Friday, March 22, 2019

Average, Perfectly

I will sometimes have “realizations” that feel very obvious in retrospect. They may even be re-realizations of things I already thought about, or even wrote about in the past. However, I forget some lessons pretty easily, especially when it comes to managing my own neuroses, and a “new” realization is usually an old one put into new words. Since I’m heavily verbal, new ways of describing things can be really important for me to unlock an idea or feeling, and sometimes it’s just an old idea or feeling, but a new way of getting to it. In this case, it’s related to an issue I have with with perfectionism that can cause me to lose steam and motivation.

The issue I have is that I frequently want to skip ahead when I’m learning new skills. I do things like play video games on hard mode for my first playthrough, or when I was learning guitar, I wanted to skip easy songs and start learning hard ones. I also approach my general lifestyle like this, where I imagine a better and more effective version of myself, often comparing myself to hyperefficient people and feeling bad when I don’t match up.

A few thoughts and concepts have helped me approach this issue differently, and trying to keep it in mind has reduced a bit of stress and helped keep me on track in some areas, so I thought I’d share them.


First, infinity.

There are at least two kinds of infinity that you can think about. The first I’m thinking of is the “really big number” kind, and the other is the “infinite space between two numbers” kind.

You can add 1 to another number, then add 1 to that, then add 1 to that, forever, and that’s the first infinity. For the other, you can say “starting at 1, now go halfway to 2. Now go halfway to 2 from there. Now go halfway to 2 from there, now do it again, and again..,” and you just get a number that gets infinitely close to 2 without reaching it.

Second, perfection.

Perfection, to me, seems a lot like the second kind of infinity, rather than the first. When we say “perfection is impossible,” we don’t mean “perfection doesn’t exist because you can grow infinitely,” we typically have an imagined maximum that you can’t reach, but you can get infinitely close to. There are some cases where that imagined maximum changes, because we have an inaccurate perception of our limits, so it can be useful to just ignore the idea of perfection and keep trying to scale up, as if we did have room for the first kind of infinite growth--I’m not doing that in this case, but it’s good to remember that it’s a thing you can do sometimes.

When I think of myself as a perfectionist, it looks something like “I currently have a conception of what the ‘best’ looks like, and I want to be as close to it as possible.”


Next, I want to talk about something that happened in one of my college classes.

The class was about neural networks--the computer, machine learning kind, and not very much about actual brains--and one of my classmates was taking that kind of class for the first time. We were talking about things afterwards, and he was very excited about building models that could approximate human brain function, but seemed a bit disappointed that most of the examples we used in class were “toy” examples, silly or tongue-in-cheek or small-scale.

In a classic case of “I know a lot of smart and wise things that I stink at applying to myself,” I asked him, “do you understand how the toy models work yet?” And he said, “no.”

“Seems like the toy models are a good place to start then.” Then I added something to the effect of, “yeah, we’d like to be building cool artificial brains that can do creative human problem solving, but with computer precision and speed. However, if you want to do that, there are lots of much simpler challenges that you need to be able to meet first. I don’t want to be a killjoy here, because it’s great to keep your end goal in mind and aspire to it, but if you can’t do the little thing, odds are you can’t do the big thing, much harder thing either. So starting with the little thing and mastering it seems like the way to go.”

I’m not really sure how “smart and wise” you can call that, because it’s really just the long way of saying “you have to learn how to walk before you can run.” He thought for a second and then said “yeah, that sounds reasonable.”

It is funny that I’m the one telling somebody else that, because I am really bad at doing that. I want to start doing the hard thing now. I hate sitting around and mastering the basics, because I just imagine what a much better person is doing and I want to do that instead. I get the general gist of the foundation and then I want to move on.

Later on, I struggle because my foundation is not, it turns out, well-founded. This happens more frequently than I’d like.


There is a case where I actually did do the smart thing though, and it worked remarkably well.

Back in high-school I used to play a lot of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution)--it was probably responsible on its own for keeping me from gaining a lot of weight given how much fast food and soda I consumed. Once I was able to clear songs on the highest difficulty level, I became interested in getting AAA ranks on songs, which you achieve by scoring all Perfects. Perfects, in turn, are acquired by hitting each step within a certain timing window.

I was kind of stuck though. I had the physical ability to pass any song in the game on its highest difficulty--at the time, anyhow--but I couldn’t seem to improve my Perfects. I could full-combo most songs--missing no notes--but I still had an annoyingly high number of non-perfect hits. I played and played, but my precision didn’t improve.

I asked a better player what to do, and they recommended that I tried getting AAA ranks on lower difficulties. I wasn’t sure how it was going to help, but I did it anyhow, since nothing else was working.

It turned out to be good advice! Playing much easier songs gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on improving my timing, rather than focus on improving it while I also tried to pass difficult songs. I was surprised to learn that my rhythm was okay, but I was relying on the faster tempos and rapid note patterns to help me maintain it. After I became comfortable AAA’ing most of the songs on medium difficulty, I ramped it back up, and scored AAAs on several of the songs I couldn’t before.

