Reflecting and rethinking end of year blues

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss

“For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

– T.S. Eliot

We are in the home stretch of the year, and while it can feel like a time of celebration, it can also bring a feeling of ambiguity about ourselves, our work, and our direction. We are not quite at an end and not quite a beginning.  

It’s a time when projects are coming to an end, when we may revisit our wishlist for the year and spot the ideas or plans we may have left unmet, we might be rushing to complete overhanging items on our to do lists, and ask ourselves big questions about the direction of our careers in the looming New Year.

We may feel the strain of having to push through on our physical or mental health – or, for many arts workers and creatives, feel a greater strain that has accumulated from pushing through all year long.

But it’s also a time when we celebrate what we have accomplished, further adding to emotional confusion. All at once, we can feel exhaustion and excitement, be in both a frenzy and full of fatigue, feel joy and stress, have end of year blues and New Year anticipation. 

Melanie Knight, who works across arts events such as Dead Letter Club and in art therapy, describes her own feelings as a ‘heavy bag of battle wounds, but an equally full sack of big achievements and milestones.’

She has observed similar emotions in the people around her. ‘As far as noticing the other creatives around me, I can see the metaphorical limping and hobbling toward the finish line, but, I look in their eyes and the twinkle is there shining still,’ said Knight.

Kayla Robertson, the host of All Being Well podcast, feels just that. ‘I feel like I’m limping across the finish line rather than excitedly planning for the summer. I’m exhausted. I created a number of projects this year that really called me to dig deep and reach for courage. They pushed me to my limits and required huge reserves of emotional energy – not to mention time. I feel so much joy for what I’ve created, and grateful that I put my heart and soul into it – but I haven’t left very much energy for myself, and I’m drained as the year comes to a close.’

It can also be a confusing time when we simultaneously feel proud of our achievements, but almost as if we haven't done enough. While writer, artist and podcast host Madison Griffiths feels more considered and patient this year, these ‘slow times’ are also laced with feelings of shame. ‘Funnily enough, I looked at one of those kitsch end-of-year Facebook videos today and felt as if – on the outside – I had achieved a significant amount, but I still feel, deep down, that it wasn’t enough.’

Even if you’re not particularly sentimental about the turn of a New Year, it can be helpful to take stock and reflect at any point of your career, process, or project – and dig a little deeper to inspect what feelings are bubbling up around the surface.

Here, several creatives share their approaches and tips for celebration, reflection and re-evaluating the end of year blues. 

22 ways to approach the end of year blues

1. Dealing with no ‘off’ switch’

‘As creatives, we feel so much joy from creating and being in a state of flow, however there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes to lead to that – whether it’s working two jobs, hustling a side project, the logistics that support our craft, or putting countless hours in to our projects to get something "just right". This work doesn’t fall into a traditional 9-to-5 working hours and there isn’t an "off switch".

'It’s important that we approach our work mindfully, and that we balance our wellbeing and self-care alongside our creative pursuits. Not only because it’s good for our health, but because it’s good for our craft too – our creativity is better for it. After all, it’s difficult to produce inspired work when we’re feeling worn out. The words of work-life coach Kate McCready come to mind, when she said: “The idea of having work on one side and life on the other doesn’t really make sense, because there’s a connecting element between the two – the self. We have one self and one life and we cannot separate them out.”’ – Kayla Robertson, All Being Well podcast

2. Know there are a myriad of reasons for the end of year blues

‘There are any number of reasons that someone might be touched by melancholy around this time of year. From what I've witnessed and experienced, it ranges from family or work pressure, to feelings of inadequacy in not achieving or being where you might've hoped to be. It might be financial or something unexpected and tragic. There are more reasons any one of us might be experiencing the blues than there are stars. That's kind of sad but I quite like relating these feelings to something as vast as the cosmos to help remind me how unique but connected we all are.’ – Melanie Knight, Dead Letter Club

3. Check in with your feelings of disappointment

‘Mentally, this time of year can also lead to disappointment and self-criticism. Perhaps there are goals that we never got around to, things that we’ve tried and "failed" or we haven’t achieved all that we hoped we would. These feelings naturally come to the foreground in December as we consider how our year has unfolded and what we’ve accomplished, and can weigh us down with heavy hearts.’ – Kayla Robertson

4. The quiet power of a new list

‘Make new lists! I did this recently. I made a brand new list of publications to eventually pitch to, and projects to embark on. I formatted it differently to before. I updated it slowly. But also, spend a lot of time outside and absorbing other things: be it new podcasts, new books, a new journal. Rid yourself of the pressures of "creating" over the silly season.’ – Madison Griffiths, artist, writer and co-host of No Chill podcast 

‘It’s the perfect time to take a look back. List out everything that you’ve achieved throughout the year. Again, it might be personal, or it might be a list that you’ve achieved with your team or company. Just this week, we listed out everything that we’ve done this year as a team. When you put it all together like that, and visualise it, you can find you’re quite surprised about how much you’ve got through.’ – Andy Wright, Founder of Never Not Creative  

