tired girl with cat sketchmareker drawing

Dearest post exhibition blues, can I ever skip you?

I somehow thought that this time I would outsmart post exhibition blues by signing up for a class that would keep me engaged and going full speed after my show effort was over. I have to acknowledge that I was wrong, here it is again, stubborn as ever.

What’s post exhibition blues anyway?

Every time I work on a big project I’m really invested in, I end up feeling all emptied out when it’s over. On one level it seems like it should be just the opposite: you complete something big and important, so shouldn’t you feel fulfilled and accomplished?

inside Insect sculpture Fox Larsson portrait
photo by Anna Rappoport

I somehow always feel way more fulfilled and accomplished while actually working on the project than when it’s done. Having this thing I’m working towards makes me feel alive, I know exactly what the world is spinning for, and I have the energy to get things done. Lots of things.

I generally try to stay level and not abuse this abundance of life force. Being bipolar, I know quite well, energy resources never come out of nowhere. After a high, there’s always a low. Regardless of where the high originates from, having a super meaningful thing to do or the chemicals in your brain gone awry.

So yes, there is no surprise that after a long period of intense focus and full investment there will be a period of the opposite. I don’t think it’s an artist-only issue. I’ve read of a similar thing happening to event management professionals: for a month your life spins around organizing this one event, it’s full of people and things to do, and you know exactly where you’re going. And then the event is suddenly over, and you’re out all alone with nowhere to go.

A lot of my freelance translator friends mention it too. You think you’ll be happy when you finish translating this eight hundred page novel, but when your job is complete… Poof! No celebration. Suddenly everything seems pointless, and there you are, empty and dull, and your brain feels like it’s made of cotton.

So that’s what it is: post exhibition blues, post major project blues. Whatever you call it, it’s basically the feeling of emptiness and deep dull fatigue that comes over you after you’ve finished something big and important you’ve been fully invested in.

So what was the plan?

Knowing all this, I decided that this time, while working on my big Kafka project, I would be smart. I knew that making an eight-foot Insect sculpture I really care about while working a full-time job and teaching a few English lessons a week was intense, so there was a risk of getting all hyped up and then burning all out, either in the process or right after the show.

Fox Larsson working on Insect sculpture
photo by Anna Rappoport

My master plan had two basic components:

  1. Play it safe: don’t get hyped up, don’t overwork myself, rest regularly despite the urgency of the project, keep to a regular schedule, no stay up all night feats etc.
  2. Have a back-up plan for right after the project ends, so that I don’t instantly lose all meaning of life and feel left behind in the dirt on the side of the road.

What really happened?

I still think it’s a pretty decent plan. And I did a fairly good job of keeping to it.

I actually mostly managed to not overwork myself and be nice to myself. When I was tired I didn’t play superhero and took a taxi to work for the last two weeks so I could get and extra forty minutes of sleep.

And I found a class: I enrolled in Lilla Rogers’ illustration MATS A I’d been dreaming about and I could finally afford, planning to start right away on Monday (a day after the show).

At the same time, of course, I was not perfect. When I say I did not overwork myself, that’s not quite true. I did not just keep to the essentials. Right in the middle of the two-month-long Insect marathon I suddenly decided to finally start taking my Instagram seriously and start posting every day. I sometimes do that kind of thing: when I have next to too much on my plate, instead of letting something on, I take on even more. This has happened on multiple occasions, and I know it is one of my ways of manifesting fatigue and anxiety. A kind of ridiculous one, at that.

And two weeks before the deadline I actually started working on my website for real too. During my breaks at work. That may sound like a totally stupid thing to do when you already have a great load of work, but on some level I think it helped me de-stress and distracted me from being too nervous and overwhelmed.

simul interpreting internet traffic arbitrage conference
Then there was also a day of simul interpreting at an internet traffic arbitrage conference. Not sure if that qualifies as taking it easy.

