Sunday, October 2, 2016

I Didn't Know What This Post Was About Until Halfway Through

Hey friends. It's been awhile.

I said it before, but it's been weird trying to play Melee well again. I had a bleh performance at Genesis 3, but right afterwards had a big peak, getting fourth at Battle of the Five Gods, one of the most stacked tournaments in the game's history. After that, success and I set our relationship status to "It's Complicated" and I started getting much lower results, the kind I haven't seen in about five years.

It was funny, but a lot of people did not mentally register me as "good player" until Evo 2013. I was on very few predicted top 10 lists, even though I top 10'ed almost every major I went to for quite awhile. My lowest placing was Apex 2013 at 17th place, losing to Armada and VWins (a highly underrated Peach player from Canada, who got 9th). I was actually really successful for a long time and nobody noticed.

Evo 2013 happened, and people noticed! Then I stopped playing and people speculated that I was secretly the next god of smash and if only I hadn't stopped and et cetera. Let's be fair though, "2nd at the biggest tournament of all time" and "a bunch of top 10s when most of your matches aren't recorded" are quite a few steps apart on the recognition Richter scale. But it is kind of funny, nonetheless.

Now that I'm consistently playing again, a lot of people have gotten better. A lot of people have learned the matchup against my character--and since many regions have a wobbling-heavy Ice Climber now, opponents are becoming less afraid of the nuclear grab game. Certain weaknesses in the way I play the game and think about it have come to light. I had a huge dip in placing earlier in the year, though funnily enough, I'm starting to bring it back a bit. Under top 50 at Genesis 3, then just outside top 32 at CEO, followed by top 25 at EVO, then top 13 at Shine... it's actually coming back a bit. That's cool.

(Ironically, since I haven't posted an Evo2013 level performance and everything else is pretty weak compared to my BOT5G 4th place finish, I've read comments lately from people who believe that I am washed up or falling behind, when closer inspection suggests I'm actually returning to pre-vo status. I think it has to do with comparing me to my peaks, as well as some of the losses to lower-ranked players)

It seems as though things are coming back, a bit at a time. Mostly, however, I keep learning more and more about my mind. Sometimes I don't learn more. I just relearn things that I thought I knew, and forgot about.

Here are some things I'm learning lately.

Lesson one: it was way easier for me to feel calm and focused when I felt no expectations on my performance. The fact that I had few (if any) fans, the fact that most people expected me to lose and thought I was bad... that was actually quite a load off my mind. Adding fans (using that word still makes me feel weird) and expectations has made it a lot harder on me, and it keeps drawing my thoughts away from the actual game. That's something I still have to work on.

This is because--lesson two--I have a debilitating fear of not being good enough. I also have a very vague definition of what it actually means to be "good enough." This allows me to redefine it on the fly so that I always feel bad about myself. I knew I had perfectionist tendencies, and I knew (yet keep forgetting) just how much an impact my expectations have on me. But I keep re-discovering new depths to this fear of inadequacy, and just how deeply it has infiltrated the way I think and function.

That fear inhibits me, but also motivates me. On average, it keeps me from trying new things, particularly if other people are watching. It's bad enough if I am not successful at something, but God help me if other people know it and can remind me via Twitter. In some cases, it motivates me to grind at things until I am much better than your average person (which means I don't have a fear of inadequacy, but a fear of being merely adequate, which is pretty prideful).

The big downside? I stop caring once I meet the threshold. For instance, I played a lot of Overwatch when it released, because a little part of me hated that I never became very good at FPS games. I grinded and studied better players and obsessed on improving, and managed to hit rank 72 in the season one competitive ladder. That was pretty high, especially for somebody who always sucked at the genre (and no, I didn't just play Reinhardt and Lucio). I also felt very good about the improvements I made to my aim, as well as my ability to focus on aim and getting frags while maintaining situational awareness. After a lot of practice and study, I could finally feel good about my performance in an FPS. I met my goal! I wasn't awful anymore.

I haven't touched Overwatch since.

The sad flowchart goes like this: I like a game and play it because I like it. Then I start to feel the need to prove myself and get good at the game, because deep down, not being good is wrong, somehow.

