Learning to be Gentle with Myself: An Artist's Guide to Self-Care

Photo by Devon Dadoly 

The past month has given me lots of opportunities to reflect on how well I care for myself for two reason: 1) I said yes to too many things (again,) and it’s exaggerated the places where my self-care strategies are weakest. 2) This makes 3 months since my breakup, and I’m getting to know myself again, or maybe getting to know new versions of myself.

It didn’t occur to me until the past couple weeks that in some ways I was pushing the responsibility of care onto my ex. I’d get stiff shoulders from working at my desk, and he’d rub my shoulders. He made sure I was eating enough protein. He reminded me not to beat myself up. Some of that is normal relationship stuff – love includes taking care of each other – but some of it was things I could’ve and should’ve taken more responsibility for on my own. Also, the irony was that while I made it his responsibility to help me de-stress and decompress I also created stress for myself by putting my relationship goals before my art goals. (More on that in this post.) So all in all, it’s been both really nice and really challenging to step up and figure out for myself what I need.

I decided to share what I’m trying and learning with regards to self-care, partly because it’s an important but unsung part of maintaining a successful art practice, and partly because I’m sure many of you can relate to the struggle of keeping a healthy work/life balance and spending too much time at a desk. I think it's true for most careers (especially now that being on a computer all the time is a requirement for so many jobs,) but in particular I know lots of artists who put themselves in positions of overworking themselves and running on fumes. I don't believe being an artist necessitates being a starving, struggling artist. I hope this reflection on my own self-care is helpful to you or at least makes you feel better about yourself. Let’s figure it out together, shall we?

Grab your stress toys, kids.

3 things I’m bad at doing properly for myself: 1) sleeping 2) exercising and 3) self criticism

1. Sleep

I struggle to fall asleep at night either because I’m so excited about what I’m working on that I can’t stop my mind from racing or because I’m stress procrastinating my heart out playing phone games.

The first one, surprisingly, has been the easier fix. I've got piles and piles of notebooks (which is actually another small-scale problem I'm working on, training myself to condense everything into one bullet journal) and I've found that if I make lists of ideas I want to create then I won't lose sleep trying to keep myself from forgetting my ideas.

Do you use a journal or bullet journal? What's your journaling practice look like?

My phone addiction (let's call it what it is) has been trickier for me to fight, especially the last couple weeks. It's easy to convince myself that I'm doing it to "relax" and that it's a form of self care...but it's definitely not. When you share a bed with someone else it's harder to stay up for hours looking at your phone, because you'd disturb them. My cat doesn't care how late I stay up, so now it's just on me. I haven't found a perfect solution yet, but I do have one trick you can try, at least on an iPhone: you can change your settings such that pressing the home button three times makes the screen black and white. It makes all the notifications, games, and other distractions less tantalizing.

Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut (towards the bottom) > Color Filters

Under Display and Brightness you can also turn on "Night Shift," which takes blue tones out of the display after sundown. It won't stop you from roaming the internet like an irresponsible zombie, but it will be less harsh on your eyes and make it easier for you to sleep once you're able to tear yourself away.

How do you manage your phone addiction?

2. Exercise

If you're one of those lucky jerks who thinks working out is the most fun thing ever, bless your little heart but also go away. For me, it's work, and it's work I have trouble investing either time or money in. I own a yoga mat and follow Youtubers like Yoga with Adrienne so I don't have to pay for a studio membership... but who would like to guess how often I unroll it? More than anything else I rely on walking to and from work and around the city doing errands (mailing orders, printing stickers) for exercise. It's definitely better than nothing -- thank goodness I live in a city where it's possible to do so much walking! -- but it also definitely does nothing for all the damage I do to myself at my desk: Spending several hours drawing or maintaining my web presences (and, yeah, you caught me, being on my phone) can do nasty things to the wrists and hands. Sitting at my desk messes up my entire back, neck, and shoulders -- slowly but surely. Not exercising also makes it harder to sleep, so it's a vicious cycle.

So I squeeze physical activity and stretches into my life in tiny bite-sized bits. While I'm walking to work, I might stretch my carpals and arms. While I'm waiting for water to boil I can stretch my hip flexors. While I'm waiting for paint to dry, I can do some squats. I can't always convince myself to make time for an entire yoga routine, but I can convince myself to pause what I'm doing for five minutes and take a dance break. As often as possible, I start my morning (after feeding the cat but before making tea) with a quick exercise routine and some stretches on my yoga mat. When it's not possible, I no longer let it be an excuse not to do any kind of exercise all day. If I only have time / mental space to make myself do 3 stretches, I prioritize my carpals, neck, and spine.

What's one stretch you can't do without? Do you have a favorite dance break song?

3. Self Criticism

This is the biggest driver of frantic, unhealthy art-making for me. I worry often about not being a professional enough artist, about not being on top of my branding, about working too slowly, about not being good enough at drawing figures, and like fifteen other things. I tell myself I don't have time to cook healthy food or do yoga or whatever because I need to do SO MANY THINGS. But also... you can't do everything and it's stupid to try.

If I keep one thing from my ex, it's going to be this adage that sounds like something my dad would say: "Compare and despair."

When I catch myself thinking I'm not as professional as some of my peers or artists I admire, I remind myself that most of those people are older and more experienced than I am and have been selling art longer. I remind myself of what I've already done in the past couple years, proof that I can trust myself to get things done. That's part of why I've been keeping this blog, so I can look back at what I was making and what I was learning and how much I've grown.

So many artists I admire seem to also have this problem, even though (to my eye) they're established and seem to know what they're doing. I imagine that's how I look to some people too. I also imagine that fighting off imposter syndrome is going to be a career-long challenge... but it'll probably be easier if I keep sleeping when I'm supposed to and exercise daily, haha.

Right now, being gentle with my body and brain mostly means forgiving myself if I don't meet my goals. It's easier to get up and try again if you forgive yourself for failing the first time. So here's to failing and trying again! It's hard to be a human.

I'm off to take a stretch break and get back to painting, but I'd love to hear from you about the things you struggle to do for yourself even though you know you should.


  1. Reading Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi really helped me at least notice how much time I spend looking at my phone. One of the tips in the book is to put the phone completely away (in a bag) when you are travelling, whether you are driving, riding the bus, or walking). I've noticed so much more of what is going on around me since I've started doing this. Bedtime screen time is still my weakness but I'm working on it.

    aaand one of my fav dance break songs is "Worship Me" by Lizzo. Seriously listen to it.

    Thanks for sharing Yona <3


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