Sunday, November 2, 2014


“I understand how you feel.”

You hear this sometimes. Maybe you’re venting a problem to somebody and they say those magic words to you. Sometimes they follow it with “but you’re being an idiot” and the magic of empathy dies faster than your little cousin on his first excursion into Dark Souls.

But it is good to know that somebody understands how we feel. It validates it and tells us “the way you feel makes sense to somebody who isn’t you.” It tells you that other people might have gone through the same thing. You aren’t an idiot for feeling this way, you aren’t wrong or screwed up. Maybe that feeling gets diluted depending on the person who tells you this.

Or maybe it’s amplified! Maybe you actually read or hear something from a hero you admire. That they also went through a similar situation and struggled with the same emotions. Maybe they become your hero as a result. Maybe it spurs on your success, because you believe a situation can be conquered and overcome.

Then again, maybe it can backfire. Maybe you wonder, “everybody else goes through this, why can’t I deal with it?” and you feel crappy.

Empathy and emotional resonance are strong things.

In fact people really hate it if you tell them you understand how they feel when you don’t (or when they think you don’t) because it feels patronizing. You haven’t gone through what they have, you don’t understand what it’s like, how could you possibly understand? It feels like they are cheapening your experience.

So all that wonderfully helpful advice that you give them gets ignored, because it clearly doesn’t apply here--or they think it doesn't. Likewise, if you don’t understand what they're going through, your wonderfully helpful advice might be (or feel) impossible to use.

This is also one reason that we might look at somebody’s mistake and call it stupid; we can’t understand how the person was supposed to get from point A to point B, and reached point Q instead. Usually we will understand the mistake if we ourselves have made it, but not always. Because we are wiser and better now, and maybe we’ve internalized a new thought process and forgotten the older one.

And that’s where the crux of it lies. Sometimes we can’t understand, even if we’ve seen other people make the error; we simply do not understand the thought process that led to the mistake, conclusion, or behavior. “I don’t get why everybody is/does [dumb thing].” You can’t see the (il)logical chain that led to the behavior, so you can’t empathize. Though maybe you can empathize afterwards when you see how bad they feel and tell them, “I would feel bad if I did something stupid too.”

It is good to be friends.

Let’s Solve A Puzzle

Two items together cost $1.10. One of the items costs $1.00 more than the other item. How much do the two items cost individually?

The answer is a little farther down.

It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, but I see many situations as puzzles, as having solutions, as being solvable. It’s a useful way to think because it can help you avoid lots of common errors. The field of rational thinking--that’s a field? you might ask--is the art and science of behaving in a way that maximizes goals. If you state a goal, then act in ways that aren’t optimal towards receiving those goals, you are considered to be acting irrationally under that definition. Irrational behaviors can be understandable and common, but when you break them down you see them for what they are: detrimental to your goals. In the rationalist worldview there’s some room for setting different goals based on your own personal values and emotions, though your values may change depending on how rational you attempt to become.

In short, trying to see situations as puzzles or situations that can be maximized is a rationalist worldview. It’s one I like and try to apply as often as I can.

On the other hand, this viewpoint means you overthink things, or at least get accused of overthinking. It can mean you get bogged down with every situation because you don’t want to act in a way that is wrong. Then you see everybody sail through the same scenario and think “ugh, why am I struggling with this?” and the answer is, “I’m struggling with it because my brain wants to struggle with it.” Because, it turns out, that trying to maximize every scenario has costs associated with it that are equal to (or greater than) the costs of simply accepting non-optimal results in those scenarios.

This isn’t a problem with the rational view, but rather one’s application of it. Because you might be getting distracted with a short-term goal that runs counter to a long-term goal and generates you little value. But you don’t notice because, go figure, you feel emotionally attached to applying rationality in a situation, and it’s understandable not to want a bad outcome.

There’s a pattern there.

To the puzzle above, did you answer “one item costs a dollar, the other costs ten cents”? It is the answer many people get and is also the wrong answer, and if you look at it for a moment, you realize why. One dollar is not one dollar more than ten cents. But it feels good to say that answer, because you see the $1.00, you see the $.10, you know there’s some addition involved, you get some number feelings in your head, and you answer. But kind-of-mathy-number-feelings are not really how you’re supposed to solve most math problems.

