Get comfortable, dear readers. It’s time for a therapy session.
Anxiety is a thing.
A very real, but very intangible, potentially life-destroying thing that – along with a whole slew of other issues – I have struggled with for the better part of my nearly 30 years of life. (…and now I suddenly feel very old. Add one more to the list.) It has led me to be the most extreme of introverts, seem antisocial, and frequently disappear into my own little world for weeks at a time without so much as a word to any of my friends.
This unfortunate character flaw of mine can seem at odds with things like my admittedly unhealthy obsession with winning.
I’m obscenely competitive and few things please me more than proving that I’m better than you, but I’m also an emotional fucking wreck and I’m terrified of losing. I’ve been extremely lucky in that most things I’ve tried in life have come fairly easy to me, but that has built me up in a way that I can’t handle failure and in my twisted brain, failure means anything other than first place. Well you can’t compete if you don’t put yourself out there, and when literally everything in life has the potential to fling you head first into a panic attack, it seems sort of masochistic to compete at all.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to curb these things if I want to, oh I don’t know, survive. So that means figuring out how to manage my stress levels and also learn what is and is not healthy competition.
These are things that are a given for most people. But in the mind of someone with serious self-worth issues, it’s a learning process.
What I’ve realized works best for me is to make sure I internalize all the competition. More than anything else, with everything I do, I just want to be better than I was yesterday. This has allowed me to keep my expectations in check…and also salvage some relationships. (I’d prefer not to discuss the amount of times in my past that games have gotten me into fights with people I care about. Mistakes have been made.)
So I’m older. Wiser. I’ve learned that I might have to fail in order to succeed, and there is no one in this world that is judging me harder than I’m judging myself. So I’ve just spun everything into an internal competition. No harm there, right?
Enter: Trials of Osiris.
With the release of Destiny‘s House of Wolves DLC, Bungie introduced the Trials of Osiris, a hyper-competitive elimination-style 3v3 PvP mode where winning 9 matches before losing 3 makes you good – but winning 9 without losing any makes you a legend. You get to travel with your flawless team to the Lighthouse on Mercury, and get loot of which mere mortals may only dream.
I’ll never claim to be the best PvPer out there, but I do ok. Every match I play, I work on something to improve and my stats have shown the results of that work. Any K/D below 1.5 is a bad game for me now. I don’t have to wear my Kucklehead Radar to win anymore. I can mess around with the weapons I use from match to match. And though I still haven’t gotten Razor’s Edge to be the deadly tool I know it should be, I’ve certainly made strides in the art of blinking. (And I don’t even rely on bullshit shotguns with sniper-like range. Hah!)
So despite the fact that I am not part of the top 1% of Crucible players, Trials was built for someone like me. It rewards those with diligence and the determination to roll with losses and learn from them in order to win. It showcases the importance of strategy and – more than anything else, really – communication.
Since I have an incredibly difficult time coping with failure, I take what may seem to be the childish route – I simply don’t participate in things I’m not good at. So I wouldn’t have done Trials at all if I didn’t believe I – we – deserved to be at the Lighthouse.
But still, I remember loading in the first week with my husband and our usual third…and being terrified. I didn’t know what to expect, but the one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to fuck this up for us.
So that’s me in a nutshell. Perpetually self-deprecating.
I did ok the first week, honestly. The Burning Shrine is a good map for me, plays to my strengths in the mid to far-mid range, and while my heart felt like it was stuck in my throat the whole time and my hands were shaking and I was sweating a truly embarrassing amount, I reeled it in and performed well. We only did one card, got to 5 wins (not having purchased any supplies, mind you), bought some armor, and were pretty happy to find out later that we were far more successful than most teams were.
That was the first and last time we had a good week in ToO as a team.
Week 2 rolled around and I went into things with a positive attitude. I felt like I proved to myself in Week 1 that there was nothing for me to be worried about; I just had to keep a level head and play, and our team would make it happen. …but when we went 4-0 and then lost our next four matches, we couldn’t really recover. My husband’s mood just started to tank, and it all kind of spiraled out of control before I really knew what to do.
