When You’re Feeling Down, Drawing May Help

Liz Fosslien
Mar 29, 2019 4:16PM
Kangja JUNG
The Tears, 2004
Arario Gallery

In the new book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, co-authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy counter the widespread belief that it’s not okay to get emotional at work. Through text and playful illustrations, they share advice on how to navigate workplace scenarios through expressing emotions, rather than suppressing them. And for Fosslien, who has worked on data visualization, illustration, and writing projects—she created the illustrations for No Hard Feelings—drawing has long been a way to process thoughts and feelings. Below, Fosselien shares her insights on the benefits of embracing creativity when you’re feeling down.

Try not to feel bad about feeling bad

Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fozzlien.


Being down in the dumps from time to time is a part of life! Everyone has bad days. I remember that being a kind of revelation in my early twenties. For me, realizing that I wasn’t the only one who had bouts of gloominess made it easier to treat myself with kindness, and to then focus on channeling difficult feelings productively instead of frantically trying to vacuum them away.

Research suggests that when we try to suppress emotions, such as sadness or anger, we are more likely to feel them. And a 2018 study that asked people to rate how strongly they agreed with statements like “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling,” revealed that those who felt bad about feeling bad had lower well-being than their more accepting peers.

I can fall into emotional pits during my creative process. I remember I once spent a full day working on a single illustration only to absolutely hate it. It feels bad to invest so much time and energy into something and then not be proud of the end result! In the past, that feeling would launch me into a self-loathing spiral: Can I produce anything worthwhile? What am I doing with my life? Should I just admit I’m not a good artist and quit trying?

If this resonates, I have three pieces of advice: 1) Recognize that emotional pits are normal. That doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly feel better—it means the ups and downs of the creative process won’t cause you quite so much stress. 2) Remind yourself that your thoughts are just that: thoughts, not inevitable truths (even if they feel true). 3) Go to bed! We’re much more anxious when we’re tired; if we’ve been up too long, we start to lose the ability to distinguish between friendly-looking faces and menacing ones. Take the sound advice my co-author Mollie’s mom gave her: “You’re not allowed to make judgements on your life when you’re short on sleep.”

When you’re feeling low, try drawing

Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fozzlien.

When I’m feeling low, drawing almost always helps me feel better. It’s the closest thing I have to a meditative practice. The lying-down or sitting-still type of meditation makes me too existential. I don’t like scanning my body for sensations or observing my thoughts. Creating art is a beautiful way to calm down while still doing something active with your body and mind.

When you feel down, embrace your desire to rest or retreat. This quiet time can give you space to reflect and come up with ideas—and to then turn those ideas into art. There’s a cool economics paper (stay with me!) that shows that the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt were more likely to create important works during the years when they experienced a lot of negative emotions.

All that said, sometimes, you just need to weather the emotional storm. If you’ve been at your creative practice for a while, and everything still feels bleak, it might be time to take some time off.

If you don’t feel like drawing, do it for five minutes—or start a routine

Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fozzlien.

My favorite strategy is to tell myself: “I only have to do this for five minutes, and then I can stop.” After five minutes, I almost always find myself having fun and wanting to continue.

I also think it’s useful to aim to make something everyday. The most creative people tend to be regimented about their work. Ernest Hemingway started writing every morning as soon as he woke up; Kanye West has attributed his success to “doing five beats a day for three summers.” Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a great book if you want more of these fun facts. And it’s fine to mix your media. Write 250 words about an octopus, lie on the floor and take the most interesting photograph you can, or try a new recipe, as long as you’re making something regularly.

You don’t have to be an artist to do creative work

Image from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, published by Portfolio, 2019. Courtesy of Liz Fozzlien.

Forget about what whether or not you’re a real artist or how good you “should” be, and just put a pen to paper! I studied economics in college and then worked as a consultant, so for a long time, it didn’t occur to me that I could do creative work. I’ve always had artsy side projects (e.g., drawing cartoons or constructing little paper structures) but for a long time, I thought only artists with fancy studios and equipment could make art.

One thing that helped me stay motivated when I was just beginning to get into creative work was to recreate something I found cool to learn new skills. When I wanted to pick up basic CSS, I built a website. I had no idea what to put on it, but I wanted the homepage to look like this French ad agency’s beautifully designed portfolio. Having a clear end goal in mind helped me focus and stay motivated as I slogged through code.

Liz Fosslien
Liz Fosslien is responsible for content at Humu, a machine learning company that aims to make work better. Her work has appeared in Glamour, NPR, TIME, The Financial Times, and The Economist.
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