The best way to avoid an error in this problem is to ignore your gut, ignore what looks good and feels good, and just math it out. Straight logic. If you wanted to use algebra, you could do it like this:

X + Y = 1.10 -- added together, they equal 1.10
Y = X + 1.00 -- one item is a dollar more than the other
X + X + 100 = X + Y -- substitute Y to remove it from the equation
2X + 1.00 = 1.10 -- substitute some more
2X = .10 -- subtract 1.00 from both sides
X = .05 -- divide by two
Y = 1.05 -- add 1.00 to X to get Y

So the real answer is “one item is five cents, the other is a dollar and five cents.” Hooray for algebra.

I might have biased you by telling you that there was a sneaky trick, or common error at the start of the problem. Or you might have made the mistake before. That might have alerted you and made you want to use logic. I don’t know what this bias is scientifically called, but I just think of it as the “puzzle bias.” If you know a puzzle is meant to be solved, then you may have more drive or determination to solve that puzzle because you believe it can be solved. Likewise, if I tell you there is a trap or common mistake in a problem, you may be more likely to double check your answer, just in case. It is why I also encourage people to assume a solution.

Okay, tangent over. The point is that the mistake is very understandable. A lot of people make it! If you don’t stop what you’re doing and engage some math circuitry in your brain (and many people don’t really do that in their day-to-day life) they will go with something that looks kind of good and roll with it. They’ll respond intuitively and emotionally to the problem (respond emotionally to a math problem? Going with an answer that “feels good” without thinking hard certainly qualifies). This might work in a lot of cases, but sometimes the obvious answer is the wrong one. The understandable answer that seems right at first glance is wrong.

Sometimes you need a bit of puzzle bias and you need to assume that there is a trick or trap in the situation because that can keep you alert. It can help you avoid understandable mistakes and succeed more, which is good because success is fun. Or, on the flipside, it can make you paranoid and second guess yourself, causing new mistakes. That is also fun.

So I Just Read All That For What Exactly?

There are a few things to take away from that.

First is that you can have a completely understandable response to a situation. It will make you feel in a way that is perfectly understandable, and you will then respond in a way which is perfectly understandable, causing a perfectly understandable mistake. And everybody will tell you that they understand, and it will make you feel better, and it will make you feel supported.

You will still have made a mistake. One you shouldn’t necessarily feel like an idiot for making, but one which might still need correcting. Hey, these things happen.

Another point is that if you want to figure out why mistakes and behaviors happen, you need to figure out the thoughts and emotions behind them. Not understanding does not render the situation incomprehensible. Especially when you aren’t talking about math problems, where a behavior might not even seem like a mistake to the person engaging in it. So sometimes you have to stop and really listen to another person to figure out “hey, why are they acting in this manner that I currently cannot fathom?” Because it’s very possible that, without your background and substituting their background instead, you would be acting similarly.

Yet another point is that it pays, every now and then, to ask yourself “have I been here before?” The above puzzle is very easy to solve when you’ve seen it before even if you don’t remember the details. You remember there is a trap, and you remember that the obvious answer was not the right one… so you think a little harder and a correct solution comes to mind instead.

It’s less impressive to get that puzzle right (we mostly value the solution to a puzzle or riddle based on getting it right the first time we see it, since pattern recognition is cheating), but if you’re talking about real life situations, it’s important you learn the “solutions.” That is in quotes because real life scenarios do not always have clear-cut solutions like little math puzzles.

Understandable mistakes are insidious, because they make sense at the time. Your thought process will continue to tell you this is a good idea because the emotion is understandable and the logic is understandable so the action seems smart, right up until it turns out to be wrong again. And again, and again.

But if you do take away one thing, take away that question: “have I been here before?” It’s a handy tool, and sometimes it starts the train of thought that helps you remember how you responded then, and what happened when you did.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A New (old) Challenger Approaches!

It is weird competing again.

I should clarify. I know most of my readers are here because of Smash and a lot of people in that community ask if I’m ‘unretired’ or what. The answer to that question is “sort of.”

