Dealing with Creative Grief

The strange tension of being a creative person who wants to be sensitive to the world to gather inspiration is that you tend to also be sensitive to the pain and fear of being a creative person in the world. 

I know so many people who love the process of doing their creative work, but the process of ‘performing about’ that creative work (on social media, creating ‘content’, doing the online dance,) has led them to so many difficult places – whether burnout, overwhelm, self doubt, or even despair. It’s the liminal space of those two places: doing the work and ‘performing’ about the work that I wanted to explore today with you.

One of the key things we’re told to remember when feeling emotional pain is the fact that we’re not alone, so I thought it might be nice to share some of the different types of creative grief you may experience as a creative soul – and, if possible, lend a thought to how these universal emotions can not only be okay, but even enriching to our creative lives. In other words, creative grief isn’t a bug in the system, it’s a feature within it. 

Here are a few personal thoughts on three types of grief you might have encountered:

1) Grief That It Didn’t Go The Way You Wanted

I could fill a memoir or two about all of the things I’d envisioned for myself with my creative work that didn’t come to pass. Books that got shelved. Opportunities that got missed. Goals and visions that got sidelined. Sometimes things don’t go our way because they quite literally don’t work out. But sometimes? We do hit the goals, only to discover that they took way too much out of us to get there, or they aren’t all they were cracked up to be in our original visions.

In all of these scenarios, the grief can feel equal parts heavy and unfair. Despite what we’re told as kids, the world isn’t a meritocracy, and hard work and commitment don’t guarantee anything. (Or rather, they may not guarantee the particular vision you’re working towards!) So what do we do?

The advice we hear when someone feels these disappointments is often something like, “But look at what you do have! Be grateful!” and other platitudes that may make you want to toss your laptop into the sea.

Now, gratitude is essential and has a place in a healthy creative heart. But weaponizing gratitude as a way to put blinders on the very real grief that you’re feeling is just a recipe for a deeper problem – namely, you’ll bypass the version of yourself who was brave enough to shoot for that outcome in the first place. That is the person worth fighting for, even if it means witnessing the grief that comes with them. In this way, allowing grief is just honouring yourself.

When you consider how brave it is to simply have a goal, it seems to be easier to lend ourselves compassion for when they don’t go to plan. To help with this, over more than a decade of creative entrepreneurship, I’ve developed a policy on Crappy Feelings. It’s just three words: It’s all allowed.

If you feel the sting of unfairness, bad timing, bad luck, resentment, or just plain old ugh about how a project went for you (or didn’t go), allow it. The good thing about creativity is that it doesn’t run out, and by processing the stuff that hurts, you’ll always open up new possibilities – either for that project, or another one. There’s no wasted work, and the grief you allow yourself to process becomes the fertilizer for your next steps.

2) Grief That Your Work Went Unseen

This is a funny one, because I’ve found that no matter who you are (and how many eyeballs are directed towards your stuff), you’ll probably experience some form of disappointment about who sees your creations. We know it’s about quality and not quantity – but sometimes you just crave the big win or that “name in lights” moment where the clouds seem to open up and the magic of big visibility happens.

You may not want all of your work to be seen by others, but there’s one thing about being human that we all share, which is the primal emotional need to be valued and recognized. A rock solid emotional state might say something like, “it doesn’t matter how many people see this, I value and recognize myself, and that’s all I need!” 

But let’s be real – we’re not always in a rock solid emotional state, are we? I wish I could say that’s what I’m thinking every time I hit ‘publish’ on The Brave Edit columns! But we’re all human, and it’s not vain to want recognition. It’s baked into our brains, and it’s not anything to hide from or dress up with noble aims that feel more socially accepted. 

But, factor in the world of social media superstars, branded personas, and platform envy, it’s very easy to get lost in chasing the metrics, and thinking that number of eyeballs equals the amount of value that you inherently have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the advice “You’ve got to provide value to get attention online”, and it’s a short walk from that statement to “If you don’t have lots of attention online, that means you’re not valuable.”

Gross, right?

To put it as bluntly as I can in case you need to hear it today: This isn’t true. You’re valuable no matter what, and part of the creative’s path is to (clumsily) hold the tension between wanting to share your work as widely as it calls for, but also knowing that your relationship with that work is really what it’s all about. We’ve got to know that we want to be seen, but also that’s it’s A-Okay if we’re not.

It’s not easy, but it’s also not something you’re alone on. (And if you’re reading this and nodding your head and haven’t subscribed to this Substack– what the heck are you waiting for?!

