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  • Shelley Pisani

The Overwhelm

Lately I have been noticing more and more of my fellow arts industry colleagues and clients feeling exhausted and under pressure. I know I have been through this over the last year as well and feel I am only just starting to get on top again. So what's causing this huge wave of what I am calling "The Overwhelm"?



My experience in the arts working across arts-led recovery initiatives and some valued conversations with colleagues who work in the mental health field of late, have helped me to see a series of things that are impacting us all in different ways. Late January and into early February was when I first really started to notice a lot of people sharing stories of complete exhaustion with some people even opting to take time out on their creative journey as they were feeling so much pressure.


February is the usual month that many of us normally feel a little exhausted, kickstarting the year at work and suffering from post-holiday blues. But there is certainly more to it this year.


The first really obvious impact is the pandemic. But why is it affecting us right now? Aren't we through the worst of it you might ask?


Firstly, we are fortunate to live in a country that is almost back to work as usual after a year of complete disruption of the arts industry. Artsworkers, arts administrators and artists have had to spend the last year completely reinventing themselves, their careers and their projects - sometimes several times over as COVID-19 restrictions eased and then tightened and then eased again. This in itself was exhausting and I don't know how many of us actually got to take any time out at all last year to meet these demands. Funding options were being thrown at us with tight deadlines which meant fast ideation, late nights and application writing at a time when everything was so strange and jolted. Many people told me that trying to be creative during this time was a real struggle.


Now in 2021, all that hard work reinventing ourselves has come to fruition - AND WE NEED TO DELIVER IT ALL!!!


This is not unique to the arts by any means. Many people from a wealth of different industries are feeling the same right now. The arts are just my world and my reference point.


Another contributing factor to our Overwhelm I believe is a form of survivor's guilt. Regardless of whether or not you were directly impacted by loved ones in Australia or overseas contracting this awful virus, we all had our lives interrupted - some of us more than others. We have witnessed unprecedented levels of fatality across the world through television and social media. But most of us were safe and are safe now. We had a near miss.


Many of us have probably experienced this feeling of survival guilt before. I know I have. I remember going through this during the horrific floods in my hometown of Bundaberg in 2011 and then again in 2013. My home was not impacted. Many of our friends were. We heard the helicopters circling overhead picking people off rooftops and from evacuation spots as the waters broke through the riverbanks in North Bundaberg. It still sends shivers down my spine when I hear a helicopter to this day. I was at home with a 3 month old baby and only managed to get out and help clean up on one day. I felt sick that I couldn't do more. I stayed home and baked, bought and delivered supplies and wept as I watch it all unfold on television. I just wanted to do more to help. I felt guilty that I was okay and that so many others weren't.


I have felt the same watching the pandemic unfold internationally and that feeling of helplessness crept on in.


After the 2013 floods, I spent the next 18 months managing an arts-led recovery program. I threw myself into it so deeply that with hindsight and additional training and workshops, I realised I went through vicarious trauma along with some of my other colleagues. Hearing the stories of people directly impacted by the floods and often being among the first people they had shared much of their story with was something that we absorbed and it drove us to want to do more and more to help - to the point it affected our relationships and our health when others couldn't understand why we were working so hard and burning ourselves out. Thank goodness for project partners like UnitingCare Community who came along on that journey with us and got us back on track.


Whilst the pandemic was different - I wasn't speaking to people directly impacted - the feelings that bubbled up were very familiar.


The other layer that contributes to the overwhelm in our arts sector is how deeply some creative people tend to feel empathy for others. In 2019 I heard Jeff and Julie Crabtree speak at the Arts Ablaze conference in Kooralbyn. Whilst there are a number of wonderful stories that they share about the creative mind and how it works, the tendency for creative people to feel deep empathy was one thing I really took away from the presentation with a better understanding of why I often react they way I do when others are experiencing something life-changing - often when I don't even know them. Are you like that too?


If as creatives, we think deeply about the impact of the pandemic, the preceding bushfires, Black Lives Matter and other major political upheavals in recent times - it is no wonder we are feeling flat!


Why am I sharing this?


I have had this conversation a number of times with people of late. For some people I have shared this with, I have witnessed a feeling of mild relief from the other person in hearing that their feelings are justified and they are not alone in their experience. I am hoping that for some reading this, it might encourage you to critically reflect on all of this and realise that whilst these feelings are all okay in our current circumstances, we all need to take the time to work on our own wellbeing. Whether that be going for a walk, a weekend away with family or friends, inviting people over for a barbecue to reconnect, catching up with your bestie for a coffee, reading a book or spending some quality time in your art studio - find that thing that releases your pressure valve. What's your strategy?





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