I play locally. I am sort-of-sponsored by a store in Dallas called the FX Game Exchange, which has essentially become the hub of Dallas Smash. It’s not a big deal, but the owner covers my entry fees to tournaments and I wear the store’s t-shirt. So if you ever look up results for local events and see me listed as “FXDFW Wobbles” that’s why. I have lots of respect for the owner and he’s gone to great lengths to support the local scene, even rearranging his store so there is more space for setups and streaming. Mutual backscratching has commenced, and itches are satisfied.

But I’m probably not going to be flying out to major events anytime soon, and I probably won’t be competing in them, since it’s not really in the “contract” for FX to pay for my travel, or for me to represent them in the global marketplace while expanding corporate synergies. I also find the longer weekends of play to be stressful and distracting, especially when trying to maintain concentration for an entire event (that’s another way of saying when I go to big events, I want to party and hang out).

However, as long as tournaments are nearby and people don’t get tired of me showing up, I will probably keep playing. It is really hard to dampen the competitive drive completely.

Like I said though, competing is weird. It’s stressful. Personal growth never really ends, and if you don’t keep tending to it you tend to regress. The downside is that you have a feeling of progress in your head, and it can be very frustrating to feel that regression. “I thought I was over this!” you might think.

I like to use weightlifting analogies when it comes to personal growth because I think many similar principles apply. One of them is “use it or lose it.” You don’t set a personal record on your bench press, then lie in bed for two years, then come right back and get the same results. If you don’t put effort into at least maintaining your progress, it does vanish. The same is true of your personal habits, changes to your mindset, attitude, lifestyle, whatever. If you don’t keep an eye on it and don’t constantly implement new techniques or behaviors, they will fade.

I was kind of disappointed/surprised/frustrated when I first entered a tournament after a long period of inactivity to find that I was not only making errors, but my old frustrations with myself kept bubbling up. I was cussing at myself for making mistakes (even reasonable ones!) and I was getting mad that I was getting mad. It was like 2009 all over again, except worse, because I thought I was supposed to be more mature and enlightened and et cetera.

In fact, I rediscovered that whenever the concept of winning and losing is involved, I turn into a bit of an asshole. I re-learned just how much I really hate losing and making errors, and how stubborn I can be when it comes to my own prowess and proving it.

You know, ignore how little real practicing I’d done. Ignore how many neuroses and personal problems I had to try and pick apart over the years to improve my peak performance and happiness while competing. Ignore all that! I lose and I get angry. Grrr.

Seems silly. And it was and it is. But after observing myself and others, it’s a very understandable silliness.

People, in general, hate loss. We dislike losing material things. We dislike losing competitions. We dislike losing progress. Because we get a bit stuck on how good it felt then to overcome the obstacle, except now we have to overcome it again. We go through the pain of the process with less of the pleasure of overcoming the challenge. We already did that. We’ve been here before, and it sucked then and it sucks more now because we don’t feel like we’re gaining, we just feel like we’re recovering lost ground.

It was really nice going out with a bang and feeling like I had achieved a big personal victory. It was not nice feeling like I would have to do it again, especially when feeling the expectations of people around me to keep being super good. Was I imagining them? Maybe. People still get excited about beating me in friendlies when I’m playing Donkey Kong, so I don’t think it’s totally unjustified. But a major part of overcoming my issues and frustrations was learning to relax those impulses. Ask the people who play with me lately, and you will find that this is certainly not the case right now.

Like I said though, it’s tough to dampen the competitive drive for good. The fire rises up inside and no matter how unreasonable it might be, you (well, I) want to win now. I have it pretty bad because I want to win at everything and be the best all the time. Channeling that fire in a productive manner can be tricky.

But that’s part of the reason I’m back. If you want it to, competition can keep you mentally sharp. My mission statement (of sorts) has been that entering the pressure situation and learning from it teaches you about yourself. When competing brings a problem to the surface, when it raises questions about yourself, you get to see how to handle that problem and answer those questions. Maybe you can expunge them, or develop strategies to deal with them.

I don’t think my competitiveness is inherently a bad thing. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy when competing, but that can be okay, because enemies and foes give you the information about yourself that you need to be stronger. If I teach myself, it might be worth it to come back for a bit.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hello Again

Good news! The blog is back.

A number of people (greater than ten, and less than two million) have asked me in-person and online if I would start again. Until now, my answer was a hearty shrug, followed by "probably not."