5. Let your body catch up with your mind

‘I'm experiencing a kind of blues this year as I did last year, mostly related to how much my mental and physical health has suffered from overwork and stress. It's difficult to have a heart and head full of ambition with a body that has called time out. Each of us has our own way to heal and re-fuel, we intrinsically know what that is – the tough part is listening to yourself and giving yourself permission to self-care. Feeling drained is your body communicating to you: "enough".’ – Melanie Knight

6. Exercise your no muscle

‘I’m a big believer in listening to the wisdom of the body. When we’re feeling tired, flat or drained, it’s our body’s signal to us that we need to rest and recharge. When I feel like this, I practice my "no" muscle, gracefully declining social invites that aren’t particularly meaningful to me so that I can spend time replenishing my energy. This also means that, when I do go to events, I get to be there fully. No rushing from one party to the next or watching the clock or changing outfits in-between celebrations. I can put away my phone and focus entirely on being there in the present moment and enjoy the company I’m in.’ – Kayla Robertson

7. Are you in a post-deadline slump?

‘The end of the year seems to always end up as a deadline for something. Sometimes it’s a project deadline, others a personal deadline. I guess it’s nice to be able to wrap things up before the holidays so you can focus on time with friends and family. It makes sense, but it does mean that those last couple of months or weeks can get particularly frantic. 

'Then, once you’ve met those deadlines, there’s a bit of a comedown. You’ve been running on fumes for weeks and it’s only when you stop that you realise what you’ve been doing to yourself.’ – Andy Wright

8. Do small things

‘Get off social media is number one for me when I’m experiencing end of year blues. Get into the air and trees and pens and paper. Scribble, write letters, make sandcastles, do small creative things that are not driven by a result … let yourself input instead of output for a bit. For me writing letters, visiting galleries, spending time listening to all the music that I have Shazamed properly, drawing, and looking at the water helps. It is important to recognise if these little things are not helping lift your mood after a period of time. If you find this to be the case, please talk to someone. Self-care is not necessarily a solitary action.' – Melanie Knight

9. Observe the ups and downs, not judge

‘What I'm learning is how important it is to observe what the ups and downs are made from. If there can be an understanding or noticing the qualities of when things are tough or great then it is possible to recognise if it has happened before. Use that to inform how to manage the current experience – do something differently or remember that you did get through it by taking a certain action.’ – Melanie Knight

10. What has been neglected due to busyness?

‘Physically, I find that December can be the busiest time of year, with work pressures, deadlines and competing priorities all combining. When we’re squeezed for time, our self-care routines are often the first thing that we neglect. Whether it’s yoga, running and meditation, or planning and preparing healthy meals, they all add up to help us feel our best. When we then combine the end of year parties, and the eating habits and excessive drinking that are synonymous with them, it can exacerbate our feelings of stress and anxiety.’ – Kayla Robertson 

11. Do a brain-dump

‘I find at this time of year – or generally whenever there is a feeling of stuckness – that being overly cognitive is just too much. I like to visually "map" out what the year looked like, what things were ticked off, what new avenues appeared, tangents to be explored, what was disappointing, what was excellent! This quick brain-dump is quite energising as I sit in front of a big sheet of paper, drawing bubbles and lines and scribbling everywhere, somehow it all comes out without referring back to notes, or databases or whatever. It's driven by my sense of the year, rather than the facts and figures of the year.’ – Melanie Knight

12. Find a meditative exercise that works for you

‘If I’m grappling with an emotion that’s particularly thorny, such as anxiety, Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation is a wonderful tool for mindfulness and compassion. This includes:

Recognising what is happening, and name the emotion;

Allow the experience to be there as it is, and create space to sit with it;

Investigate with curiosity and care what the causes of it might be, and the consequences;

Nurture with self-compassion and kindness. Ask your wisest self what you need right now.’ – Kayla Robertson

13. Something has got to give

‘For me, it’s not end of year blues but end of year overwhelm – I’m exhausted, but excited. Both come from burning the candle at both ends. When I’m overwhelmed, I know that either something has got to give – that is, I have to give up something – or I just need to push through until I start completing projects and ticking items off the list. The relief I feel when I’ve finally completed a long-term project is incredible and I usually try to trick myself by giving myself rewards once a project is done or a milestone is reached.’ – Valerie Khoo, visual artist, author, City of Sydney’s Curator of 2019 Sydney Lunar Festival 

14. Use your diverse interests as drivers

‘Even though I’m working longer hours than ever before, I truly believe that having a diverse range of interests is energising. I love getting ideas from different industries or disciplines and applying them to other areas, so I love adapting what I know from the world of business and using them in my art practice. And the other way around. I’m a big fan of making sure you spend time connecting with people outside of your industry because some of your best ideas will come from them.’ – Valerie Khoo