The moral of the story?


Returning back to the title, something that I’ve been trying to improve myself lately by shuffling things around a bit. Instead of asking “what does perfection look like, and how can I get as close to that as possible?”, I have been asking myself “what would an average person be able to do in this situation, and how can I do that thing perfectly?” This switch has had interesting results.

First, it has forced me to identify more milestones on my road to improvement in various areas. This helps keep me from feeling like I don’t know what to do next; instead of trying to assess a large gap between myself and the highest performers of something, I can assess the much smaller gap between myself and somebody who is average, or slightly above average.

Second, because I’m still asking myself “how can I do this thing perfectly?” it gets me to put a mental magnifying glass up to simple things, notice more nuance, and this keeps me from getting bored with those simple things as quickly. It also has the benefit of channeling my perfectionism rather than trying to resist or deny it.

As an example, I’ve been playing guitar for awhile, but I still can’t actually play any songs to completion because I mostly just want to practice cool riffs that are too difficult for me. So I asked myself “what would an average guitarist be able to do?”, and answered, “they should be able to play some basic songs from start to finish without giant mistakes.” That means practicing chords, which I don’t like doing because I find it monotonous.

But sure enough, once I start trying to play an easy song perfectly, I start noticing lots of little things to work on, little flubs in how I play a chord, things like that. When I start feeling “but this is so much easier than what I want to be able to play,” I can respond with “there’s no way I could be able to play a hard guitar part if I can’t play an easy one,” so it acts as a meaningful step towards my ultimate goal.

It also occurs to me that you can never actually do the really difficult stuff. It’s too far beyond you, there’s no point. You instead try to do things that are a little bit harder than what you can do until they are not hard anymore, and you repeat that until the stuff that used to seem crazy and difficult is just “tricky, but I’ll manage.” So lately, instead of trying to be like an average perfect person, I try and be average, perfectly. It seems to work better.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Evo 2018: Recap and Reflections

Evo this year was interesting for me since I entered as a last minute thing, and I wasn't sure if I was going to 1) cheerfully drink during the bracket and play whatever character I wanted or 2) try my hardest. Approaching the event though, I had some more thoughts on where I'm going in my personal development, and it led to me picking option 2.

As per my post on existing with anger, it occurred to me that I have been too afraid to even experience certain emotions because of my difficulties in dealing with them. If you have observed me at any point during the past twelve years of my life, then you know I have issues managing my anger. I don't know if other people get as angry as I do, or if it feels as intense and unbearable for other people as it does for me, or if it simply rushes into their head as quickly and surprisingly. It's hot, intense, and unpleasant.

I have this struggle with other emotions as well, even happiness! When I have fun, or get excited about something, it can very easily take me over and turn into hyperactivity and mania. Like my anger, if you've seen me during the past twelve years, you also know that when I am having fun, I can easily become very loud and annoying. Sometimes I even find enjoyment and fun to be unpleasant, because of its intensity, as well as how obnoxious I can be when expressing it.

So my normal approach is to avoid expressing it, and since that's been very difficult for me, I take it another step forward and avoid feeling it. "It" means... well, anything. I give people the impression that I'm a very analytical and calculating person, and in some ways I am. But it's mostly a compensation for my innate emotional intensity and impulsiveness.

Lately, I've realized that it just hasn't been enough, and that means trying to face those emotions head on without trying to run from them. I'm honestly worried that if I let myself get angry at all, then I'll throw another controller. I'm worried if I let my competitive drive surge up, then I'll get mean spirited. I'm worried that if I let myself get too excited or hyped up, I'll be a pain in the ass for the people around me.

Everything is a risk in some direction though, and if I want to keep growing as a person, then I will have to be able to experience those feelings and not let them overflow or control me. That means taking the chance that they will, and not being afraid to admit that I wasn't strong enough if I let them. Evo this year was an attempt to honestly let myself feel my competitive drive, give the game 100%, and keep it under control.

It was way more successful than I thought it would be. I tried to keep tabs on my general mindset and only turn things down if they started over-escalating. If I noticed thoughts creeping in, the kind that can easily spiral out of control and piss myself off, I tried to focus on the feeling that generated the thoughts, instead of just arguing with the thoughts themselves. That helped. Not only that, I tried to focus on being strong enough to contain the feeling, rather than trying to squash it, eliminate it, or deny it. That helped even more.

I lost to KJH in winner's bracket, and it felt bad, but not as bad as I thought it would. I didn't wobble him--so I guess from a strategic and tactical perspective I wasn't trying my hardest--but I tried to invest myself as much as possible in the moment-to-moment of the game, to feel my desire to win, not fear it. I got over the unhappiness with the loss pretty quickly, also faster than I thought. I honestly expected it to be the opposite, so that surprised me.