To be honest, lately I’ve been frustrated. I like writing about things and coming up with thoughts on a variety of subjects. I like reading and learning and synthesizing what I learn, and I enjoy putting it out there somewhere for others to take things away. I like the idea that I’m going to say something and you’re going to read it and it’s going to help.

But I get frustrated because of how hard it is to make changes. Changes require constantly confronting your old habits with a draining degree of self-awareness. Change meets resistance, and if going to the gym teaches you anything, it’s that repeatedly working against resistance saps your strength. However, the other thing it teaches you is that you need that challenge to become stronger. Eventually, if you keep at it, you may look back at your old challenges and think, “remember when I could barely handle this?” And you will laugh, and proceed to do something else you can barely do.

I want to help other people change successfully, I want to change myself, but I can’t always see those changes in action because change is hard. It often takes a while. Epiphanies and realizations are nice and inspiring, but putting them into practice is tough. It’s tough for me, it’s tough for you, it’s generally tough for everybody.

Not being able to see some kind of concrete result of my writing makes it difficult to stay motivated. But when people ask me if I’m going to write again, it’s like a little shot of espresso for my ego. It makes me feel like I did change something, because when the writing stopped, somebody noticed.

That is, ironically, a selfish reason to start again. In fact, it’s doubly selfish, because without people to write for, I don’t do a lot of writing. I originally started writing a blog because writing helps me think; it keeps me critical, it keeps me mentally invested in my own progress. But hey, as long as people want to read and I want to write, it should all work out in the end, I think.

However, we aren’t just returning to the status quo! I’m going to try and do something slightly different. One of the last major events I went to, several people told me that I should start streaming or podcasting or something that they could subscribe to me, because they would totally pay me to keep writing or listen to me talk, or something.

And I thought, “hey, that sounds kind of cool.” Writing and reading takes me time and energy, especially when I want to come up with ideas that don’t stink. If it genuinely makes a difference to people and they want to support me, then I want there to be a way for that to happen (remember: selfish). So I’m thinking of starting a Patreon account.

If you don't know, Patreon is essentially crowd-funding. People can donate to me monthly as a form of support for the things I make. The difference between Patreon and, say, Kickstarter is that I don’t necessarily have a financial target to keep making the blog. The blog is not held hostage to a given ransom; you keep getting words whether you (and others) pay for them or not.

In short, the support is strictly voluntary. The incentive to donate is because you think me and my blog are cool. If you don’t think those two things are cool enough for [dollar amount per month] then you can give less. If [dollar amount greater than zero] is still too much, give nothing! And if [zero dollars] is too much to get you to read but you're here anyhow, then both of us need to rethink our lives.

But I also want to have neat incentives for people who support me, so I think what I’ll do are things like Q&A for patrons, topic suggestions for blogs, things like that. The patrons will--possibly?--have more say in the kind of things I write about and questions I answer, though everybody will get to read them. Honestly I am still not sure everything really works, and so I will be using the time-honored technique of “winging it” as I go through this.

I might still abandon the idea (the Patreon, not the blog) if, after some more looking into it, I don't think it's valuable. So if you have any thoughts on that, please let me know.

That is it for now, but rest assured there will be a new and very interesting post this week. Please react with all due excitement, and keep fragile heirlooms out of reach of your celebratory gyrations.

Thanks everybody. I’ll talk to you soon.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Hey there folks. As you can read from the title, I'm going to take a brief break from the regular updates to work on some other stuff. Life things, other writing projects, etc. You may have noticed (or maybe it's just me?) that the posts have all lately run towards similar themes and felt kind of samey. I've got some other stuff on my mind to work on and kind of feel like I'm really digging around to find stuff to write about. I think it's starting to show a bit.

So for the immediate future, my recommendation is to expect a break from regular updates. There may be a random update here and there, and you will know through the typical channels (Twitter, Facebook, or vague ripples on the Internet that make your browser quiver like a purring kitty-cat).

See you when I see you!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Something that’s pretty interesting (to me, anyhow) is how people get taught the correct “form” for executing things. Or don’t get taught, or get taught badly. You learn a form from one coach, move on to another, and he or she starts having to undo all that horrible damage. Which, funnily enough, your third coach in the future also finds it necessary to undo.

