The thing about this blog is that I write it as much to learn as to teach. I force myself to have something useful or interesting to say about competition and games once a week, every week. That forces me to try and think about interesting things and process them intelligently so I can express what I've been thinking.
This past weekend I took second place at Kings of Cali 2, and just by looking at me you could tell a lot of things are different from how they've been in the past. I laughed at my losses and learned from them, I focused almost immediately after making errors, I had an amazing time, I neutralized all my stress and jitters, and--this was a nice bonus--I won most of my matches. So I placed second, played well and won against a lot of amazing players, and had a great time.
If you've read much of what I've written on this blog so far, then a lot of the concepts I'm about to say won't be very new. Instead, it's more personal. It's about how the lessons I've tried to learn and communicate relate specifically to me. It's pretty long, so get comfy.
Two things put me on the map as far as competitive Super Smash Brothers went. First was popularizing the Ice Climbers' grab infinite--which was then named for me--and second was my temper. People knew that I was good, but that I handled losing extremely poorly. And it was very true. I had a tendency to spike my controller after losing, cuss when I made mistakes, get depressed and angry after errors, and so on, ad nauseum. It made playing with me quite a chore for most of my friends. Some people thought I was a sore loser, some people thought I was a spoiled baby; both of which were actually kind of true, but the answer wasn't as cut-and-dry as that.
The thing is, I really wanted to be good. A lot. I wanted to play well, I wanted to believe that my efforts were paying off, I wanted people to recognize me as a solid player. And losing--particularly in some of the very embarrassing ways I did--ran perfectly against my goals and desires. So the natural responses were 1) get angry or 2) become depressed. Like the champ I am, I typically chose both.
But WHY were those my goals? Was it purely a love of the game? That didn't quite explain it. I also seemed to have a similar problem in every other endeavor, with everything else I tried. I got mad at tiny mistakes. I became depressed when I wasn't the best. It didn't even matter if I liked the thing in question, so clearly "love of Smash" didn't make a whole lot of sense as an explanation. Perhaps the "spoiled angry baby" hypothesis was more applicable.
I spent a lot of time exploring depression and bipolar disorder as the reason why I had such poor emotional control. A chemical imbalance potentially covered the bases; why could I logically explain to myself that little mistakes weren't representative of my skill level, but flip out when I made them? When things didn't go my way, I totally overreacted, even though I knew how irrational it was.
Yet therapy and medications didn't seem to really help. There were placebo short-term benefits from feeling like I was finally taking care of my problem, but the results never lasted. And soon I'd throw a controller, or become a depressed recluse, or maybe do both. I had to be good, or I was terrible. There wasn't a middle-ground that was okay with me. Why?
Well, I wanted to figure out exactly what the problem was, so I started reading and writing. I started my first blog, Eskimo Sister, to be about Melee and also about my personal journey. So I wrote things and thought about things, and still made relatively little progress. I would take a few steps forward, and then backslide completely, sometimes ending worse off than before. Still nothing. I wanted to quit Smash--and everything else I had ever liked--but I had to figure out why I couldn't handle it. Smash, by this point, had become the measurement of my mental stability. And the measurement was pretty poor. I still became irrationally angry over little errors, and still judged myself ruthlessly whenever I wasn't perfect, which was always.
I started to read more about psychology and rationality just because I wanted to know what my own deal was. And so I would read a book about focus, and an exercise or study would cause me to reach a new book or blog, and so it would go. And I learned, but the underlying cause of my problems evaded me. It felt like I was always chasing new ideas and wacky schemes for improving myself, searching for magic pills while on a deep, innate level, I was just flawed.
At this point, I still hadn't graduated from college, and I was twenty-four years old. I'd finally found a happy relationship after one emotionally abusive one followed by years of rejections and disappointments, and even that ended, leaving me lower and more depressed than ever. I was still mentally and emotionally unstable across the board, and it was just getting worse the more effort I put into it. I continued reading--when I felt I had the energy to do so--and continued searching and failing to improve. Up and down, up and down.
