You’ve been working on this project for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. You’ve lost sleep over it, forgotten to eat. Your family is worried. They haven’t seen you in ages, and your friends removed you from the group chat days ago.
You can’t remember the last time you had contact with the outside world, besides the pizza delivery boy who now knows your address by heart. Nothing can come between you and this project. You’re completely immersed with razor-sharp focus.
You finally understand what Hungarian psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) describes as flow, the merging of action and awareness, paired with the loss of self-consciousness.
Seeming to transcend time and space, flow is a mental state of equilibrium that’s difficult to access and even more difficult to sustain. As described in the Concept of Flow, the challenges of a project and skills needed to achieve said project must be in constant balance.
“If challenges begin to exceed skills, one first becomes vigilant and then anxious; if skills begin to exceed challenges, one first relaxes and then becomes bored.” — Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
The fact that you’ve managed to tap into that flow at all is an accomplishment in itself. Congratulate yourself before it’s too late because here’s the kicker.
Once this project is finished, chances are the adrenaline rush associated with flow will die as quickly as it appeared. No matter how proud you are, no matter how much praise it receives, the internal response to a completed product never quite surpasses the excitement associated with the process of creating it.
You’ll be left feeling depleted and sometimes even depressed.
Whether it’s an article, a movie script, a marketing campaign for a new business venture, or a commissioned mural, I think we can agree that we’ve all experienced this deep-rooted, inevitable sense of disappointment.
What is Post-Project Depression?
Similar to postpartum depression in mothers, psychologists have coined the term post-creative or post-project depression. Releasing a creative project into the world often feels like “giving birth.” The exhaustion and lack of control we feel once the project is completed and up for review is often inescapable. Plus, most artists never receive the critical acclaim they desire or deserve.
In fact, there’s an old rumor about Pablo Picasso that claims he had been caught on numerous occasions painting over his completed artwork that hung in prestigious museums. A painting that could be sold for millions was forever flawed and unfinished in the eyes of its creator.
While we may never understand his staggering success, we can all relate to this feeling of inadequacy. It’s comforting to know that even Picasso never mastered the fine art of letting go, but you have to wonder…
Why are we so insecure about our achievements? And why do we insist on creating when our creations leave us lackluster?
In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke,
“If you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour.”
And that’s the motto of every radical artistic person you’ll meet. We put every ounce of energy into a single project, in hopes of receiving the validation we’ve been scrounging hidden corners of the earth for.
But when we finally finish, whether it has taken three weeks, ten years, or a lifetime, we suddenly feel depleted. There’s an emptiness, a hole inside that, I suppose, was there all along but felt as though it was being filled by the productivity of our work.
Stop the vicious cycle of creative self-criticism with the power of positive thinking.
So, how do we finally celebrate our creative projects and milestones? Well, it’s simpler than you might think. In fact, that’s an excellent place to start. See, the answer lies right there in your thoughts. You can call upon the power of your own perception in order to adjust your mindset and continue moving forward in your creative endeavors. And you do this by using mantras.
According to Yoga Journal, mantras are often defined as “a thought that protects and liberates the mind of one who repeats it.” A mantra’s purpose is to replace the insistent voice inside our heads, called our inner-speech or internal monologue, which is typically associated with self-doubt and insecurity. Repeating affirmations help bring an abundance of self-gratitude into our lives. These pearls of wisdom fuel our brains with affirmative language, allowing us to harness and release positive energy.
The following five mantras are designed to combat post-project depression and prevent you from feeling the inevitable sadness that comes with success.
“[Fill in the blank] is my form of self-expression but it doesn’t define or detain me.”
If you’re still reading this article, it’s likely that you consider some form of creativity your catharsis.
In other words, it’s the visceral way in which you communicate and express yourself. We all search for purpose, or what the new Disney film, Soul describes as our “spark.”
We want proof that we’ve earned our time on Earth and that our emotions and experiences here actually matter. There are so many facets of creativity, each one of them as equally valid as the last. Whether it’s hitting a world record or gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, we all hope to leave our mark on this world in one way or another.