For a given game, you have a certain result that you want to achieve. The ball wants to go in the net or down the field or into a cup. The game imposes restrictions on how you can interact with the elements of the game, from a ball to a stick to another player to the other nine players or whatever.

You also have certain restrictions; specifically, you have the restrictions imposed on you by your body. The more of your body involved in a motion, the more compound and complicated the motion becomes. Little adjustments and changes in one place will turn into an adjustment and change in another.

You try adjusting a swing by leaning a little more on one leg. To complete the swing after you start, you rotate. Because your balance is a little shifted, you tilt a bit as you swing and tighten an oblique muscle a bit extra. Tightening the muscle reduces a bit of the flexibility, which causes you to tilt your shoulder, which changes the angle of the swing a little. One little change rolls all the way down the line (well maybe it does so in a way completely unlike what I just described, I am not a kinesiologist).

In order to adjust for one thing, your body will try and preserve balance, keep you from falling over for no reason, whatever. Sometimes, if you mess with your form enough, you can injure yourself because your body isn’t a magical know-it-all being and hurts itself for no reason. Or it’s just trying to do what you tell it, which was a bad idea from the start.

You want a result. To get the result, you cultivate a form. If you’re going to compete in a given game for a long period of time, you will need to execute that form over and over again. Having a form that works against your body does you no favors, particularly in the long term. You will adjust one thing, tighten something else, over-rotate here, and after thousands of executions you will be seeing a doctor for your chronic pain. You can sometimes cobble a painful (but successful) form together out of bad habits, often by ignoring the specific needs of your body.

In most cases, the purpose of the form is to fulfill the function. The challenge is not to fulfill the function while mindlessly adhering to the form. Unless the form is very specifically stated in the rules of your game, I suppose. But if the goal of the game is “move the ball into the circle somehow,” then everything serves that. Even if your form looks bloody stupid it will become the norm after awhile if it’s better than everybody else’s.

In the context of video games, it’s kind of good that people don’t really stress over form (I can imagine the YouTube tutorials where somebody tells you that you need to make sure your index finger remains 1.25 inches away from your middle finger at all times to maximize muscular flexibility and coordination while inputting shoryukens, and I laugh at the imaginary nerd), though I think it deserves some kind of mention. Cultivating your own form is important. The form exists for purposes of consistency, and consistent performance is an indicator of developed skill.

If you are going to do something over and over again, you want to have a form that permits you to do it the same way. If you position your hands to execute it one way this time, and a different way another time… well, you increase the odds that something little will interfere. Your body learns heavily through repetition. Changing parameters will change output.

Little changes in one part of the body affect others. If you tuck your arm in next to your side a little more today than you did yesterday, it bends, twists, and tenses just a little differently. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the more precise a motion needs to be, the more consistency is demanded. Some games come down to executions measured in tenths of an inch and sixtieths of a second. You do not want anything interfering with your comfort and repetition more than necessary. You already have enough to deal with in competition from nerves making you shaky and tensing your muscles. Position your arm a bit differently and you change the angle your hand and thumb move, and now you are performing a motion slightly different from the one you practiced. Not a big deal, unless it’s the clutch moment and something you should have been able to rely on goes a little wrong. People lose hundreds or thousands of dollars by frames and by pixels. Stuff like that matters.

People obsess over their equipment because little differences (a wider grip, a bit of less tension in something, whatever) throws of little sensitivities you develop over years of practice. Almost any competitor will tell you “ugh, something feels off” when little things are different, and the “off” feeling heavily contributes to discomfort and lack of focus, diminishing performance. If I remember right, Starcraft player Flash was known for using a ruler to measure the distance of the keyboard from the edge of the desk when he traveled to events. Why not? Everything counts when it comes to maintaining form. If you go to fighting game tournaments, sometimes you see players sitting in front of the big crowd on the big stage… on the floor, stick in lap. If that’s how they practice at home, that is what will increase their consistency and make them feel comfortable. It might look silly, but so does dropping bread and butters.

It’s not something people mention a lot (for gaming, anyhow) but I felt like talking about it a bit. Try and practice things the way that you will execute them in competition. On the flip side, when you get to competitions, try and set things up so you are playing just like you do at home. When you practice something, pay close attention to how you hold a controller or stick or approach your keyboard. Get your form down. Don’t introduce pointless variables unless you want to surprise yourself with sudden inconsistencies.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

Shame and Embarrassment

There are a few themes that keep popping up when I write. They are basically the core principles of my worldview, or at least the ones I try to keep in mind.

