A Creative’s Trade-Off Between Success and Mental Wellbeing

Illustration by Karolina Varvarovska

Like many creatives, I channel my emotions when creating content. I apply my real-life experiences to things that I write, from articles to poems to songs. Of course my most inspired works stems from my most volatile emotional experiences, most of which are not happy memories. They are raw, rough and relatable, making my most emotional pieces my most praised. Yet in seeking out these emotionally draining experiences , I have found myself neglecting what I want most out of life: stability and satisfaction. This leads me to a question which I am still to solve: is it possible to create great work from a place of stability? And is it worth risking personal loss for creative​ gain?

The first time I realised that emotionally draining experiences led me to produce my best content was after I wrote a series of poems following a painful relationship breakdown during my first year at university. Whilst going through that experience, I described it to my friends as one of the worst of my entire life. I was 18 years old and had never experienced such intense emotions for another person before, primarily due to having attended a girls’ school and experiencing a sheltered upbringing. The boy in question made out he had strong feelings for me – and, crucially, that we had a long-term future together – before later revealing that he was just using me for sex. After being strung along for six months I was shattered and poured my feelings for him into these poems. Whilst I had written the odd poem before, I had produced nothing like this. I stayed up until the small hours every night, writing poems to channel the grief I felt about being used by someone I thought had feelings for me. It took a while to open up to my friends about how I was treated, so I found it easier to show them the poems. Their responses took my mind on a completely different path. “These are incredible! If anything, you should thank him for getting you to write such amazing poems”, my best friend told me. Somehow, due to this horrible experience, I had found a hidden talent – one that I needed negative emotional experiences to recreate again.

From then on, I found that I was at my most creative after emotionally draining experiences. This not only included breakups, but also other strained experiences, such as problems with my mental health (I have struggled with anxiety and a mood disorder, leading to extreme “lows”), as well as the deterioration of my parents’ relationship two years ago. When I was happy or in a stable relationship, I was at my least creative. I had to draw on past experiences to create new content, as I could not - and still cannot - write about being “happy”. I'm still unsure if this is due to the link between my creative brain and my mood disorder – after all, mood disorders are more prominent amongst creative people, and undoubtedly influence our work. In order to remain creative, I was lowering my own mental wellbeing by reminding myself of these experiences and not focusing on the positive relationships I had. Not only this, but I found myself actively seeking out “toxic” relationships to experience the emotions needed to produce the emotionally charged content that I was good at creating. Several romantic partners I sought either emulated the first boy who broke my heart or emulated another toxic relationship I had seen – that between my mother and father. The pressure to perform and produce work that equalled or bettered those poems took control of every relationship I had.

In seeking out such experiences, I sacrificed the one thing that everyone predominantly searches for: happiness. These people I was involved with may have inspired me to write great content, but they did not make me happy. I was, essentially, sacrificing my own happiness for my creativity. Creativity became like a double-edged sword to me; the content I produced was beautiful, but the experiences I endured to produce such content were damaging.

As someone whose primary field is creative, I started to fear that my major talent would have to be sacrificed for my emotional fulfilment. To succeed as a creative, I needed to endure more traumatic experiences. In enduring these experiences, I was damaging my mental wellbeing. Which brings me to a predicament faced by many creatives: can we be successful at creating beautiful content whilst retaining our personal happiness? Is our happiness worth sacrificing for success?

I am attempting to solve this predicament with collaboration. Although an ambivert, I tend to be introverted in my working style, preferring to produce content alone. Yet, in writing songs for my friend’s band, I have been forced to write with others, or have others provide opinions on what I have produced. This means that the pressure to produce the best lyrics no longer rests entirely on my shoulders, and that I can take ideas from other people to use for the songs. I have tried to write abstract poetry before or poems from a perspective that was not my own but found this too distant and unrelatable. Writing with others has created a shared perspective that did not rely on my own experiences. Through this, I no longer feel the burden of having to seek out emotional experiences to produce the best lyrics or verses I can, improving my mental wellbeing whilst maintaining my creative flair. Whilst I have used my own experiences as inspiration for several songs, my friend who I write with tends to input his own spin on the content, making it better for widespread distribution but less personal to me. Collaboration has been a blessing for me, as I no longer have to rely on my own traumatic experiences to produce great content. Could this be the answer to producing great creative content whilst maintaining my own mental wellbeing? I have not been writing with others for long, so I am yet to see if it produces both great creative content and personal satisfaction for myself. But I have a good feeling about it.

Creative work is so much a part of you - both experientially and career-wise - that it can become the forefront of your life and can cloud your decisions. It is so important to create well and be proud of your work, but sacrificing your own wellbeing to do so can lead to more damage than good. Balancing your personal and professional life when they are so interlinked is a huge task, but one many creatives need to work on to remain happy and healthy.

Written by Sarina Kiayani