My next close and serious match was against Kalamazhu. In that one, I wobbled, and it was also less boring and intolerable than I thought. I think going into that match unafraid of my serious desire to win let me dull the minor annoyance of hitting the A button over and over. And something that was cool was that I found myself still landing some of the crazier conversions into my infinite, conversions based off the more elaborate (sometimes pointlessly elaborate) sequences that I've been messing with for the past couple years.

Most importantly though, at the end of game two (which he won), I started tilting a bit because of the matchup. I could hear some seriously salty voices running through my head. I took a bit of time to breathe in between games two and three. I didn't try to make the feelings go away, I just tried to be strong enough to withstand them.

Mind you, I did use some of my cognitive strategies once I was a little less agitated. One of my strongest ones has always been trying to see why something the other person did was good, or clever, or worth respecting, rather than just thinking "this matchup sucks." That helps me feel more competitive in a positive way. So it's not as though I ignored all the other strategies that I've been using over the years. I just tried to shift the emphasis to an emotional strength, rather than an emotional technique.

I felt the tilt fade quickly, and managed to win 2-1, then popped off a bit. Then I played Axe about two hours later and he bodied me, but that's fine. I got 33rd and managed to handle--effectively handle--the presence of those intense competitive emotions and keep things centered on the game. Then when I was out, I didn't feel like a bum.

Not only that, I had a lot more energy after I was out than I normally do. Usually, between the competitive stress and the endless social interaction, I just get really drained after my tournament is over. This time though, I was more disciplined about my sleep, when I ate, and what I ate, which had a major impact on how I felt. I joked on Twitter about how it kind of sucked to feel that good before a match, because then I didn't have any excuses ready for when I lost, but I think my willingness to face the whole thing with strength rather than being afraid of the emotions allowed me to prepare for everything directly.

I'm headed to Smash Con this weekend but I am not competing there, and afterwards I don't have plans to attend anything, but if I do, I am (most likely) going to give another shot at competition. This past weekend I felt like a much stronger and more disciplined person, and that meant a lot to me, so I'd like to keep pushing in that direction.

TL;DR: Evo was a huge personal success for me. I may write more in the future on the topic of being a stronger container for my emotion, but for now, I'll just leave things here. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Saying No

Well, it's the 4th of July, and that means it's time for a post about freedom. This will conclude the posts on anxiety, so you can stop worrying about it.


You can split the concept of "rights" and freedom into two main concepts. One is what you are expressly given the capacity to do, which is called a positive liberty. The other is a negative liberty, which is a description of what won't be done to you.

Simple example time. The positive liberty component of "you may go wherever you like" is granted by having the ability to go where you like. The negative liberty component is that other people don't stop you. You may have a negative liberty on going to space--the government shall not grab you by the shoulders and keep you from leaping into space--but that doesn't mean you have a positive liberty to do so, either because you skip leg day or you don't own a spaceship. Nobody is stopping you, you just can't. A government-granted positive liberty would look something like "all citizens have the right to free spaceship rides, which the government shall provide."

The short version is that negative liberty is freedom from, and positive liberty is freedom to.

I'm going to focus on negative liberty today. Specifically, I've been thinking about the concept of saying "no." So let's think about cell walls. The biological kind of cell.

The cells of your body have membranes in order to keep things from going in and out very easily. A completely impermeable membrane would not let anything in or out. As it becomes more and more permeable, more stuff can sneak in or leak out, until eventually you have a completely porous membrane... which is to say, no membrane at all. At that point there isn't a cell, there's just a bunch of stuff that floats next to each other until other stuff knocks them around or gobbles them up.

In Infinitum, I talked about how it feels like I can't stop myself from thinking about endless possibilities, different outcomes, different ways that I could do things better, or different ways that things could be wrong. Recently, it occurred to me that this is a bit like cell with a highly porous membrane. The inability to keep things out can get easily leave your mind filled with junk. There's a trade-off there, which is a completely impermeable membrane could not allow in things like nutrients, or get rid of toxic metabolic by-products. And after that, we get terms like "open-minded" and "closed-minded" and we can see how the extreme version of both is easily dangerous for the mind.

Well, your cells have boundaries--their membranes--for the sake of their health. In relationships, you set boundaries with other people for the sake of both your health and the relationship's health. So it is with your mind. Your mind needs boundaries, for the sake of its health. When it comes to cells, you have a phospholipid bilayer. When it comes to your mind, you have the word "no," and I've found myself relying on that word more and more.

"No" is negative liberty verbalized. "No, you don't get to do that to me." And in this case, it's freedom from the thoughts and ideas that abduct my mind without my say-so. My brain has a lot of imagination. It gets very quickly carried away with new chains of thought, new associations, new ideas, new possibilities, new everything, and I find that I can be rather bad at saying "no" to those things. This is where practicing mindfulness has proven useful; I hear the thoughts relatively quickly, which is what allows me to tell them "no" before they sap my energy or distract me from what I was supposed to be doing. "No," in this context, is freedom from distraction, freedom from having to manage an endless slew of self-invented variables, freedom from having so many thoughts running around my head that I don't know where to start or how I'll ever finish.