There’s nothing worse than watching a teammate tilt1, knowing you can’t do anything to stop it.
I played as hard as I could, as well as I could. I tried to pretend like losing wasn’t killing me a little inside. I tried to just keep things lighthearted and say, “Fuck the strategy! Just play. We’re good at this game, guys,” because my stupid sports psychology background tells me that that relaxing and having fun affects your play in a positive way, and even if sometimes reminding myself of that doesn’t work because I’m suddenly very aware that holy shit I’m just really bad at this game, I feel like I need to reinforce good habits for other people.
We lost a lot.
Over the next three weeks, I started to unravel a bit.
I remember realizing that I was the only person on my team that would say that there were people we were matched against that were just better than me. I refused to come up with an excuse for losing – I didn’t play well enough, so I offered for like the fiftieth time to back out of playing. They could play with someone better; we had friends that had gone flawless. At that point it was causing me intense mental stress to see my husband more and more upset with each loss, and I just wanted that to stop. But they said I wasn’t the problem.
The tension while playing continued to get worse, and by Week 5 I was allowed one losing card before my husband went on tilt. If you’re keeping track, that’s only four games (with Mercy, a buff that forgives one loss) I was allowed to lose. I say I because in my head it was all obviously my fault.
See, I went into Trials with the mindset that I was the weak link. I was going to embarrass myself and, in turn, my team. In hindsight – and maybe a little bit at the time, when I actually let myself think about it – I know that’s not the case.
While I can always stand to improve upon my mechanics, I’m a good strategist and I’m a damn good in-game communicator. I generally net a ton of assists per game (Top 5% on DestinyTracker, in fact), and I’m actually really happy about that. Some people call me a passive player, but I think that those people are missing the beauty of calculated aggression. I’m willing to be the bait and potentially die just to get the enemy to push so my team can wipe them.
Because probably more than anything else, I’m really fucking good at just trusting my team.
And then my teammates went to the Lighthouse without me.
For the next two weeks I wouldn’t step foot in the Crucible, much less Trials. I had myself marked as appearing offline. I forced myself through an Iron Banner (for that sweet, sweet Etheric Light) but the handful of times someone ended up joining my fireteam, I couldn’t speak. My ratio tanked.
I know that just makes me seem spiteful, and maybe I am a little bit? But that’s really not at all what this is about.
Knowing my team found success without me – regardless of all the millions of factors that came into play to allow them to find said success where we could not – made me start creating and then connecting imaginary dots in my head, and all the horrible feelings of inadequacy and complete despair over failure came back with a vengeance.
Because that’s what happens when you’re someone who already judges your own performance like you’re on trial (no pun intended). Something like this serves only as a serious wake-up call, and the only way to explain away what happened is to admit that you were the problem all along.
I’ve played games my whole life, but I usually played them alone. When we were younger, my sister would occasionally sit with a strategy guide and help me find all the collectibles and secret rooms, but up until my junior year of high school none of my friends played games. When I got into playing competitive Halo online, I didn’t have a clan. I didn’t talk on Xbox Live because truth be told, at that time if people found out you were a girl online, it generally made for a pretty awful series of events that I just didn’t want to deal with.
I was never kept away from gaming because I’m a girl, but I will admit that it has made me play like I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder – like I have something to prove. For some reason I’ve gotten it in my head that if I’m not good at a game, I’ll be judged more harshly. I don’t actually know if that’s the case, since I’ve never let it happen – I’ve made sure to never let anyone see me when I’m still learning something, and just be good. Always.
Lurking in the back of my mind there’s always this self-doubt. This tiny voice telling me I can’t fuck up or everyone will laugh and dismiss me, and sometimes an even tinier voice tells me they’re laughing because girls suck at these games anyway and I’m just proving them right. I mean…that’s ridiculous. This pressure – regardless of if gender factors into it at all – is entirely self-imposed, but it makes me a wreck and takes what should be a fun experience and makes it an anxiety trigger.
So while managing this inner turmoil, gaming turned into a very personal and relatively emotional thing for me.
