Self-care is slippery, confusing and necessary for creativity

"You did not come here to work and die."

Earlier this month, I spoke about self-care at the 3% Conference. While the crowd was mixed, the talk was aimed at emerging creatives — those with less than five years in advertising.

Early in the game is the perfect time to learn how personal and professional creativity is maximized with self-care. Because if ambitious newcomers are anything like I was, they might think burnout is just an occupational hazard that comes with being paid to make things — especially as signs of it are all around the industry.

We’ve all seen scenarios where creativity isn’t being treated with care. That constantly shouty creative director. That person who's always sick. The regular cryer. A project so rough that it leaves a whole team’s physical and mental health in shreds. Abrupt quitting — and for women, quitting due to burnout often means never returning to the industry.

There’s a certain intangibility to self-care. When I was at the brink of my own burnout (I had a little touch of the old chronic exhaustion) I didn’t recognize it because I wasn’t unhappy, and I still felt like I was having fun, even if I did need to go to the toilet for a 10-min nap every day at 3pm.

As wellness weeks, in-house massages and free yoga classes pop up in our workplaces, agencies and creative shops (the good ones, at least) are trying to figure out a way to make a healthier environment in a world that traditionally wasn’t inherently built to be healthy.

We’re all a little confused on how it works in our game. We’ve found ourselves saying, "wait, I just wobbled through this sweaty yoga class...why am I still feeling shitty?"

Admitting that industry-wise, we’re all feeling our way through the dark a bit on self-care, I opened my presentation with this quote from actress Tracee Ellis Ross that gets really close to how I approach it: "To me, self-care does not mean going to the spa. It's learning to say no. It's knowing yourself so you can make choices that are an expression of you. That's self-care."

Here are a few of my non-definitive, ever-evolving self-care tips I shared with the room:

Keep it real. Keep it kind.

Women typically have to do more than just do their work to be seen and feel valued. There’s this whole additional game of armoring up, conjuring the powerful-confident mode even when they don’t feel it. The whole shebang is exhausting.

If that womanhood intersects with anything that makes you other, i.e., being a person of color, LGBTQIA+, disabled, or you show up in any way that defies (boring) cultural norms — that emotionally laborious work triples.

A self-care tool I deploy is being real and acknowledging it can be hard as fuck sometimes, and treating myself to small, intentional acts of kindness — like an after-work nature stroll or a solo cinema date — is often a way for me to counter challenging days.

Boundaries are boss.

I used to say "boundaries are beautiful" but it felt too soft, like I was saying boundaries are an option. This is not true. Boundaries are a mandatory component in creative self-care.

Let me be clear on what I mean. Boundaries aren’t about shirking responsibilities or not being wholly present when it’s time to be all-in. It’s knowing that a constant state of sacrifice probably isn’t working to serve you. A simple example is, on a huge project some late-night office dinners are normal. But if you’re late-night dining so often that you know every item on the take-out menu, from apps to soft drinks, you may just need some boundaries.

And this isn’t just about setting boundaries with external forces. One thing I’ve been personally working on is setting my own boundaries — currently I’m working to break the awful habit of checking emails on my phone during 4am bathroom breaks.

A few of my favorite boundaries include: having clear, communicable guidelines on the ways you like to work; turning down "big opportunities" that don’t align with your principles; taking rest (vacations, staycations, early bedtimes. don’t-call-me-I’m-watching-my-shows-in-my-PJ times — all of it; not shrinking yourself or diminishing your identity or character to fit a toxic work culture and; making "no" a guilt-free part of your vocabulary, and a complete sentence.

You did not come here to work and die.

You’re being paid to make things, for goodness sake. Every day isn’t going to be easy, but if it ain’t fun, something needs to change. Your self-care and your creativity demand it.

Tahirah Edwards-Byfield is a senior writer at 72andSunny.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free