How can I moderate exhaustion from career-related emotional labour?
November 27, 2016 3:54 AM   Subscribe

My career requires me to periodically muster up tremendous amounts of emotion, energy, and enthusiasm, and perform huge amounts of emotional labour. It's like a rollercoaster: really fun and exhilarating once it gets rolling, but then it ends and drops me into a pit of fatigue and inertia. I mostly enjoy the highs, but how can I get better at managing the drops? (Lots more inside)

I am a professional actor and a producer of collective projects like TV shows and plays, often on a smallish budget. This means I usually live at a pretty relaxed pace; but when work crops up, I expereince periods ranging from one day to two months in length, where I go into overdrive to create a new project, as if pulling back the sling on a huge slingshot.

Small scale:
Say I have an audition for a role that excites me, and have 3 days to prep.
I read about the project, get excited or nervous, research the creators, study the material, solicit help from others (calling a friend for accent help, or hiring a coach to really nail the role, or getting a friend or a paid studio to help me put an audition or some rehearsals to camera, or borrowing reading materials or costumes from friends), spend a few hours on grooming, sleep a bit badly before the audition, get up and travel to the studio, thrum my way into the room, do the audition perhaps getting very little reaction, and then... maybe nothing.
Maybe in a few days I booked it (in which case I recreate the same cycle of prep for the actual job), or maybe I never hear about it again. After spending anywhere from 5-20 hours of work on it... maybe nothing happens. Hard not to feel a bit weird and embarrassed after.

Large scale: Say I decide to create a project, like a short film or play.
I plan for months, honing the idea. I call in favours and pay out cash to prepare. I never have tons of cash to play with, so I spend a lot of energy ensuring my team feels respected and valued- mentoring younger crew, appreciating senior crew, feeding everyone, thanking everyone, communicating clearly. I might sleep only 4 hours a night for several days in a row. I end up singlehandedly doing jobs that would be handled by perhaps 15 different people on a higher-budget project. I am great at what I do- almost everyone I've ever worked with has happily hired me again. It's exhilarating and fun and the final project is always rewarding, but no matter what, I am exhausted and limp- like I can barely stand up- for a proportional number of days after the project ends.

My life feels like a constant rollover between mania and depletion. Partly this is because every project is different so nothing can be routine- I have to prepare and get excited differently each time.

I also do some projects I don't care deeply about- auditions for easy, minor, or boring roles, or routine jobs on others' projects, and those are fine. I have a workflow for prep, and automated parts of the process to minimize the decision-making (like, I rehearse in a specific way, I have a pre-packed bag to take to set, etc). And I don't really invest in how those things turn out; I just go in and do my job clean and clear, no big deal.

But for projects I do care about- it is necessary to care so deeply, to HOPE, to generate energy and enthusiasm, and to start the tide that raises everyone, and leads the charge, and gets the big old thing creaking along until it starts to roll smoothly. This gives me a ton of energy (I am extroverted, social, love to lead, love to create, and highly collaborative and achievement oriented- I'm a great fit for this work), and it is so fun! But so so so tiring when it ends. I love it, but it feels kind of unsustainable, especially since I'd like to add kids into the mix in the next year or so. Luckily my partner is pure Hufflepuff and can handle anything with grace and tolerance, and finds the lifestyle exciting without needing to be that way personally.

I'll also add that I find it hard to work diligently- I tend to work very well under the pressure of mounting responsibility and approaching deadlines. I like the overwhelming sprint and have a very hard time committing to the manageable routine.

Some possible solutions I'm aware of (but bad at):
Be more disciplined about my sleep schedule. I already exercise and eat pretty well.
I'm chronically anemic, which worsens the energy dips, so try to better manage my iron.
Try to generate more cash so I can pay people better, and feel less need to pay them in emotion. (But fundraising feels like a horrible chore to me, whereas at least expending the energy required to make myself great to work with is fun in the moment)
Care less about work (but caring is fun)
Be ok with this lifestyle: I'm either full speed ahead or full stop, and that's just how it is.

Most of my friends are artists so they essentially do the same thing- I think I'm just a bit more extreme. The friends who aren't artists just kind of stand back and shake their heads and watch me go.

One friend who's diagnosed bipolar believes I'm bipolar as well, but I'm not sure about this.(Clearly) I'm hyperverbal and intermittently hyperenergetic, and sometimes I do experience seasonal or life-problem-related depressions, but I don't typically indulge in life-wrecking behaviour patterns when I'm energized, nor would I characterize my resulting "low" periods as akin to actual chemical depression. Plus- I deliberately initiate the hyper periods in response to an external stimulus (a project), so my moods aren't on cycle, they are deliberate. I dunno, my lifestyle doesn't feel like a mental illness to me, just a ridiculous personality type and lifestyle choice. Maybe I'm wrong though?