And then I met my husband ten years ago at a Halo tournament.
In him, I found someone with whom I could share this whole silly gaming addiction, someone that wouldn’t judge me and my performance, someone I could relax with and not worry that I wouldn’t be allowed to play with them if I wasn’t godlike…and I latched on to it. It was surprisingly nice to have someone to share all these experiences with. Hell, I got back into PvPing because of him. My anxiety faded a bit with every game we played together.
That’s why the worst part about this all isn’t that my team did well without me. It was that the whole time they were playing…my husband was having fun.
He was laughing while they were winning, and he was laughing while they were losing. They wasted two entire days tearing through losing cards like they were going out of style and it was what playing games with your friends is supposed to be. For whatever reason, when we tried together, he wasn’t able to keep that attitude.
So hell yes, with all the strategizing we did and all the time we invested into Trials, there was a sense of betrayal when he got to the Lighthouse without me. But we had our talk about it, and I know he had a hard time handling our losses because we were in it together; there was suddenly more at stake than when he was just playing with friends. I know it’s because he cared so much. We’ve come to understand each other and what happened and we’ve moved on.
You see, anxiety manifests itself in a myriad of ways. My husband is a perfect example. He’d never describe himself as a person that gets stressed playing games, but he totally is. He can handle losing in a team of strangers or a team of friends, but the added factor of having me in the game (with my intense need to make this work) suddenly made him feel pressured, and he couldn’t manage that. I can’t help feeling like it’s all my fault for not being able to control my own head. I let my unrealistic expectations for my own play, my hyper-competitiveness, my emotional attatchment to gaming, my fear of failure and embarrassment and everything else that’s out there…I let it affect him.
So things felt different. Losing felt worse. It was harder for him to stay composed. He couldn’t communicate effectively. His gut instinct when faced with pressure (and in turn, anxiety) was to get angry.
My instinct is apparently to get completely depressed and give up on playing entirely.
To each their own, I guess.
Weeks later, I started to think about doing Trials again, because that’s the only way to get over all this, right? But obviously I couldn’t play with our old teammate; I was way too ashamed. Hell, I knew I couldn’t play with anyone we’d ever played with anymore. Because they know.
They know we were a team and we were struggling with winning. And they know that once I wasn’t there, the struggle was gone. They know that I was the problem. They know it was my fault and that I’m not good at this and I had no right even trying in the first place.
And sure, I know I’m putting words in their mouths. And I know they probably couldn’t give two shits about my inner Trials conflict here and I am literally the only person that cares about this. And when I’m looking at things objectively, I’m able to say that what they don’t know is that our team’s inability to adapt to different playstyles was a serious issue. And communication was, often times, very much a one-way street. And my husband’s poor control over his attitude was just as large of a contribution to our failure as any lack of skill on my part.
But that doesn’t matter when the controller’s in my hand and I’m actually faced with putting myself out there.
I feel like for the past seven years I’ve been trying to get past the intense anxiety that I feel when I play games, and in one stupid Trials run that I wasn’t even a part of, all my work was undone.
I’m so freaked out about playing this damn game now that I’ve honestly convinced myself that I’m not good at it. I can’t get through simple PvE encounters without dying what feels like every thirty seconds because all I keep thinking about is how I’m going to fuck up. That shouldn’t be happening.
I don’t consider myself a jealous person, but I envy every single one of you that can be a Swordbearer and not have your heart start rising in your throat the second Crota spawns, even though you’ve done it before and you know you can do it again.
If you can enter a hard VoG run and not have it in the back of your mind that – gods forbid – you may actually get downed and obviously that automatically makes you a complete failure, I’d like to trade brains. (I’ve done that raid a silly amount of times and I still panic when I get to the platform-jumping sobriety test.)
If you can have a ratio of .3 in the Crucible and not feel like your fireteam is going to remember that game and only that game forever because that’s of course what you’re going to do, consider yourself lucky.