One of them is that you should try and deal with reality as it is (or as close as you can get to perceiving it that way). We have a lot of biases and flawed tendencies that keep us from doing this, so sometimes it means working a little extra hard. Sometimes that means not trusting yourself 100% when you think or feel something. As the saying goes, you’re only human. This goes for your emotions.

Another principle is that emotional responses should serve you. They exist to motivate you and guide your action. If you recognize that an emotional response is not helping, or that your attitude towards that emotion isn’t helping… you should make effort to change it.

That’s also based on the principle that your emotional responses are not absolutes. Your rational, conscious mind can encourage you to focus on different things, to adjust your attitude. This doesn’t mean you can suddenly, magically banish all emotion and be a living computer whenever you want. But you can make certain shifts by intentionally trying to look at things a different way. This works both in the short term and the long term.

Why would you try to change your emotions? Because of another principle: your emotions are not hard indicators of reality out there. Emotions tell you something about yourself. Two people in the same situation will respond a little differently, because they are different people. An emotional response tells you about your values and attitudes and beliefs and perceptions. It's a flawed system, one with limited capacities.

And that’s where you bring it back to the first one I mentioned. We are only human. Our emotions and attitudes guide our behavior, but they are susceptible to bias. We shouldn’t always trust them, except to tell us a little something about ourselves. So we come to the subject of this post, which is embarrassment.

Situations are not embarrassing. They are not inherently shameful or embarrassing or awkward until we apply the emotion to the situation. Something cannot be embarrassing if you are not embarrassed. Something cannot be shameful unless you are ashamed. The level of embarrassment and shame involved in something is based on you, not the thing.

I mean, sometimes other people are willing to help out and let us know. That they’re ashamed or embarrassed on our behalf and we should feel that way too. Thanks, buddies.

Shame and embarrassment are principally based on what we want other people to think and perceive about us. So when we feel it after a situation or experience, it’s because we are convinced that people now perceive us in a way we don’t want. When we feel it before a situation, it’s because we predict that the situation will have an outcome that makes people think of us a certain way.

There is another side to it, which is sometimes we get embarrassed or ashamed because of what we want to be, or think we should be, and whether the situation reflects that. So it’s not always about other people, though the publicity of our shame and embarrassment (or the possibility of its publicity) usually enhances the feeling.


So what’s the point of addressing all that?

For starters, we want to ask ourselves, what point is there to embarrassment and shame? As emotions and behavior guides, how do they help? They usually seem to just make us feel crappy. They also encourage us to shame and embarrass others for not fitting in line with certain values, performances, or roles. There are many parts of the world that rely heavily on shame, which leads to repression, which--historically--leads to unfortunate results.

It’s a powerful emotion. That makes it a very powerful guide for action. Where the action goes, of course, depends on what embarrasses and shames you. Again, emotions say something about you, not necessarily what’s going on out there. So what embarrasses you? Why does it embarrass you? Where did you obtain this value or attitude?

Shame as a social mechanism is pretty damn strong. It makes everybody want to be perceived a certain way, which means people actively broadcast (or attempt to broadcast) certain traits. Even if you don’t buy into it, you may believe that everybody else does. So you share and contribute to the pool. Failure to match up to those things is what shames us, even when we don’t control the thing that causes the discrepancy.

In fact, when we don’t control it, that can be even worse. Like maybe you are ashamed of an innate trait you are born with that prevents you from meeting standards or expectations that you want to meet. You value X, but because of this thing you were born with, you cannot be X or live up to X. That means that any time you think about it, you are forced to confront a shameful failure, one that's innate to your existence. Welcome to the land of low self-esteem, enjoy your permanent stay.

In the context of competition, a lot of the time we really want to be good at something. And so if we make a really amateur error after years of practice, that might embarrass us. If we get destroyed by a large margin, that might embarrass us. If we lose to somebody we “should have” beaten, that might embarrass us.

Hey, it’s not just what you do. Sometimes you worry about what other people do because you believe that people will associate you with that failure. This is one of the things that causes us to push our values on other people, to try and shame people into falling in line with what we value. And vice-versa, obviously.

