a good story—hopeful, honest, and helpful for its true audience.

And the larger story of my life carries on after Pilgrimage of Desire ends. In 2015, just after my memoir was published, I entered the labyrinth again. My depression returned.

It took about six months for me to admit that I was depressed again. Not because I didn’t recognize it, not because it was mild (it wasn’t), but because I was ashamed. How could I, as a coach and author and a smart person, let myself get depressed again? I felt like I had gotten over-confident, that I had failed to apply what I knew and take care of myself. (Of course, that was the depression talking.)

Now it’s three years later. I am stable on medication (Celexa and Dexedrine). I see my psychiatrist for group medical visits. I support my immune system with supplements. My naturopath monitors my hormone levels. I have weekly sessions with my therapist. I’m mentally healthy, and I can look at my relapse with the clarity of time and realistic thinking.

So what have I learned? Why did I relapse? What, if anything, could I have done to prevent it?

I have a feeling that it will take me several posts to answer these questions thoroughly, so I’m going to start with one topic that touches on many aspects of my identity: as a creator, as a people-pleaser, as a wife, daughter, and mother.

I know a lot of people who share these traits. I know many of us are looking for answers to why we struggle with feelings of overwhelm, resentment, hopelessness, and despair, even when our lives look pretty good from the outside. What I’ve learned has been hard-won, and sharing it with others feels like putting that pain and effort to good use. So here goes.

Emotional labour: the hidden tax

Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning.

Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad. At home, this might mean giving solace to a crying child with warm words and a calm demeanor or intervening between your mom and your sister when a fight about Trump threatens to ruin Thanksgiving.

Haley Swenson, Slate

Emotional labour is a concept that has caught mainstream attention in a powerful way recently. I first encountered it in 2015 on  MetaFilter, in this thread. … And wow, did I feel validated. An enormous part of my work as a human—work that I poured a lot of effort into, work at which I was quite skilled—had been largely invisible, even to me. And now it had a name and a public conversation around it.

Here’s the thing. At that time, I had become the hub of emotional support in our family. My kids’ emotions were getting more complex as they approached the middle grades, and I was having to dig deeper to help them process their fear, anger, and sadness and to solve the problems that were causing them turmoil. My husband’s job was becoming more demanding, which meant I was picking up slack at home and helping him cope with the extra stress from work. This emotional labour looked like: soothing my kids when they had meltdowns, comforting them through tears at bedtime, peacemaking between the siblings, prepping them for stressful situations and transitions, and talking to teachers and parents about what was happening in the classroom and on the playground.

And that’s just the emotional labour I performed at home. I also did this work with friends and extended family, at church, with my coaching clients, and on freelance jobs. Many people, especially women, do this emotional management all the time. That MetaFilter thread has hundreds of examples. I could give you six examples just from yesterday. I’m sure you’ve got your own.

How emotional labour triggers creator’s depression

Looking back, I can see how doing a lot more emotional labour contributed to my relapse.

Emotional labour takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy away from creative work.

In my experience, one hour of emotional labour does not equal one hour of purely physical or mental labour. I find emotional labour much more draining than cooking, cleaning, or even writing, and it takes me longer to recover.

Why? I would love to research a good solid scientific answer. Right now I have my anecdotal evidence, in which an emotional crisis at home requires every ounce of my empathy, ingenuity, faith, and patience, and can knock me down for a day or even a week. Where the low-level effort of acting normal and happy in public when I feel sad or upset sends me straight to bed for a nap.

With all that I was pouring into emotional management, I had even less to devote to the work of creativity: reading, writing, daydreaming, promoting my books, and keeping my mood up in order to do all of the above. And creators are vulnerable to depression when they’re not creating.

Emotional labour is often unrecognized, which makes it feel less meaningful.

So I’m doing all this demanding emotional work. But I’m not getting paid for it. I’m not getting a promotion to Vice President of Mothering. I’m not earning my degree in Advanced Parenting Techniques. When I get asked what I accomplished in a day, I’m not listing the hours I spent listening, validating, problem-solving, and limit-setting—basically acting as someone else’s prefrontal cortex.

When I can’t spend as much time creating, I try to find meaning in other activities that matter to me. Parenting and emotional labour are important to me. But because they don’t get the same recognition (let alone the same pay) as other types of work, their meaning can leak away, making me more susceptible to depression.

The burden of competence means we take take on more than our fair share.

What makes us creative often makes us good at emotional labour. Keen observation and self-reflection, a sense of justice and compassion, a desire for joy and beauty … the skills that attract us to art also make us good at managing emotions and give us the incentive to do so. And because we’re good at it, we end up doing more of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being good at emotional labour. I want to keep getting better at it. I love being of service. When I’ve turned a situation around, when a kid goes from screaming to smiling and saying, “I love you,” I feel on top of the world.

But the more emotional labour I do for those around me, the fewer resources I have left for myself and my creative work. And again, I’m left vulnerable to a deficit of meaning and depression that entails.

Our life design needs to take emotional labour into account

I’ve written a lot about making life changes so we can prioritize our creative work. Practical things like doing less volunteering and reducing our household chores. Now I’m beginning to understand that we need to consider how much emotional labour we’re doing and how it’s impacting our ability to create art and maintain meaning.

I hope to write more about how I’ve addressed the demands of emotional labour in my own life. For now, I’d love to know: How does this strike you? Do you see a personal connection between depression and emotional labour? What does it mean for you?

Please leave a comment or share your thoughts privately through email. This is an important conversation to have, I think.

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