And it’s not even really just about winning. It’s not an unreasonable fear of losing, because the same feelings occur even if I’m playing a single-player game. I don’t know what it is, other than a complete state of terror over something I can’t explain that can pop up at any time and be triggered by virtually anything.
As if that makes sense.
So what do I do? Like, what actually makes this better, other than trudging through another seven years of teetering on the edge of a panic attack every time I pick up a controller?
I want to not care. I so desperately want to not care. I want to play and just have fun, because that’s what games are for, and I know that. I want to not feel like I have to start formulating ways to make fun of my performance in case I do terribly, because surely you know the rule that if I make fun of myself first no one else can follow up with anything. No one can destroy me better than I can destroy myself.
And in my head, I’m just repeating, “Games are supposed to be fun.”
A few weeks ago we went into Trials and finished 9-1. So close, yet so very far.
You might think that would lift my spirits a bit, make me feel like hey, this is possible. But I’m pretty sure that it had the opposite effect.
I go on reddit and all I see are posts about how easy it is to make it to the Lighthouse. I see my friends get there every weekend – the same friends that consistently perform worse than me in Crucible. I hear tales of people carrying two scrubs to Mercury. I know this may sound super dramatic, but this has all just made me realize that I’m probably just not meant to make it there. That was the only thing I had left to accomplish in this godforsaken game, and I can’t, because I am way too fucking mental.
It’s begun to filter its way back out into other games. I can’t enjoy League of Legends the way I used to because I’m out of practice and since I’m not wrecking face I feel like I never actually knew how to play the damn game in the first place. I can’t play a solo game like Dragon Age because I feel like I’m not getting anything out of it, which just means that somehow I’m walking a really maddening line of simultaneously craving and being totally terrified of social interaction in games. The thought of playing Bloodborne literally makes me start sweating because the way that game beats you down is just something I can’t handle in my current mental state. So I’m relegated to what, Peggle?
As if that’s a truly gratifying experience or something.
Anxiety is a scary thing. Just when I reached a point in my life when I felt like I had it under control, I’ve let it take away something that actually meant a lot to me. Destiny was important to me, to us, in some really stupid way. And now it’s just…not.
It’s a constant reminder of my inability to cope with the unreasonable pressure I put on myself, of my failure to communicate my feelings in an effective way, and of all the things I’m inexplicably afraid of that I’m not even able to accurately name or point out, much less healthily manage.
I’ve been trying to surround myself only with people that I can relax with. Cut out the people that make me judge myself too much. Ignore invites from people that flip their shit if a Nightfall attempt goes awry. Leave games with people that relentlessly make fun of someone that’s having a really bad game. Block teabaggers.
And sure, those things can’t hurt. But how do I flip that switch in my head that’ll make me stop caring so much about my performance? How do I learn to be ok with the fact that I’m not the best (or even really good) at something, and just play for the sake of playing? I have a friend who perpetually says he doesn’t care what we do in-game, because he’s just in it for the social aspect; he just wants to hang out and play games and have fun with his friends. How do I adopt that attitude?
Last weekend during Trials, that same friend honestly asked me, “So Laura, when are we going to play a game you actually enjoy?”
I didn’t have an answer.
I don’t know what I even enjoy anymore.
It’s a weird thing. Gaming is supposed to be a leisure activity, something you do to relax. For a lot of people that struggle with anxiety, studies have shown over and over that it actually helps alleviate some of the problem. But to those of us that aren’t so lucky, those of us that are apparently complete nutcases who expect too much of themselves and can’t handle the fact that people may be judging their performance as if it’s something that actually fucking matters…it can be devastating.
I mean, this is it for me. Games have been my thing for my whole life. If I can’t get past this, and I can’t enjoy them anymore…what the fuck do I do?
Look…this went on for much longer than it was supposed to. And it seems silly, I know, whether you share these feeling or not.
But the vast majority of us are not and will never be professional gamers, and even though I can’t get this message through my stupid thick skull, the moral of the story is this:
Remember to have fun while you play games. Build memories with the people you care about.
1. Tilt is “a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive.” If the term is new to you
you’ve clearly never played LoL check out its Wikipedia page here.