But here’s the problem…
If you believe that your spark is your purpose, you’ll add unnecessary pressure on yourself to pursue that passion and live up to your own unrealistic expectations, potentially missing out on the real purpose of life — happiness.
Imagine this: A tortured artist, lying on his deathbed, muttering, “But… it was… my life’s work,” and croaking on a mattress of unfulfilled dreams because nobody ever understood the intricacy of his sculptures.
Our mental health dictates our experiences so when our emotions are out of whack, it shows in our art. And while some of the most beautiful work has been a product of mortal melancholy, the same sadness has been the demise of many greats.
Your hobbies and passions don’t define you. They don’t determine the meaning or quality of your life. Your source of income shouldn’t be considered “what you do for a living.” Working is work. Living is life. Art is important, but it’s a reflection of our life’s purpose, not the purpose itself.
The same goes for whatever project you’re currently working on. It is a tiny piece of the cathartic puzzle that is your life. Once you have cemented this first mantra into your brain, you’ll begin to celebrate the creative process as a whole, including the final product.
“I have dreams of changing the world, but it starts with one person at a time.”
In her novel Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert analogizes creative inspiration as invisible bubbles that float above our heads. If we don’t reach up and grab them, the ideas drift away towards another creative soul to pursue.
I’ve personally experienced these outside forces at work when an idea crashes over me like a wave. It’s earth-shattering. Genius. This is it. This is the article that will go viral. This is the script that will make it to the big screen. I get butterflies in my chest, which I can only describe narcissistically as a feeling of falling in love with myself.
But then, as soon as I start to write the idea down, the thrill fades. The words in front of me are small, weak, futile. They seem to serve no purpose. Who do I think I am? Who cares? The devilish voice of self-doubt is a hard one to ignore.
The key? You need to set obtainable goals. Changing the minds of millions and ridding the world of racism, sexism, bigotry, and all other evils isn’t a reasonable objective. Start small and be specific.
Instead of trying to move the masses, focus on one person. For seasoned Medium writer, Jordan Gross, it’s his grandmother. In Zulie Rane’s interview, Jordan says, “I’m just going to try to write my best for myself… and if she’ll read them and love them, then that’s good enough for me.”
This simple outlook has earned Jordan over 10,000 followers and an editing position at Mind Cafe, as well as countless viral articles.
Maybe you create for yourself. I spent seven years writing songs on the piano that I refused to share with anyone. Like journaling, it was a private experience. Looking back, I probably enjoyed playing more before I started sharing my music on social media.
The point wasn’t for approval, it was the joy of playing and improving my craft. Nonetheless, the positive feedback I received was infectious. It felt good. So, maybe you share your art to impress a loved one or to prove an old boss wrong. Sometimes, success is the best revenge. But whoever it’s intended for, let them be enough.
“I create to relate, but art is subjective and I am the only critic that concerns me.”
Some people will love what you do, others won’t care at all. And that’s just something you have to accept.
Take the iconic film Scarface, for example. While it was a hit at the box office, many big movie critics of the time, such as Leonard Maltin, strongly disliked its course language and unnecessary violence. The film was largely dismissed and forgotten by mainstream audiences until years later when it developed a cult following and became a classic gangster film.
I’ll never forget what happened after I watched Shia Labeouf and Evan Rachel Wood’s forgotten film, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. I was alone in my Boston apartment and crying ten minutes into the first scene.
After the credits rolled, I started Googling every scrap of information I could find about the making of and mastermind behind this film. I was quickly escorted down the rabbit-hole of Youtube, learning about how Evan trained for her (some might call offensive) Russian accent, or how Shia was really rolling when his character took Ecstasy in the hostel scene. I thought the script was so well-written and acted.
Maybe I was just emotionally vulnerable the night I watched it, but it struck a heartstring. So I told everyone and their mother to Watch. This. Film. My mother, my sister, my best friends all took my recommendation, but no one really liked it. I couldn’t believe it. I was both confused and slightly offended.
That’s why you can’t give up if the first critic thinks it’s a flop. Look at Hamilton, for example. Renée Elise Goldsberry who plays the major role of Angelica admits in an interview that she wasn’t thrilled to audition. What she considered to be a bizarre theatrical concept went on to become one of the most profitable Broadway musicals of all time.