This was just a little more than a year ago. It was only very recently that I found a piece of the puzzle that helped put into perspective most of the things I read and discovered, to create a comprehensive picture of my problem. So without further ado, here's the big secret.
The answer is that I felt I had absolutely no value as a human being unless I was amazing at something. Incredible success was the standard I held myself to, and anytime I didn't meet it, I was completely worthless. So if I began something, any endeavor at all, if I wasn't perfect, I was garbage. And, for a reason I'm about to explain, I believed this on a deep emotional level that resisted any attempt at logical persuasion to the contrary.
The reason I thought this way originated from when I was younger; I tended to be good at things when I first started, and I loved throwing all my effort at stuff. If I played a game, I would practice and learn and read about it and practice more and try to be great at it, because learning was a lot of fun. And I received the compliment you should only give a child sparingly, which is I was told I was talented. I was smart. I was gifted. And as I heard this over and over again, I slowly expected that I had to always succeed at things. Because if I didn't, then I clearly wasn't all those things. If I wasn't talented, smart, and gifted, then I wasn't anything at all.
I heard it again and again, that I had such great gifts. People thought I was "just good" at stuff, without seeing that I also tried very hard to be good at them. This isn't to whine, because these people clearly meant what they were saying as a compliment, and not a complaint. Who wouldn't feel great about being told that they had a talent and a gift? They thought it was great. And I thought it was great too. But over time, friends and family just kind of expected me to be good at things. If I was, that was just me being me. If I wasn't, that was something to comment on. Something was wrong or weird.
My high scores on tests were expected and rarely complimented. My low scores were problems. I could pick up most things quickly, but when I ran into obstacles, I began to panic that I didn't have talent, or that it just wasn't "for me." I would freak out when I didn't do perfectly, and when I did do things extremely well, I didn't feel any satisfaction, because all I'd done was hit my baseline. And my parents didn't really notice this for a few reasons.
Number one--and this is why everything I'm saying is meant to have no trace of bitterness or grudge or disrespect in it, whatsoever--is because my brother had a serious stomach problem. For years he was constantly ill and nobody could figure out what was wrong. My mother pushed and fought with doctors and yelled at hospital staff and made herself look like a lunatic because nothing they recommended or did was working. They thought she wanted my brother to be sick, but everyone in the family knew that he vomited half of what he ate and missed school constantly. And finally, after years of pushing, we finally found out what the problem was; his digestive tract was misaligned due to an organ being rotated strangely, causing it to malfunction about 97% of the time. This also coincided with his appendix nearly bursting, and he barely survived this whole ordeal because he got surgery in time. After this was all fixed, he became a dynamo of energy, handling school work and numerous after-school clubs with ruthless fervor.
Reason two is that I was getting pretty solid grades and I wasn't causing problems. I kept quiet when I was depressed because my parents were (rightfully) busy taking care of my brother. And because I didn't get in fights, do drugs, or fail my classes, it seemed like everything was going well. The fact that most of my free time was spent on games and my response to stress was to hide in my room, eat junk food, and wait until everything blew over was a non-issue; after all, I was meeting every standard measure of success.
I developed a lot of bad habits in that time (like poor study skills and low-self discipline), but the most important one for purposes of this little memoir is that I thought I had to be perfect all the time. And it seemed like nobody cared when I tried my hardest and succeeded, and they only cared when I failed. Failure, of course, being defined as a lack of perfection. And because I was so rarely perfect (like most human beings we know) I constantly felt like a failure. Like I had little value. And nobody was going to notice this, since by this point I'd developed a habit of silence when it came to my problems (because I'd rather deal with problems privately than have people hear about them and comment on them).
What's funny (or rather, awful) is that as I progressed in Smash, the same thing seemed to occur. When you're the best, whether at the entire game or just in your region or neighborhood, people expect you to win. If you beat all your friends, only your losses are noticeable. Why compliment somebody for doing what they always do? The pattern reinforced itself over time as I became better and better; I had to always win and succeed, but if I did, it didn't matter.