Or--especially during the summer without classes or homework to think about--there are many times where I'll find myself sitting around with spare time and wondering what I should do, and finding that I just can't pick. I can imagine myself doing too many different things. Just thinking about it tires me out before I even pick one. I can't answer the question "what do I want to do?" because then my brain goes "well, what about this instead?" It can find so many acceptable answers that it begins to devalue all of them.

This is where "no" becomes useful. For instance, today I wasn't sure if I wanted to stream something, write something, practice guitar, clean up, or... maybe something else? It was hard to say yes to anything. The thing that got me motivated was saying "no." Specifically, this particular blog post came to mind, and when I thought "do I want to write it?" I found other stuff competing with it in my brainspace. So instead of saying "I want to"--because I wanted to do other stuff too, and that wasn't narrowing it down any--I found inside myself a minor revulsion to the idea of leaving this post unwritten. So I said no, I don't want to do that. That shoved everything else aside, and now here we are.

I think an immediate potential objection to this is that focusing on the negative aspect--particularly when it comes to a question like "what do you want to do?" versus "what don't you want"--is that it seems like it leaves out the possibility for things like fun or enjoyment. So I'll conclude with an example where that turned out not to be the case.

Somewhat recently, I got a watch, and for the process of buying it, I decided I was going to be really picky. I had a few ideas in mind of what I wanted, but I felt a determination to say "no" to a lot of different watches, because they can get expensive and I was damn sure I wouldn't buy one that I didn't really like. I went out a few times, looked online, and tried on a lot of watches, and said "no" to just about all of them. Rather than focusing on the positives--because I can talk myself into anything--I focused on things about them that immediately bugged me, or that I immediately didn't like. Too big, too shiny, not quite the right font for the numbers on the face, or the color of the dial didn't contrast the background enough, whatever the objection, I said "no" and went looking for a different one.

During the process, I started to notice that as I focused on things I didn't like, it made the things I did like start to pop out more. I started to notice watches that made me say "ooooh" like I'd just found treasure. I began noticing what specifically was making me dislike and like the watches I was looking at. Long story short, I finally found the watch I wanted, and seven months later I still look at it and smile.

The thing is, narrowing down a single choice didn't just mean coming up with reasons why I might like the one I was looking at. Like I said, I've got a very active imagination. I can come up with lots of reasons, whether they turn out to be true or not. That was never going to help me pick. If I wanted to narrow down from the hundreds of watches that I looked at, I had to start saying "no." If I knew specifically why I was saying "no," even better, because it gave me a way to filter all the future examinations.

Choices come from thoughts, so why not apply the concept to as well? Your mind needs boundaries, after all. Say no, loudly and clearly, to the unhelpful and distracting ones. Give yourself negative liberty from them. Feel free!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Anxiety, Part 2

Some time ago I said I would write a series of posts on stress and anxiety. Then I wrote one thing and didn’t finish any others. There’s an irony here, which is that the post I did write tried to express this constant worry of not being good enough. About my mind being able to generate endless possible ways in which I might be better, or do something better, or do something different, and thus overload myself via paralysis of analysis.

Well, guess what happened to the other posts on anxiety?

One of the reasons that I was able to stick to a constant upload schedule some time ago was because, I think, I made the update schedule more important than writing good blog posts. Just get something out, two times a week, and I stuck to it for--I think--at least a year. That was pretty good for me! Even though I read back on some posts and think “meh” or even “oh jeez that was dumb,” I don’t do that for as many as I’d expect.

But I get this way, where each time I do something well, I quickly update my expectation of how I’m going to do in the future, and I detest backsliding. “Do better every day.” If I write a post that some people seem to like, then I feel the pressure to follow it up with something even better. If I can’t think of something amazing, or I start writing it and it turns out blah, then I don’t write anything. I’m the kind of person who would rather get a zero on a homework assignment because I just don’t turn it in than get a 40% on an assignment I only partly completed. Somewhere, right now, my GPA is glaring at me.

There are times where that’s a useful attitude, and times where it isn’t. We know some people who just clock in, do their thing, and punch out, and they never seem to do anything better or do anything differently, and wonder why things aren't improving. You don't want to be that person, stuck on a grind like that. But neither you don’t want to be the person so obsessed with doing things perfectly that you don’t do anything at all. These ideas--be consistent even if it’s crappy, versus quality over quantity--are neither automatically good nor bad, but they do exert a balancing force on one another.

I think a key here is to figure out which one you tend to be, and correct in the other direction. Since you’re going to lean automatically one way, you want to use your conscious mind to overemphasize the one that you’re bad at, and let those automatic tendencies balance it out. One person can be overconfident and arrogant and another can have low-self esteem, and the advice for the two must be different if they are to end up in that sweet-spot of “trust yourself and stand up for yourself, but also listen to other people just in case you’re wrong.”