Anyway- today I'm hyper (obviously) as I'm midway through a longterm project, but I'm on a rare day off and physically limp, hence this question. I'm not sure exactly what to do to fix my lifestyle- or how to viscerally WANT more balance. I feel like I'm too close to really see solutions.

Does anyone have any insights for me, about how to either live differently or just be ok with this?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (4 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Hello, our lives are nearly identical. I differ from your description of yourself in two key ways, though, and maybe one or both differences will be illuminating to you.

First, I rarely produce anymore. The emotional, financial, and logistical cost was too high most of the time, so I made a decision a few years ago to only produce when I was compelled to. Like, if it's all I can think about and I truly feel no one else could do it better. This means I spend fewer extended periods of time in the limp, exhausted state you describe so well.

Second, and maybe more to the point, I don't think of myself as an extrovert. Friends and colleagues would certainly describe me as one, but I self-define as an introvert because that gives me a framework to understand the limp exhaustion that comes after I expend huge amounts of energy (in the forms of time and hope and thought and research) on an audition or a performance or a project. In other words, I rename that period as recovery (or, if you prefer, recharging) and therefore see it as part of my process, not as a separate thing that happens to me and build it into my life. For example, when I accepted an audition yesterday for tomorrow afternoon, I not only scheduled prep time and energy for it, I also built-in the come-down on the other side. Does that make sense?

It's taken me a long time (years!) to get this system working for me, and I am far from perfect with it. But you know your rhythms and needs better than anyone, and you have a huge help in your supportive partner. Maybe this won't be such a huge change, but more of a series of small shifts?
posted by minervous at 7:19 AM on November 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'll also add that I find it hard to work diligently- I tend to work very well under the pressure of mounting responsibility and approaching deadlines. I like the overwhelming sprint and have a very hard time committing to the manageable routine.

To me, this is the area that you can control the best, and probably the one likely to give you the best returns. For example if it seems boring, try setting yourself "challenges" to support healthy habits, eg. seven hours sleep for ten nights in a row, etc. etc.. Try not to think of healthy habits as something that restricts you, but rather something that can support your extreme efforts in other areas.

Also, you mention that a good friend thinks you might be bipolar, and if you are, that's something that can be addressed. A frank discussion with your doctor might offer some solutions you're not aware of.
posted by rpfields at 10:01 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yep I work production in a different field and you just described my life. I am definitely an introvert but my role on jobs requires me to manage a team, be excited, etc for long hours. I am good at it but damn I feel so completely drained after a long project.

For me one thing that helps is getting a reasonable amount of sleep every night when I'm on a long gig. This is kind of depressing when you're doing the work-sleep-work thing with no personal time but I find in the long run I come out better at the end.

I try to not book projects back to back, I need at least one or two days of me time / self care before I'm mentally ready to go back to work and do it again.

I have a couple of ongoing personal projects that don't have strict deadlines. I keep a notebook going with notes for each, so when I have down time or a day off I can just pick a notebook and try to do something, anything. I find it hard to focus without the team-on-a-deadline vibe of production as well, but my attitude is often 'any progress is good enough'. I find it helpful to combine that with other goals for off days. I.e. I will get up at 7am and go to a coffee shop and spend a few minutes on this project instead of sleeping in half the day. Even if I don't get much else done, at least I put on pants and made it out of the house that day.

I think exercise helps a lot. For me I like the mental zen of cycling and I feel like it really helps keep me sane sometimes. A LOT of my colleagues are surfers or runners. that's another thing I try to get up early and do on off days, it helps balance me out but also maintain some momentum in my personal life.

Having colleagues you can get a drink with and talk about these things is crucial. I have 2 people that I rely on for support and advice. I've been doing this a long time and I find other people just don't 'get it' often even if their advice is well meaning. It is a difficult lifestyle and requires a lot of sacrifice, but we get to go to work and make cool shit.
posted by bradbane at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm in a different emotional-labor-intensive field than yours (counseling/education), but I have struggled with some similar challenges and found that this is where having older and more experienced mentors can be a huge help. They can remind you that your career is a marathon, not a sprint (trite, but true), and they can help you think about ways to pace yourself and to think in terms of a longer timeline. For me, I had to learn to space out my big projects and keep them within a certain time frame (ie, 6 weeks every summer for a really huge project, balanced with more structured, sustained work during the year), and then to build in ample prep and recovery time around that intensive project. I also learned to be a lot more forgiving of myself and accepting of my limits - I burn out when I push myself, but can be very productive and feel great when I pace myself.

I'd also suggest getting a little more input about your health and mental health. You may not have bipolar, but your highs and lows sound like they are wearing you out and causing you to feel a little out of control. Creative people often feel that this "rollercoaster" fuels their creativity, which is understandable, but I'd still suggest getting this checked out. There are a lot of different options for treating/managing these "mood cycles" and a good therapist or even a conversation with your PCP could help you find strategies for balance and peace that work for you, while still allowing you to take on and enjoy your creative projects.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 8:28 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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