So let’s go back to the principles and try to derive some benefit from this situation. How can embarrassment and shame potentially serve us on a personal level? Let’s move away from the scarier, larger scale idea of social control through mutual shaming. How can you take the personal feelings of shame and embarrassment and use them to some kind of advantage from within?

Well, this should be stating the obvious, but the rule is this: if you feel the emotion after the fact, it’s for improvement and learning. It becomes a motivator to do something or approach something differently. If you feel the emotion beforehand, it’s typically a prediction of how you think you will feel depending on certain outcomes. This makes it designed to retool your behavior to get the optimal one. If you predict shame and embarrassment, the goal is to change your approach. The prediction of possible shame will increase stress levels in your body. The stress response will then prime you to escape the potentially shaming situation, or it will gear your body and brain to handle it in a way that leads to success.

Or, as everybody who has ever made an error or done dumb things under pressure and stress knows, it screws us up, compounding the shame and embarrassment. You predict that if you make a mistake or choke or mess up, you will be ashamed and embarrassed. So your brain goes full-throttle on the adrenaline, and it makes you so shaky and jumpy that you can barely function, and then you screw up and now you feel even worse. Maybe because you couldn’t stop thinking about how embarrassing it was/would be to actually focus on what you were doing.

Thanks for helping, brain.

Oh, here is a good one. You are so embarrassed that you start trying to cover up the failure or mistake. Maybe, in the context of a game, you are supposed to be good, you are supposed to have skill, but you lost. So quickly, to avoid being seen as a failure, or to avoid feeling like one internally, you make excuses. You start scrambling to provide everybody with reasons why the failure wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done anything. Anybody would have failed in your shoes, maybe even worse than you did! Not your problem. Some flaw in reality, some stroke of horrible luck. It’s the game’s fault, perhaps. Maybe so. But apart from the people that support you with die-hard fanaticism, it can leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.

That’s the fun part of shame and embarrassment. Our quick and instinctual attempts to hide it often make us exhibit other traits which people--the ones we’re worried about impressing--also perceive as shameful. Jeez, it’s bad enough to be a screw-up, but one that makes excuses? Just get out, bro. You’re embarrassing yourself.

It’s a messy emotion. When we ask, “how can embarrassment or shame help me deal with reality as it is?” we don’t actually come up with lots of good answers. The first thing we typically do with shameful, embarrassing experiences (or actions or characteristics or whatever) is try to hide them or justify them. That is the pretty frequently the opposite of dealing with things as they are. Avoid thinking about stuff? Avoid letting people know it happened? Try and hide it or make up reasons to feel better? You can’t handle things if you pretend they aren’t there. If it’s there, it’s there, and you must confront it. Well, you don’t have to. But it helps.

It makes me feel like conditioning yourself away from the emotions of shame and embarrassment is a much better response than trying to tame it. It leads to such impulsive and restrictive behaviors that I don’t see many benefits. But let’s say you can’t seem to annihilate your feelings of embarrassment or shame (you know, because you are a human being). How do you use them?

First, shame and embarrassment will tell you what you value, if you listen to them. It tells you what you want to be, or at the very least how you want to be perceived. If you trace the feelings back a bit, they can indicate when you will start feeling different kinds of pressure. It also helps you understand which situations are likely to provoke knee-jerk responses.

In competitive games, sometimes you can try to actively embarrass another person and provoke them into playing impulsively as they try to make up ground. If you understand yourself, it becomes a lot less likely that this kind of thing will happen to you. It can be very rough if somebody uses an advantage to mock you and make you look bad, but it’s even worse if that makes you play poorly and predictably. Being manipulable is not considered a quality of champions for a reason.

Another thing to make sure you are doing is that, at the very least, you are using shame and embarrassment to change your performance rather than your image. People who worry about image and what others say about them, for whom appearance is the basis of embarrassment, will spend more time arguing after a bad performance than reviewing. They will spend more time in public-relations damage-control mode than actually fixing the problems that damaged them. That is the kind of thinking that leads to excuses rather than action. I think, if you’re determined to hang onto your shame, it’s more beneficial if at least you attach it to what you do rather than what people think you do. You’ll probably get a bit more mileage that way.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.