In my case, I’m obsessive over quality. I want to be at 100% all the time, and I want the meaning of that 100% to get better each time too. But is that possible? Experience has shown me it’s not, and I need to remember that this obsession with perfect output and constant improvement just shoots itself in the foot. In fact, it's proven to reduce my output and rate of improvement. The bright side here is that if I focus more on emphasizing consistency, then my automatic tendencies to stress about perfection kick in anyhow, and I'm rarely left with something that I honestly think sucks.

So I just sat down to write today with the determination that I would make this the next post in the anxiety series, whether I like it or not, and here we are.


Big tangent incoming, but don’t worry, it comes back around. defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

In talking about psychology, it’s important to remember that few things in and of themselves count as disorders, or even problems. It’s always about context. The question is whether an emotion, perception, or state of mind is pathological. Is it chronic? Is it disproportionate to the situation? Does it dominate your mind? Does something self-damaging act as your default state? Does it cause more problems than it actually solves?

The world itself contains threats and challenges. You try to remember the ones in the past so you can deal with the ones in the present, and prepare for ones in the future. Anxiety, worry, fear, stress, these are reasonable and useful responses! But only to an extent. Specifically, the extent that they are reasonable and useful.

Yes, that is a circular description, and not a very helpful one. Unfortunately, we get our understanding of what that extent is through experience and feedback, and that experience and feedback is filtered through our state of mind, which may currently be feeling things like anxiety, worry, fear, and stress. This biases you a bit, and it’s hard to escape that bias because it doesn’t feel like bias, it feels like reality. Challenging that reality feels foolish and insane from the inside, but if you could somehow see it from the outside, you might know it for what it is.

You know that situation in a story--TV show, book, comic, movie, whatever--where the one character comes into a screwed up situation from the outside, and sees how screwed up it is, and tries to tell another character that it’s all screwed up? But for that other character, the situation is consistent with their own worldview, and nothing appears contradictory? It takes some kind of dissonance, some contradiction, some little experience or evidence that just doesn’t sit right. Then there’s a crack in the facade, and then the character tries to figure out what is causing the crack, which leads to more cracks, and eventually the whole thing breaks apart. Or they refuse to pursue that little contradiction, and they deny it, and they stay locked in, and if you like that character, you sit in the audience like “COME ONNNNNNNNNN.”

I have this vague memory from a long time ago of seeing that trope and asking myself a question that was, more or less, “how would I persuade somebody that they were in a cult?” And then I thought a little bit, and realized a much harder question was “how would I know if I was in one?” Very normal-seeming people can end up in cults and do some really weird stuff while their brain tells them that everything is normal and correct! Everything has its neat little explanation, nothing is off, everything is fine. If you were in that position, you would have to use your mind to figure things out, but your mind is biased towards believing itself! My answer at the time was “question yourself constantly” and in retrospect, this line of thinking may have contributed to a long history of self-doubt and paranoia. I’ve become biased towards assuming that I’m always wrong, so I don’t know if it’s actually that healthy to question yourself as often as became my habit.

But if you ever do find yourself wondering, “hey, am I in a cult?” or “hey, do I hold a lot of highly inaccurate beliefs and live inside a mental bubble disconnected from the world?”, then the way you figure it out is “be annoying.” There’s a common rule that every cult has to keep its power, that every screwed up situation uses to keep you stuck inside, which is this: there are some things that you just don’t question. Those are the weak points in the whole system, and your willful ignorance is the armor that protects them. Ask too many inconvenient questions, and eventually you find the loose thread that unravels the whole thing. So if you ever get that little suspicion that something is off, be that annoying little kid that keeps asking “why” to everything. If people start to get unreasonably mad and they tell you to shut up and stop asking questions, the odds that something is fishy instantly go up.
Not always, mind you. There might be a good reason and they’re just crappy at explaining things, or the explanation is complicated and you won’t actually get it, or you just don’t accept it because you are the stubborn one. Sometimes you know something works, but you don’t know why; parents might not have PHDs in developmental biology and nutrition, but they do know that eating vegetables is generally good for you and you should do it and just please be quiet and eat your vegetables, it’s been a long day, why, because I said so. No, not a vegetable cult, nutrition is just complicated.

Where was I going with this? Right. Anxiety.

The thing about pathological fear and anxiety is that it just kind of hovers over you for no reason. You will have an automatic belief that situations are threatening and that you should be worried. This worry makes you interpret stuff as dangerous. After all, the world is full of ambiguity and noise and confusion, and we often have to make guesses about what things mean. So things don’t worry you because they’re scary, you see them as scary because you are always worried. In a different frame of mind, you might have brushed things off, but here and now, because you are worried, you put a filter over everything so that everything is worrisome. But some things are dangerous and some things are worth fearing. How do you get it right?

First answer, you don’t always. You just give it your best guess and sometimes you’re wrong, and you try to learn from things, and hopefully this means that when something turns out not so bad you worry a bit less, and when something does turn out bad, you trust a bit less. Hopefully, with experience, you get things wrong less often.

Second answer, you ask why. You chase the threads and you look for the cracks.