If Lin-Manuel Miranda had been discouraged, he wouldn’t have spent seven years perfecting every song in that collection. But he believed in himself, and thus won 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“If the creative process gets me high, I’ll accept and seek pleasure in the comedown.”
Addictions — whether to drugs, gambling, sex, or shopping — evoke a sensation of euphoria. We experience similar elation in a flow state, where “a person performing an activity is fully immersed in energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
Finishing a project and being evicted from that blissful creative high feels a lot like what drug addicts call crashing. It’s the ultimate comedown and the misery is both mental and physical. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, a deep sense of disappointment, and aloofness triggered by the return to reality.
Many actors in roles of popular TV series and film sagas confess that post-production, they often experience withdrawal from the character they had played for so long.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, finishing her very successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love provoked total fear and panic that she may never create anything else worth reading. Instead of celebrating the critical acclaim and royalties of her first novel, she became riddled with anxiety about a second book that had yet to exist.
When we finish a project, we’re expected to rest and reflect; however, we live in a society that makes it extremely difficult to unwind. We are overworked, often by choice. According to a survey by CNBC, only 28% of Americans planned to max out their vacation days in 2019.
Considering most employees are only allotted two weeks of paid vacation time, to begin with, this is a very sad and strange phenomenon. Author, Daniel Pink explains in his novel, Drive: The Surprising Truth About Who Motivates Us, that we are intrinsically driven by a desire for mastery.
So, in the words of Psychology Today,
“Even though a desire to rest seems logical, it seems that when we stop pushing so hard, we don’t feel as though we are mastering anything.”
The key to avoiding post-project depression lies in welcoming rest. We could take a note from the Italians, who like to say, “Dolce far Niente,” which means pleasant idleness or “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Easier said than done, I know. Here are a few specific tips to help you seek pleasure in the comedown.
- Disconnect from the incessant stimulation of social media.
- Step away from the finished project. Stop re-reading. Stop refreshing. Stop waiting for feedback.
- Take a walk or a bath. Read a book. Watch a movie. Meditate. Dance. Cook. Do anything that brings you joy and absolves you of guilt and anxiety.
- When you return to the project, review the final result lovingly. Think of your biggest fan. Imagine that you are your biggest fan. After all, you should be.
“I do not need validation in the form of fame or recognition. Self-love suffices.”
Stop comparing yourself to icons. And while you’re at it, stop comparing yourself to anyone. In this relatively new era of social media, the fame pool has grown exponentially with “influencers,” who don’t need any talent to build a fanbase. They curate perfect feeds through staged photographs and pass it off as real life. And as the number of influencers increases, the severity of social media addiction does too.
According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that ignites when taking an addictive substance. And what are we doing on social media besides stalking each other and comparing ourselves?
A study performed by California State University found that individuals who used social media at least 58 times per week were 3 times more likely to feel socially isolated and depressed compared to those who used social media fewer than 9 times per week.
Cutting down your consumption of social media and any platforms that make you feel insignificant or jealous is crucial. I personally find Instagram to be toxic to my self-esteem and productivity, so I deactivate it for months at a time. If Facebook is your trigger, take a break, and remember we all have something to offer. Don’t compare and despair. Admire and be inspired by what you see. Our experiences and the eclectic sum of our muses are what make our own creativity unique and invaluable.
Now, Rinse and Repeat.
During flow, the possibilities are endless and the potential of that piece’s success appears infinite. When we finish a project, no matter how lucrative or impactful it may become, it’s never quite as impressive as what we had in mind. But guess what? That’s OK! Understanding that this feeling is both normal and natural is the first step in combatting it.
Next time you feel post-project depression sinking in, remember the power of your thoughts. These mantras are a perfect reminder that you control the voice inside your head. You write the narration inside your mind. The voice that calls you a failure is the same one that directs you during flow. Introducing positive affirmations into your everyday life will not only improve your mental health, but it will also activate the law of attraction.
Positive energy attracts positive results. It’s as simple as that.
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