Michael Stephens, former creative director, recounts his own struggles with mental health.
Ever since I was young, I’ve been outwardly known as a ‘creative’ child. I was artistic, loved dressing up and of course making dens. I knew deep down that I was also gay. But the internal shame and guilt I felt regarding my sexuality kept this core part of me a secret.
My identity developed around a defining characteristic that I could be proud of – my creativity. Creativity became the foundation on which my entire career and life path was shaped. It became my method of expressing and supressing emotions. And it also became my coat of armour. Little did I know then, how connected my creativity was to my sexuality. How innate both parts of me were. And yet how disconnected I was from their true essence.
These fragmented aspects of my identity would later in life collide with brute force and drive me to reach my ambitious new professional goals in desperate pursuit of ‘success’. But sadly, at the expense of both my mental and physical health.
For the purpose of this article I am going to be primarily analysing the specific intersectionality of identifying as LGBTQ+ and a ‘professional creative’. I will be looking at the risk factor overlaps and using my own personal story to demonstrate that some of the very characteristics we are celebrated for as creatives, are in fact derived from the coping mechanisms we have adopted from our adverse childhoods growing up queer in a straight world. As with any coping mechanism, they are there to protect us by supressing something else. They can serve us to an extent, until they don’t.
Where have we seen this play out before?
There have been a few blockbusters and documentaries that start to shed a light on the entwined mental health struggles of queer creatives. They tend to have very similar story lines. Troubled childhood, desperation to prove self-worth, artistic fame, ‘success’, addiction, and often end with the individual attempting to take their own life, overdosing or dying from aids. The disturbing story of Alexander McQueen almost seems too dramatic that it must be a ‘one-off’. But sadly, the reality is that there’s a much more mainstream mental health narrative which is disproportionately affecting the wider LGBTQ+ creative community.
What are the statistics?
In the most recent study conducted by Stonewall, it was found that the LGBT+ community are three times more likely to experience a mental health condition compared to the general population. 50% said they have experienced depression, 61% said they’ve experienced anxiety, and 32% said they have felt as though life wasn't worth living.
Psychologists believe that these alarming figures are most likely linked to ‘minority stress’ and collective ‘adverse childhood experiences’ within the community. Essentially, the extended periods of shame, guilt, discrimination and isolation many LGBTQ+ people go through, either in childhood or adulthood, have subsequently (and naturally) led us to face mental health and emotional challenges later in life. Our past traumas have shaped the unique way our minds now view the world, each other and ourselves.
"LGBT people are at a heightened risk of psychological distress because of the stresses created by stigmatisation, marginalisation and discrimination.” HSE National Social Inclusion Governance Group, 2009
What have we learnt?
Growing up queer, many of us will have wrestled with rejection in one form of another. Whether through bullying, family, religion, or society in general. It’s no wonder we now, as a community of adults, encounter such anxieties surrounding love, acceptance and fear of abandonment. It’s driven some of us to unrealistic, unnatural and highly competitive standards of perfection and success - at work and in life - ultimately in search of the self-worth, belonging and acceptance we lacked as children. And when we don’t find it, we often resort to counterproductive ways of coping – such as alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex and work.
How does this play out at work or in our professional careers?
For many of us, our adult life echoes that of our childhood… By default, we adopt similar thought and behaviour patterns. Doing what we can to avoid shame and guilt, while searching for validation to satisfy the constant craving for love. This can manifest at work - mostly through over-caring, over-compensating, obsessing with perfectionism, people pleasing, determination and ambition. It becomes our default to work at 110% and prove how capable we are.
So, all things that we in fact get celebrated for by employers in our 24/7 ‘workaholic-accepting’ society? Yup!
Obsession with perfection.
Many queer people develop an acute attention to detail after hiding their sexuality for long periods. Living with a constant fear of the secret being exposed. This fear results in self-controlling automatic behaviours. For me personally, that hypervigilance translated into an ability to spot flaws very easily – both in myself, my surroundings and other people. Given the fact I couldn’t correct my biggest flaw of all, I mainly focused on trying to fix everything else. The more ‘perfect’ I thought I could make something, the more compliments I would get. And with it, more validation.
Naturally I went on to work in art, fashion and design – where ‘perfectionism’ was somewhat worshipped. This ability to reap the rewards of my obsession only amplified the problem and drove me to continuously set myself higher standards. This played out in my personal life and relationships too. It contributed to a long ongoing battle with body image and a 10-year struggle with an eating disorder.
Career, Success and Validation.
I latched onto ‘creativity’ as my talent. I was praised for it from an early age. Initially from teachers, and parents. Later from friends, colleagues, bosses and even the media. I undoubtedly enjoyed the act of ‘artistic expression’. It had both therapeutic and meditative benefits, allowing me to ‘get lost’ in the creative process and forget about everything that was going on both around me, and inside me. But what I realise now, is that I was often ‘performing’. Doing it for the approval from others. When I did good work, IT validated me and, in my eyes, gave me a sense of self-worth. For I didn’t believe I could get that validation from just ‘being myself’.
I’ve faced mental health challenges throughout my entire creative career - just mostly in silence and under the pretence that everything was in fact fine, when it wasn’t. I didn’t want anyone to see my weaknesses and flaws. I became very good at hiding my struggles by overachieving - at work, but also in life.
The reason I cared so much about my career is because I honestly thought professional ‘success’ was going to bring me happiness. If I didn’t care what people thought of my work, then I wouldn’t get any validation from their compliments. And without that validation, I would feel worthless.
Self-identification with work.
Like many creatives, I loved my job. I had genuine passion for it. But I very quickly started needing more and more validation to satisfy the same craving. Bigger projects, more money, more responsibility, more recognition. Soon I started seeing my job, work and career as a reflection of who I was. I was putting way too much emphasis on this one aspect of my ‘self’.
Dealing with rejection and critique at work when you identify so much with your job can be incredibly distressing. When things go wrong, it just adds to already sky-high stress levels. And unless resolved, the pressure can have disastrous effects on a person’s mental health, relationships and even their creative abilities.
With a lack of ‘role models’ to whom I could look for an alternative path, and without the adequate support or understanding, I ended up burning out at the age of 30. At the peak of my creative career, I worked myself into the ground. With my personal energy fuel tank on empty, some of my most precious attributes had begun to fade - such as my intuition, positive energy AND my creativity. The very things that made me unique, valuable and brilliant at my job. Everything looked perfect on the outside. But on the inside, I was exhausted and crumbling. I felt less of a human-being, and more of a human-doing.
What happened next?
I had believed for so long that coping meant staying quiet and ‘powering through’. I also thought it meant going at it alone. Clearly that didn’t work out. I decided to take some time off to recover and reset. I needed to understand ‘Who am I?’ - without my career, which I had relied upon to give me a sense of identity and most of my self-worth.
From therapy, to group work, breathwork, coaching, creative workshops, holistic practices, journaling, meditation, retreats, books, webinars… each were useful in their own way in helping expose my conditioned thoughts and behaviours and process my suppressed emotions. By doing so, I was able to reveal the ‘real me’ and start acting from a place of authenticity. It’s even allowed me to become even more creative as I am no longer tied to external validation for my outputs.
Creating space for others to get curious about themselves and their own journey has now become my life’s work. Using all the tools, techniques and practices that helped me. I’m so grateful that I am able to openly share my own story and my struggles. I do it for all those who don’t yet feel able to share their own. To give them optimism, and hopefully educate, inspire or empower just one more person to start their own path of self-discovery and growth.