I have found that when I am in a default state of “things are scary, I’m worried, everything is a threat” that I don’t have very good answers to “wait, why am I worried about this?” I ask that question and then my initial answer is “because……. because!!!!!!” Just trust me, it will be awful. Of this I am certain, no more need be known. Stop asking questions and hit the fetal position.

If I’m not so stressed out that I notice this is kind of a crappy answer, then I ask “because what? What will be so terrible?” My brain, ready to provide but annoyed that I’m challenging its own terrified authority, might give me an answer. When I’m at my best, I ask why again. And again, and again, and look for more cracks in the armor. What’s interesting is that even if I end up with genuinely good answers, I notice myself also coming up with genuinely good actions to take care of them, and then I end up less afraid anyhow! Very cool.

The thing about pathological anxiety is that it starts as the default and uses its presence to prove itself. You start worried just because you always are, and then that worry makes things seem scary, and then you stay afraid because of all the scary things. It’s a seamless sleight of mind, an illusory masterwork, a suffocating tapestry of interlocked and self-corroborating assumptions. It’s a jerk, and an efficient jerk. What’s worse is that its whole goal is “keep you safe,” so it can cheat. It can say “see? If I hadn’t made you run, then who knows what would have happened to you?” It cites itself as its most credible source, and because you’re still panicked or worried, the story checks out, and grows stronger. You become both leader and follower in a cult of your own fear.

So ask why. You might have a good reason to be afraid, to be nervous, to feel stress, to worry, and so the answers will come, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be worried and afraid at times. It keeps you alive when there is danger.

But you might feel a voice, a panicked and angry voice inside of you that says “look I just AM okay!?” And so you keep asking. It might try to cough up reasons, and then you come up with a counterexample of why those reasons aren’t that great, to see if it can answer those, and it starts to stutter and stammer and flounder and dissipate. It will try to fall back on the weight of its own existence as its final authority. Don’t let it. Challenge it, and you may come to see that the fears are fog and mist, clouding your judgment but ultimately insubstantial. Hell, it might just ultimately admit “I don’t know.”

I’ve been there too. I’ve been worried and afraid and shaking and when I try to probe for an answer, I just don’t know, and even knowing that, I can’t shake that feeling. I take some deep breaths but I’m still on edge, I fidget to burn off the nervous energy and it doesn’t go away. This is the worst one to admit to, because it feels like quitting, like saying “I am afraid and quivering because deep down I’m like one of those tiny yipping dogs terrified by the unceasing pressure of existence all around me, can you just lay off?” Sometimes the questions just hit a dead end wall of panic that stubbornly refuses to vanish.

Still though. There is something about realizing that, knowing that the feeling is separate from the actual events of the world. If, in those moments, I can remember that I don’t always feel like that, and it will go away because it has in the past and will in the future, and that it’s not connected to something tangible around me… well, it doesn’t go away, but it loses some of the edge. I feel it disconnect, just a bit, and it frees me up to act, just a bit. I step outside of it a little, which can ease up the pressure and let me take a breath and slow down. Sometimes I hear my own panicked thoughts just thinking the phrase “I’m afraid,” and in the most comforting mental tone of voice I can muster, I respond with “I know man. I know.” When it just won’t go away, then sometimes you acknowledge--with a bit of compassion and comfort--that it’s there, and suddenly, in that moment, it becomes separate from you, and you can take a step forward.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Existing With Anger

This past Monday, I entered a Melee tournament for the first time in a hot minute. I had the cute idea of teaming with HomeMadeWaffles at Smash'n'Splash, the plan being that we will get top 8 in doubles and cast top 8 in singles. I only believe that one of those is actually going to happen, but we'll do our best.

Anyhow, the long story short is that I entered and got pissed. Again.

I decided I wouldn't want to compete anymore when I was at Frosty Faustings earlier this year. The thing is, I've been frustrated with my anger and competitive nature. I've always had this issue where if I focus on keeping my anger down, then the anger stays down... but then I am not paying attention to the game. If I focus entirely on the game, the anger creeps in.

It makes me feel like I'm not good at controlling my emotions. However, upon reflecting, I'm actually very good at controlling my anger! Sort of. I don't really control it. I just try to avoid feeling it.

This isn't necessarily a repression strategy, but more of a preventative one. I try to reframe the situation in my head constantly so that I can avoid getting angry at all. I will give myself different perspectives on what's happening, or I'll mentally zoom out to persuade myself that it--whatever it is--isn't worth getting angry over. Basically, I'm practicing emotional preventative medicine, not anger management.

The reason that it's not really anger management is that when I actually get angry, it's just as intense and dominant as it's ever been. I have become slightly better at distancing myself from situations when I become angry, and I have become a bit better at defusing intense anger without a destructive physical reaction. My more infamous blow-ups may belie that, but that's because when you control anger, people don't always know you were mad to begin with.