15. Finding time for the new

‘I dedicate myself as much as I can to calendars. I think about the people I have met this year, or come across in my creative practice, who I want to spend more time with. Sometimes I even make a drastic change so that the following year is framed or laced with newness: be it a haircut, or a change in jobs, or apartments. Whatever’s accessible and comfortable.’ – Madison Griffiths

16. Share your work and connect

‘As creatives it’s often hard to look back on your achievements. There’s this idea that, in the moment, whatever we’re doing is never good enough. The need for perfectionism always increases the pressure that we put on ourselves. In our recent research into the creative industry, we found that the leading cause of stress is indeed, the pressure that we put on ourselves. Depending on how it affects you, this can also lead to higher symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are of course many other causes like the pressures others put on us, long hours, family and financial responsibility and also feelings of isolation. All of these have been proven to cause symptoms of mental ill-health.

‘I think it can help to share your work with your friends and family. Speak with them about what you’ve done this year – and before you worry about whether this is bragging – remember, this is your friends and family. They want to see your accomplishments. They want to hear that you’re happy. Sharing stuff like this can really help you and also help you feel valued.’ – Andy Wright 

17. Set objectives rather than resolutions

Initially, I wasn’t going to do a lot of planning for my art practice this year. I was just going to see what unfolded. However, a friend of mine facilitated a planning session at the start of the year and, through her exercises, we had to write down our income goals, how much art we wanted to create and sell, what we wanted to achieve in terms of our creative output, what courses we wanted to do and so on. I never expected how powerful this exercise would be. When I stopped to reflect last week, I think everything I outlined had eventuated. So now I’m a big fan of planning and will certainly be sitting down with the same friend in January to do the same for 2019.’ – Valerie Khoo

18. Know there is a connection between mental health and job satisfaction

‘One of the biggest findings from our study #mentallyhealthy18 is that your level of job satisfaction can significantly contribute to good or poor mental health. It’s therefore no surprise that ups and downs relating to work can often relate to how successful you feel you are in what you do. Are you utilising skills? Are you being rewarded fairly? Are you overworking? Of course, any job can go through ups and downs, but one of the biggest reasons for these for creatives can be, “is your work being recognised”? So often, projects can go nowhere. We throw 95% of our ideas away to get to “the one”. That can be incredibly demoralising. It can be compensated for by “the one” but it’s a short sharp hit of satisfaction. Then you hit the much longer trail again, searching for the next one. It’s so important to find your satisfaction and meaning in the doing, not just the output of your work.’ – Andy Wright 

19. Don’t plan

‘Personally, I’m not big on plans. It’s so easy to have one and then something out of your control happens to blow it to bits. I definitely have a few objectives, but how I get there I try and keep adaptable. We’re in a time where feedback is immediate, competition is proliferating more and more everyday, so it’s really hard (and not always right) to stubbornly stick to something just because it was “your plan”. 

‘The key thing is to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you stop now and again and find that you don’t know the answer to that question, then that’s when you need to re-evaluate. It’s also the way you’ll stay true to yourself and find meaning in your work.’ – Andy Wright

20. Stop the busyness bragging

‘Stop bragging about being busy, or under the pump or how many hours your working. I know you’re not really bragging, but you really shouldn’t be wearing it like a badge of pride either. Find a way to stop what you’re doing, move onto something different for yourself, or for friends and family. Admire the people that leave at 5.30pm. Be one of them. Reward and applaud them. Make sure your employees or peers aren’t coming to work sick. We need to build healthy work environments – places that you want to return to, not feel like you’re kept hostage by.’ – Andy Wright

21. The creative sector has a role in addressing end of year blues

‘Broadly speaking, there needs to be more funding. There needs to be more opportunities for artists and art workers to be empowered to ask for what their value is, and what opportunities exist. There needs to be formal accountability for arts organisations – so much work is freelance, many creatives slip through the cracks and have no pathway to pursue equity.’ – Kayla Robertson

22. Wellbeing is not just a holiday priority

‘It’s important that the arts sector prioritises the wellbeing of creatives throughout the entire year – not just over the holidays. This means creating processes that allow creatives to feel seen, supported and nurtured throughout the creative process – having a thoughtful briefing process to ensure project roles and goals are clearly and realistically defined, workloads are managed, and then a de-briefing process is put in place to share lessons learned and to thank the team for their work.

'What’s more, the sector also needs to acknowledge that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It can’t be neatly contained within standard working hours, and it can be influenced by a number of factors – including stress from inside and outside the workplace. Staff wellbeing programs, including those that address mental health, are so valuable to support staff when needed. After all, if we can manage our workloads and stresses throughout the year, we can hopefully avoid the feeling of burn-out that comes in December. That’s certainly what I’ll be prioritising as we move into 2019.’ – Kayla Robertson

This article was originally published as part of my monthly column on ArtsHub

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Madeleine Dore