3) Grief That Your Creative Work Hurt You:

See also, burnout, exhaustion, overwork, and misplaced priorities. Sometimes, the combination of our creative dreams and motivation can create its own momentum. We all have the best intentions to do our work without hurting ourselves (mentally, physically, or otherwise), but let’s face it: sometimes we get caught up in some of the stuff we’ve just talked about and creative work becomes more about “void-filling” than it does “heart-fuelling”. 

This has happened to me a lot, and I know that it’s common with anyone who is an overachiever sort, or who was known as a kid as “an old soul”. (In my experience, ‘old souls’ are often people who got very good at hiding their emotions for various reasons!)

It’s easy to subscribe to the common belief that you are your achievements. So, when we feel like we’re disappearing in the world, overwork can sometimes step in as a way for us to assert ourselves again. (The unfortunate phrase ‘publish or perish’ comes to mind right now.)

When your creative work hurts you, it, well… hurts. But I don’t just mean the pain you’re feeling from burnout, or overwhelm, or whatever situation brought you there. I’m talking about the grief we feel when we get hurt, and then start to mistrust the creativity that brought us there. You may start to question if your creativity is the enemy, or if you’re simply being jerked around by the dreams you used to love holding onto so much. And it sucks to not trust yourself, doesn’t it?

If you ever feel this way, my best advice is to look a little deeper. Being driven and ambitious is one thing, but I’ve found that most hustling and overworked types aren’t actually working towards something – they’re working away from something. (And often, that thing is pain.) Finding ways to remind yourself that you’re already complete – with or without your creative accomplishments – is hard, but worth the work. 

4) Grief That You’ll Never Live Up To It All

Here’s an embarrassing fact about me: I can’t watch any movie about a creative woman of history without getting a little emotional. Seeing Saoirse Ronan’s version of Jo March clutch her freshly bound book to her chest makes me tear up. Watching Renée Zellwegger play Beatrix Potter, dipping her tattered paint brush in water while adding a blue waistcoat to her rabbit drawing just gets me. It’s a visceral experience, like I can feel the creative energy of those women echoing through history, driving me forward. (Sidenote: We creative folks are all a bit odd, aren’t we?)

It’s not just because these ladies existed in a time when it was unheard of for women to be professional creatives. It’s because in doing the work I love, I feel connected to that long line of women who felt the call to creativity and tried their best to work with it. To do something with it, knowing full well it would be tough at times. It’s a creative fellowship of sorts, even though I will only ever meet these souls through the work they’ve left behind. 

But, with that deep sense of truly feeling reverence for the creative work you love, you can also put pressure on yourself to live up to it. Anytime someone says to me “I’m afraid that I won’t live up to my potential”, I know there is some shade of this particular kind of grief within them.

We’ve got a natural drive to create, but also an innate desire to cultivate our best. On a good day, that can mean a fire in the belly to withstand the ebbs and flows of a creative life. On a bad day, it can feel like a crushing weight on your shoulders that makes it feel impossible to pick up a pen. “What’s the point,” you may ask yourself, “when I’ll never be as good as I want to be?”

When this happens, I remind myself that creative living isn’t meant to be the straight shot, rags to riches, ultra-cultivated narrative that we’re all submerged in. Creativity is a spiralled path, and that means that along with ups and downs, we’re also going to feel ourselves yanked backwards and slingshotted forward at a moment’s notice – only to start the process anew when we find our footing. How you feel matters, but because your feelings are temporary, they aren’t good indicators of where you actually are on the path. 

When in doubt, pick up your weapon. Or rather, your accomplice. A pen. A paintbrush. A guitar. A computer. Whatever it is that feels like an extension of you is likely the doorway to what’s calling. Creative people usually recognize the tools that make them come alive, but all forms of grief can force us back into our heads, where it’s easy to get lost in the swamps of should or could.

And that’s where grief can get stuck – because there’s no thinking your way out of it. 

Instead of thinking, feel your way through, and lean on the tools (literally and figuratively) that you’ve already got. They — along with time — won’t fail you.

Because that’s what it all comes back to, isn’t it? Creativity isn’t about what we’re making – it’s that we’re making. And the most important creation of all is the person you’re becoming as you create, which includes the joys, the fears, and yes… even the grief. In the words of Beatrix Potter, (the real one, that is, not Zellwegger’s version), “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” 

But we do know some things, too. If we trust and know that all paths contain grief, but they also contain joy, too, then it becomes our job to be open to both. Creative work, – like life – comes with no guarantees. But since when did that stop you before?