(I know it's not the best selling point of my own character to say "think of all the walls I didn't punch!" or "what about the times I didn't throw stuff!" but this blog is about honesty, not making me look good)

On this blog, I spend a lot of time writing about anxiety and depression, because I spend a lot of time feeling anxious and depressed. I can't always make those feelings go away very easily. Instead, I've had to learn to act around them. I have to learn how to remain effective without the depression or anxiety actually going away. This lets me not actually worry about being worried or depressed! If they show up, I am confident that I can deal with them. I'm almost too confident that I can work my way through it, because they still sneak up on me sometimes, but I don't feel this constant biting fear that they will catch me slipping. I implement my strategies and try to move on with my life.

There are certain emotions, however, that I still try very hard to avoid feeling, because I don't know how to function well in those states, or if I can. I've developed a huge array of tactics to avoid actually getting angry at all. But that's not really anger management, in the same way that you don't have "pain tolerance" just because you never get hurt. I can manage myself while depressed, I can manage myself while stressed and nervous. What I can't seem to do is manage myself well while angry. I just try to avoid getting to that point, because when it washes over me, my functioning drops like a rock.

The same is true with my general feelings of aggression and competitiveness. When they kick in, they kick in hard. It's difficult to shut them off, it's difficult not to let them take control. They synergize quite a bit with the anger, which makes them a nasty trio for me to deal with. Hence why I have wanted to stop competing entirely.

Monday night, I spent quite awhile before the tournament trying to run my normal mental routine to avoid getting upset and focus on learning and getting back into competing shape. But once I started making a few too many mistakes, I started trying to focus on correcting them, on trying to win. Aggravation kicked in. I started shaking my head, cussing semi-audibly, and biting my lip. I set my controller down after my first loss and walked away from it, just in case.

Given how easily I can get that angry, but how uncommon it is for me actually to fly off the handle anymore (relatively, that is), I kind of want to high five myself. I might not be giving myself enough credit here, because I've gotten much better over time. The internal element of it is what gets me the most, right now. It's distracting. It feels physically uncomfortable. And since we are talking about the game, it also affects my decision making and play for the worse, in a way that feeds into itself.

My go-to strategy for this inner struggle and conflict has been to avoid it completely. I do my best to avoid getting angry at all, avoid feeling aggressive or competitive at all, avoid getting riled up at all. Lately I've been wondering if this is actually the tack I should be taking.

It has definitely helped, don't get me wrong. In just about every life situation except for Smash, I don't actually feel anger that often, and I definitely don't think that's a bad thing! Not only that, very few things that I try to focus on are as fast-paced and mentally demanding as Smash, so if the feelings do arise, I often notice the anger while it's still in an infant state, and I correct my course. It's almost trivially easy, compared to managing myself in a competitive environment.

I don't want to sound like I'm angry about not getting angry. The issue that I find is that my anger, aggression, and competitiveness aren't healthy parts of me. They're things that I avoid because I cannot stand being in those states. The anger isn't just a stressful state, it generates meta-stress about being angry! I think things like "oh my GOD why are you still getting so MAD" and that just tilts me further. I'm worried about losing control, looking stupid, as well as an intense discomfort with the physical feeling.

I'm trying to figure out how to approach this. It's a bit like being tired, where you can't just drink coffee every time you get a bit tired, even if you have some work to do. You have to learn how to get work done when you're tired! You can't only do your workout when you're physically fresh, because strength and endurance are built when you are on the edge of exhaustion.

You become stronger and develop endurance so that you don't get exhausted, but you have to enter that kind of state and still function in order to actually build those qualities. If you stop the moment you're tired, you don't actually become stronger. That's not "exhaustion management," that's called "skipping half of your workout."

But what's the method here? Do I need to just... get angry more? I'm pretty strong at preventing myself from getting angry (well, in every circumstance but Smash, it seems), the problem is that when I finally do get angry, I no longer function well. I feel like I may need to let myself get angry more often, and then train myself to handle existing within that state. Not only by defusing the feeling every time it shows up, but by shaking hands with it, so to speak. Maybe if I can just have more experience feeling that way, rather than avoiding it, I'll get more comfortable with it, and that alone will let me exercise more control over the emotion.

I am not sure how much I want to do that though. I developed my anti-depressive and anti-anxiety tools as a result of spending a lot of time depressed and anxious. The tools work pretty well, but I really didn't enjoy the process though. Plus, if I only feel this anger when I play Smash, then there's a fairly obvious strategy available.

Something I've been thinking about lately though is that I didn't just get techniques out of that process. I also had to dissect the process in a way that I could repeat consciously, which meant learning how to describe it. One of the happiest feelings I have the pleasure of experiencing is when people tell me that my blog helped them with something. It's possible that it's up to me to go through my own anger and just keep writing things down, and maybe I'll have things to share about that, too.

So whether I like it or not, it feels like this is the next thing I have to focus on. Existing within my anger so that I can handle it being part of me, not using every mental resource I have shutting it down. Hopefully I'll have more to say on this subject soon.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 16, 2018

One Victory

Go figure, I’ve been writing and rewriting my anxiety posts because I want to get them exactly right. I also realized a little late that I missed my weekly scheduled post, and they aren’t quite done, so for this week I want to revisit a cognitive tool that helps me tremendously with regards to both anxiety and depression. I have mentioned it in a previous post before (which I can’t seem to find, otherwise I would link it), and I call it my “one victory” tool.