I actually did pretty well with the Instagram thing, thought this meant that I would occasionally get up a whole hour earlier to scan and prepare my pics for posting. And I finished the sculpture on time. And I did pretty well at work in the meanwhile. And the website is moving along too. So I guess I should be proud of myself and feeling fulfilled.

I was still pretty productive on Monday (I guess the adrenaline just hadn’t left my system yet), I even started reading the articles and watching the videos for my MATS class. But the next day (that was yesterday) my brain turned to damp useless cotton, and that still the way I feel it is today. My productivity at work has totally crashed, I’m feeling all empty and pointless and can’t focus for the life of me, and feel irritated by every single thing at work. So here we are, post exhibition blues. I really hoped I wouldn’t meet you again.

How should this work?

Do I need a new strategy? What should it be?

The seemingly obvious answer would be: get some rest. But while I’ve more or less learned to rest in regular life, I have not yet learned to rest post great big project. Suddenly stopping all activity after being intensely into something for a long time feels horrible, and at the same time I’m too tired to actually be productive, so here I am in this weird intellectual coma.

I guess a change of scene could work, but right now I can’t leave my job, and I feel the necessity to show up here every day at nine is doing my bipolar self a world of good. But sitting at work and not being able to focus on my agenda irritates me endlessly.

tired girl with cat sketchmareker drawing
Confused and with cat.

Any ideas?

What do you guys think? How do you counter post great big project blues? How do you rest when you’re too tired to rest and/or can’t really go on vacation? What’s your experience with this whole thing: staying sane while doing project work?




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3 thoughts on “Dearest post exhibition blues, can I ever skip you?”

  1. I gotta say, I get these post exhibition blues too. I can relate wholeheartedly. I have bipolar too. Once I finish something, it’s like the life gets sucked right out of me. I hate it. I haven’t found the surefire solution but I like to make a skeleton plan of my year with a list of different things to look forward to. For example, this year I had a convention to go to in February and one in August. In between those times I give myself tasks to do like work on my cosplay which tackles off at least three months out of the year. I have school spring and fall which chalks off another few months out of year and now all of a sudden, I have half my year booked with what to keep my mind occupied with. The rest of the year is open to things not set in stone with. Pretty much, I find a way to keep myself busy. It’s not a perfect solution since I still have days where I can’t occupy myself and then I sink into depression. But this is definitely somewhere to start in terms if trying to get rid of these post exhibition blues. I think the bipolar mind needs something to entertain it or it’ll find itself in depression. That’s my experience at least. I really hope the true solution comes soon because I think you and I really need it.

    1. Hi Mons!
      Thanks for you commnent. You’re right about keeping the mind occupied, I find that helps a lot too. I think the hardest part to get through is this initial dump where even if you’ve strategically planned a way to stay occupied and afloat, you’re just too tired for anything.
      One more thing that has helped me immensely is learning to accept that this is the way things are. I used to get really upset when I was in that kind of dump, too washed out for anything. And the sheer grade of how upset I would get over not being productive would run me down even harder, and I’d end up being down for weeks. Now I can often recover within a few days (though I need to be sure to stay consistent with my medications for all this enlightened thinking to work).
      So really, accepting the fact that this is the exact amount of energy, focus and productivity is what does the trick in the end.The good thing is, with enough practice this is usually totally possible.

      Good luck with finding your balance,

  2. I can verify that post exhibition blues extends beyond artists. Several months ago, I finished a complicated website migration and felt depressed and exhausted. All I could do was go home after work and watch tv. I lost interest in yoga, meeting up with friends, and other things that normally bring me job.

    The only thing that seemed to work was going back to basics: I got 8 hours of sleep each night, ate clean healthy food, and walked outside (even in bad weather) for at least 30 minutes daily. After a couple of weeks, I started to feel better, but it took some time.

    I appreciate your sharing your challenges with finding solid ground after big projects end. It sounds like taking an illustration class was helpful for you, but I’d love to hear about more techniques for step 2 if you have others to share. Thanks for your article — I look forward to reading more.

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