‘We Have To Put Physical & Mental Pain On The Same Level’: Talking Health With Lina Ugrinovska

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Lina Ugrinovska is using her own experience from two burnouts – and overcoming them – to help other professionals in the music business achieve the same.

It’s great to take pride in one’s work, but it helps to have other things to be proud of, as well, as least if one cares about their mental well-being. As long as everyone around seems to be coping fine with the demands of so-called modern life, it takes courage to admit that you’re not. According to Lina Ugrinovska, mustering this courage was the first step towards realizing our potential as human beings, whose lives revolve around so much more than just work. The founder and director of European booking agency Banana & Salt from Skopje, Macedonia, used her own experience from two burnouts to rethink everything about the way she used to live and work. After making a successful recovery, she started sharing her experience and best practices, making her a regular speaker on panels on the topic of mental health in music.

When we reached out to Ugrinovska, she had just embarked on new endeavors in New York, where she’s curating a celebration of 60 years of Bossa Nova at Carnegie Hall, and Rio de Janeiro, where she’s handling international communications for artist development and consulting firm Creative Music Management – in addition to her agency business. Perfect timing, as the challenge of working and living in three places across the year allowed her to apply – and share with Pollstar – all she’s learnt about staying healthy in the always busy and hectic world of entertainment.

Firstly, “I take breaks a lot. Once I’m done with one task, I get up and do something else for a while. I used to get dragged into the multitasking-thing, which is what really burned me out a lot: opening multiple emails at a time, plus an excel sheet, while taking a call. This is something that kept me in my seat for hours, as I’m sure it does all of us. And then, of course, the back pains and headaches kick in, and we forget to drink water. Now, I do one thing, then I stand up and maybe just chill for 15 minutes. Once I realized, that nothing bad happens if I don’t respond to emails the moment they get in, that’s when I found my freedom. It’s a way to be in the present moment, rather than inside the machine, where your computer is consuming you, instead of you being the one consuming it.” Some might think that taking frequent breaks was inefficient. But, in Ugrinovska’s experience, the opposite is true, because in the moments she does work, she makes it count.

‘The Disparity Between Headliners & Newcomers Is Apparent’: Q’s With Lina Ugrinovska

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Lina Ugrinovska on the historic stage of Carnegie Hall, where she’s curating a celebration of 60 years of Bossa Nova.

Secondly, exercise. “When you train, you’re aware that you can’t do everything, that you can hurt yourself, and you don’t want that because it’s physical pain, right? But we don’t think the same way on a mental level. At work, we’re more like, ‘Oh, this is going to really burn out my brain. Okay, let’s burn it!’ During workouts, I have to take breaks, breathe, get my strength back. And if I don’t feel like I can do it, I’m not doing it, because I know I’m gonna hurt myself. We should apply the same logic to our mental exercises. We have to put the physical and the mental pain on the same level, even if the mental is not visible,” said Ugrinovska.

Thirdly, divide it up: “If you need to sit down ten times, then just sit down ten times, instead of one time for 10 different things. Me consuming little pieces of work really changed the quality of my work,” she said, in other words, “You cannot eat the whole cake. If you eat the whole cake you’re gonna throw up. But if you have one piece today, one piece tomorrow, you’re going to remember it as a good cake, and not as something that you threw up. I’m trying to consume work as something that I love, as I’m consuming my friends, and everything else in my life that I love. In order for me to be able to love my work, I have to consume it selectively, in small doses.”

Re-evaluating the role work should play in her life changed everything, she said. Taking her job out of the center of all considerations, and placing it on par with her other passions in life brought back the passion for her job. None of it changed the way she was perceived as a worker and colleague. Instead, it made her much more productive, “and it changed the quality of the work that I do,” she explained, which in turn brought new opportunities that may have never presented themselves otherwise: “I was able to be focused and notice if something worth pursuing was crossing my path. When you’re working all the time, you are not noticing the things around you, the opportunities you can grab, because your eyes are always glued to your screen.”

It took a couple of burnouts to realize all of this. After the first one, Ugrinovska took some time to reset her brain, but returned to the same habits as before. “If I though something was important, I would spend the whole day on it. It was the only way I knew, there were no alternative routes left or right. This is where people get stuck. You realized you’re on the wrong path, but you don’t know any other way. Twice, I ended up in a dead-end,” she recalled.

Finding those alternative routes was the hardest bit, requiring an honest look in the mirror, the courage to change, and some deep thinking. Said Ugrinovska, “In order for you to apply the right tools and practices for yourself, you have to know what kind of habits you have. You have to locate the areas you have to work on. Maybe I was not even supposed to work on my daily tasks at all, maybe I just needed time to work on myself as a person, on my character, on where I was and where I wanted to be, what kind of person I wanted to become. This is what happened to me: I spent a lot of time by myself, I just felt like I had to spend time with Lina.” 

Her journey took her far into the recesses of her mind and heart, as she explained, “I started digging deeper and deeper into different segments of my own character in order to locate what am I supposed to do, in order to feel better about myself. As a human being, I want to feel good about myself, I want to feel like I have my shit together. And I did feel like I had my shit together when I accomplished a task. But I was still so tired that I didn’t even pay attention to how I felt at the moment.”

It was like “looking at Lina from a distance, I was so far from who Lina is, I had to tell her, ‘hey, come back, let’s talk.’ I’m a different person when I work, compared to when I don’t work, and I really needed time to bring these two personalities together, to have them in sync. I don’t want to feel split in half. I want to have a healthy relationship, not just with my work, but with everything I do. This requires a lot of self-analysis, and you cannot skip that part. There is no shortcut.”

Ugrinovska shared a couple practical examples from her journey to selfhood. Through voicing and recording her thoughts, for example, “I realized that I have a problem with being too alert, always listening out for social media notifications or the sound of an email coming through.” She explained that it was a form of addiction, in this case, an addiction to the control. It ironically ended up in the tasks controlling her, and not the other way round. Letting go, however, didn’t mean a loss of control, it simply meant taking control of a different aspect of her being, in this case, her well-being.

“I decided to mute all notifications, and it felt much better. So, of course, I’m going to keep it that way. I also ceased working over the weekends, which wasn’t something I had been used to. We’re all working all the time. There is no break. But I just made the decision, and nowadays, come Friday, 8 p.m., I don’t exist to the outside world anymore.”

The answer to, “Why am I doing what I’m doing, and why is it so hard to change?” may be different for everyone, and different people will have different ways of bringing their own shadow aspects to light, from journaling, to voice notes, to visualization. Only then will it be possible to rearrange, apply tools, change behavior, and – most importantly – develop the self confidence that comes from valuing one’s own life, of which work can only ever be a part, or as Ugrinovska put it, “my job isn’t something I turn on and transform into; it’s simply a part of the many activities that shape my day. Seeing it from this perspective, I deliberately lessen the importance of how much it affects me. Instead, I work towards blending the process of working into the same plane as all the other elements that occupy my day. The work doesn’t inherently hold more or less significance when measured against everything else I participate in day after day.”

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