It’s pretty simple. When I am in my most depressive, most anti-productive moods, or my most anxious and overwhelmed moods, I basically give myself a simple deal. I will do a single thing, the smallest, most insignificant thing, and call it a victory. I only need to get one for the day. If, afterwards, I still feel crappy and depressive, or frustrated and overwhelmed, or all of those things and more… then I can stop. Just one victory for the day, no matter how minor.

There’s a trick here though, which is that it’s not a trick. I legitimately give myself that permission to do nothing else useful for the day. If my room looks like a pile of garbage because I had three exams in two days and I’m exhausted, and I look at it and just think “no, it’s too much,” then I give myself an honest choice. Do one thing, throw away one piece of trash or pick up one shirt and throw it in the hamper, literally a single thing, and I can stop after that if I want. I can go back and be a blob if I really want to.

I’ve tried to use cognitive tricks on myself in the past, and they don’t really work. I know I’m lying to myself, and thus they always short circuit. The thing is, this is not a trick. I know I will feel better if I’ve done something, no matter how insignificant, rather than nothing. That feeling will usually be the makings of a humble avalanche that gives me a little more energy to get a little more done. But if, for some reason, I am still truly exhausted and overwhelmed… well, okay. Back to being a blob. At least something got done, no matter how minor. Things are better. Most importantly, I kept my promise to myself, which means that I take that bargain in good faith in the future. Again, it’s not a trick, and I am not lying to myself, and no matter what happens, I feel a little better. Win-win.

If you want to stop reading there, go for it, but I’m going to explain a little why I think this works.


Something that’s interesting about anxiety and depression is that they are a little opposed to each other, yet they are also often comorbid. That’s the psych term for “disorders that occur together.” Anxiety can look like nervous energy, restlessness, and fear; depression can look like giving up and not moving at all. Why do the two seem to happen at the same time? Well, apart from the chemical reason (which is most easily described as “serotonin being weird and complicated, trust me, it’s wild”), the two lead into each other just as a matter of course.

If you are nervous and worried all the time, just because, then there is never any way that you can take care of every worry or every threat. It’s not that there’s always more to take care of, it’s that you are just always worried, whether there’s a reason or not. There’s always more to do and stress about if you look hard enough!

On the one hand, this looks like chronic stress, which weakens your immune system, makes you get worse sleep, have less energy, think less clearly, and have less time for things that are fun because you’re always trying to take care of threats. That looks a lot like depression. On the other hand, you can easily develop the feeling that things will never get better, that things won’t ever be solved, because there’s just always something else and the problems never seem to end. That can make you feel hopeless, and that looks like depression too.

Meanwhile, if you start with depression and have less energy and motivation to take care of things, tasks and responsibilities can pile up. You can develop the attitude that you never finish everything, which means that there is always something more that you’re missing… and sure enough, that looks like anxiety. You can develop the attitude that you always screw up and that you can’t do anything, and that means the threats will close in, make you nervous, worried, and then you just want to escape and hide.

The reason that I feel like the “one victory” trick works so well (for me, anyhow) is that I am constantly analyzing and assessing how things are going. I have a tough time logically believing “things are hopeless” if I literally just saw an improvement. Things can’t be hopeless forever--something just changed for the better! Sure it was minor, but it exists. You can’t make a logical assertion “everything sucks” and have it be true if I can point to something that doesn’t suck.

Another issue that I have is that I tend to imagine things in their entirety, and “one victory” takes me away from that. When I think “clean my room,” I look at all the stuff I have to do, and that might be an hour worth of effort. If I’m tired, then I don’t feel like an hour’s worth of effort is in me, and I don’t start. I get overwhelmed because I instantly begin imagining all the random crap I have to do. On the other hand, if I focus on a single manageable task, and I let myself stop after… what’s to get overwhelmed by? I can finish within twenty seconds, and be back in bed feeling terrible if I want to. If I don’t want to stop there, then the next victory is also just twenty seconds of effort. It transforms the whole thing into a lot of small steps, each of which I can complete with little effort, and the overwhelming feeling starts to dissipate.

There are days where I’ve kept that promise to myself, and gone back into bed after throwing away like, one candy wrapper or something. While that outcome is pretty rare, I don’t consider it a failure of the technique. After all, it got me out of bed, and improved my situation a little. A win is a win. Not a big win, no, but my alternative was “being in bed doing nothing, feeling terrible.” Now, my situation is “being in bed, having done one thing, feeling less terrible.” It’s an objective improvement. It is another piece of evidence in my brain that I can overcome that crappy feeling, even if only for a little bit, to make things better. Later, when I feel better, I might get another thing done, and another, and another… but even if it’s just one victory, it’s better than nothing.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.