I obsess on the game. I get better. I don't enjoy the process, because learning and improving is filled with failure. The thing about getting good is that you aren't good now. Improvement involves practice, which involves confronting the thing you're bad at. Competition involves losing, which means somebody forcing you to deal with your imperfection. None of that is pleasant to somebody like me, who feels so much stress.

Because I have this deep fear of inadequacy, that process is painful. I can't ignore it, however, because leaving the process undone is equally painful. Either I fail and lose so much that I can't handle playing and practicing anymore, or I finally grind it out and succeed.

When I'm done? I have forgotten the initial enjoyment of the game. The game now has an incredibly strong association with stress and unhappiness. I meet my goal, I become satisfied, and then I don't want to play anymore, because I forgot what fun was.

The sad thing is that's where Smash has sat with me for a long while. Right now I struggle to enjoy myself while playing the game, because I have cared too much about being good at it. It is very hard to have fun, because my immediate reaction is to view the game and my opponent as enemies trying to make me feel bad about myself. 

Winning doesn't feel good, per se. It feels like a large angry dog is in my living room and barking at me, and I finally got it to leave. It's a relief, but not a joy.

On the other hand, losing just feels like being bitten.

Let's not be too depressing though. I have recently had multiple personal victories when it comes to my emotional state, and more lessons learned.

I mentioned in my last post that I was trying to think of the match as a teaching and learning experience. Unfortunately, that proved to be more of a band-aid than a real solution. I have had to get more and more at my root motivations.

Recently I lost to Zealous5000 at Shine, up in Boston. During the set I could not for the life of me figure out why I was losing or making certain errors. By the end of the set, this had not changed.

Historically, being unable to figure things out tilts me harder than anything. One of my ego-triggers is my intelligence. Feeling stupid and incompetent makes me flush, it makes me tense up, it gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. It also prevents me from thinking clearly and logically, which doesn't help me fix things.

However, going into the tournament, I had committed myself to paying more attention to my emotional and physical state during matches. I spent a lot of time meditating on my anger and depression flags, the thoughts that spiral me downward, and the physical responses that tell me what's happening in my head (sometimes before my conscious thoughts do). So as that set went on, I was able to stay focused on defusing those things before they built up. I lost, but there was no edge to it. It may seem odd, but I felt prouder of myself after losing that set than I have after many of my higher profile wins. It was nice to be able to shake his hand, stand up, and not want to break something.

Another big reason that I did not feel so bad was because part of me was happy for my opponent. He had a lot of his friends behind him getting very excited for his potential win as the set reached the end. When he beat me, he seemed pretty happy about it. I was able to think of that as a good thing, something that didn't actually hurt me, make me a worse person, or make me dumb. In a one-on-one game, one person wins. It's a sad state of affairs if you can only be happy when the other person loses. It is also the height of hubris and pride to say "you should be happy for me when I win, because I am supposed to be the victor, but if I lose, then I will be angry about it." (It should also be said that if somebody and all their friends become very happy about beating you, they probably have a high opinion of you, so at the very least, you probably shouldn't feel insulted) defines "compassion" as the desire to alleviate another person's suffering, but I think it makes more sense to rephrase it as "the desire to see somebody happy," whether or not they are suffering right now. Being happy for the other person's win is a way of expressing that. It is also, in a lot of ways, the inversion of fear.

This leads us to lesson 3: fear makes you self-centered. Compassion removes self-centeredness.

There are a some players who seem able to lose and shake their opponent's hand with a big smile on their face. Some people seem capable of being honestly happy after losing. I am rarely able to manage that when I try my hardest, and I think it's as simple as this; my fear of being inadequate makes me self-centered. I worry about my performance, my skill, and what those things say about me. It makes me feel threatened. If I am playing to learn, then I know I'm sacrificing my win, and I don't worry as much. If I am playing to goof around, then I know I'm sacrificing my win. If I'm playing my hardest to win? I become afraid that it won't be good enough, and I start to turn inward.

That might even be okay, except I am not looking at how I feel to make sure that I'm staying in a clear state of mind. Something like that isn't being self-centered, we just call it "centered," or grounded, or something. That thinking would be productive. Instead, I'm looking at my performance, and what it says about me. I start crashing into my ego tripwires by thinking "am I playing well enough? Am I good enough?" Now I am not looking at how I feel. I am panicked, trying to eliminate the source of my fear.