At this point, whether it was in school, or friendships, or Melee, I used most of my energy comparing myself to perfection and worrying about how people perceived me. So when I screwed up anything at all, I became miserable. I had little self-discipline because I'd never really needed it growing up. When things got rough, I panicked and quit, or stuck it out while growing more and more depressed.
And when I realized all of this, only in the past month or so, at first I was angry as hell. I felt infuriated that I'd wasted my time. I saw the pattern everywhere. I was always looking for something to give me value, because unless I was amazing or perfect, I didn't have any. When I liked a girl and she turned me down, I didn't receive the message, "sorry, I don't see you that way," but I heard "you're worthless." When I made mistakes, I didn't think, "ah, I thought this here, which is understandable, but should have focused on this, I'll try harder next time;" I thought, "God I'm stupid." And of course, if I made an error in Melee, I compared myself to an imaginary perfect player, and wondered why I wasn't him, and it left me feeling miserable.
Lately, I've calmed down a lot. I began to identify my weaknesses and work on them. I started looking at my mistakes with compassion, and praising myself more for my efforts and perseverance than my immediate successes. I started trying to use my negative emotions and turn them into positive energy, rather than constantly try to run and hide from them because they meant I was emotionally unstable. And this past weekend I went to a tournament in California, laughed when I screwed up, stayed calm when I made mistakes, and had an amazing time, knowing full well that even if I made mistakes and scrubbed out early, I was still a great player and a worthwhile person. And with so much mental real-estate left over to focus on the game instead of all my self-inflicted pressure, I got 2nd place when stacked up against a lot of incredible players.
My victory wasn't just over those players, but it was over a series of long-standing bad mental and emotional habits. It felt amazing just to be sitting in the company of incredible players, and it felt even more amazing to stay relaxed and focused. When I was behind, I stayed calm. When I was ahead, I didn't start panicking and worrying about whether I was just going to ruin it. I was just incredibly happy. I'm also confident it's going to stick this time.
So because this is, first and foremost, a blog meant to be instructional and informational, these are the lessons, the most important points I've written about so far.
1) You have value regardless of your output. It's okay not to be the best. It's even okay not to be that good! As long as you are putting forth serious, genuine effort and striving to get better, whether as a competitor or a person, then you have nothing to be ashamed of. And even if you haven't tried your hardest in the past, you have opportunities now and in the future to do so. You're learning. You're working. And even if things don't turn out perfect, you matter.
2) Value your process over your results. I grew up getting good grades with cram-tactics, fueling myself with misery-inducing pressure. My results were great at the time, but my process could not last. The same is true of so many things, where we take shortcuts for short-term results, and end up hurting ourselves in the long run. And remember lesson 1, because even if you aren't always winning, what matters is that you're trying to do things the "right way," because that's how you'll end up with better results a majority of the time. And, of course, if you understand the rules, you'll know how to break them when your results truly do matter and you have to do everything in your power to achieve them.
3) It's not about never feeling unhappy, it's about channeling negative emotion. Your anger, your sadness, your irritations, your stress, they all come from concrete sources. When you identify the source and understand the reason, you can take those feelings and turn them into fuel. Don't run from them and don't deny them, because you never end up finding out what's causing them. Emotions always crop up and will always be in your life; make them your guides and not your gods. I spent a lot of time wondering why I was always feeling stressed and worried and angry and depressed. One of the reasons is that I always tried to run from those emotions. Because I feared them, they were always on my mind, and because they were on my mind, I could never get away from them. And I never will, because they're part of being human. But I've started looking at them more honestly, and I've become more comfortable with them. They have a time and place, and they can all be used to serve my purposes.
So with those things in mind, I hope to see as many of my awesome readers as possible at Evo (since right now, that's the only tournament I have planned in my near future). There are going to be amazing opponents there so I can't promise anything with regards to my results, but I can promise that you will see me smiling.
Thanks for reading.