Once I go too far down this path, getting back is very difficult. Usually I just get mad and embarrass myself. This also distracts me from focusing on the game, because it's not the game that is upsetting and hurting me. Losing is not hurting me. Errors aren't hurting me. My fear is hurting me. It's the thoughts in my head that I chase around, the criticisms I throw at myself, the way I imagine people are thinking about me.

Think of all the things I could be focused on during this time. I could be observing my opponent's habits. I could be paying attention to the state of my body and adjusting my gameplan based on how I seem to be playing. I could count backwards from 100 by increments of seven and a half. Anything but worrying and dwelling on fears that I can't actually dispel. 

That right there is the other key thing about this self-centered fear: I can't actually do anything about it! If I win, my errors are still eating at me from the inside. Sometimes I just feel like a fraud for winning when I know how bad I am. If I lose, I become incredibly mad, and at that point, I can't undo the loss, I can't say "at least I did this right." The thing I'm afraid of, the thing hurting me, is a ghost that can't be killed. I can't run from it, because it lives in my head.

We defined compassion; let's define fear. Fear is the desire to eliminate or escape a perceived threat to one's well-being. If it's a physical threat, you fight or you run (or you try to look unimportant so it goes away). If it is more nebulous, like a threat to your social standing, or a threat to your self-esteem, you can run from the situation, you can try to conquer the source, or you can try to *justify* the threat away with excuses or rationalizations. You have to make yourself feel as though the threat does not exist.

I said that compassion is an inversion of fear; here is why. The reason compassion takes you out of yourself, especially in a competitive context, is because it is very hard to feel fear when you don't perceive or imagine a threat. When you feel compassion for something, you stop worrying about what hurts you and more about what helps them. The threat begins to vanish from your mind as your focus goes elsewhere, and soon the fear does too.

I also want to clarify that when I say "compassion," I do not mean "want the other person to win." I don't mean "let them win," "sandbag," or anything like that. It doesn't even mean "stop wanting to win yourself." Compassion means acknowledging the other person as somebody like you that also wants to be happy, and viewing their happiness as desirable. When you see the person and the situation as a threat, whether it's to your ego, your health, your reputation, or whatever, that is when fear kicks in. That is when you begin worrying about yourself and destroying the source of the fear.

Forget fun. You've convinced your mind that you're in a fight for survival.

I have been trying get better at noticing this fear as it arises. I have been trying to replace it with compassion for the person I am playing against. They want to play well, they want to succeed, they want to win, they want to be happy, just like me. I am afraid that I'm going to look bad and be bad... but what about my opponent? Do I feel that fear for them? Why not? Do I want them to feel bad? Do they have to feel that way for me to be happy?

In nature, things kill each other and eat each other to survive. It's pretty understandable that they don't have soul-shaking moments of empathy and compassion for their predators or their prey. But in a video game? When the other person is a human being who is a lot like me? Focusing on my fear takes something that could have been a fun and enjoyable learning experience and makes it a lot more mean-spirited. Like I said, it also means I don't even focus on the game, because I'm not afraid of the game. I'm afraid of other things, so my attention goes to them.

And don't forget, compassion is something you can feel for yourself. One of the most insidious things about traits like neurotic perfectionism and low self-esteem is that you may start to treat YOURSELF like a threat. You become the enemy. You can't escape yourself. In my case, I am constantly asking myself "why aren't you good enough?" Suddenly, I am the threat that I fear. I'm the one attacking me by asking myself that question, and I'm the one dragging myself down with perceived failures. The fear sets off chain reactions that make me lose focus and become stressed.

I try to feel it for the other person, because this helps me believe that something good will come out of the match no matter what. I try to feel it for myself, because this makes me avoid negative self-talk. If I wanted another person to be happy, I wouldn't tell them that they were stupid and bad. I wouldn't insult them for making mistakes, I'd try to give them productive advice. If I want that happiness for myself? Then I can't say those things to myself. I wouldn't say them to somebody else, not if I desired their happiness.

The thing is, I knew some of that before. But it hadn't quite occurred to me to couple the concepts together, using one as the antidote for the other.

Lately I have been in circumstances that might have ordinarily set me off, except they haven't. I would say that my anger management has gotten better, but that's not quite right--I just feel a lot less angry and stressed from the get-go. It's not necessarily that I developed new antibiotics, it's more that I'm getting sick less.

Still a work in progress though. I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.