Working With Anxiety Part 1: Mistakes
Disclaimer: I am not a professional counselor nor have I studied mental health issues. This blog is based on my own personal experience with anxiety. It is entirely subjective. If you happen to share my experience, that’s great! But please do not take this as objective advice.
Hallo all! Over the last few months I have been kept incredibly busy helping to do the narrative design for an large scale escape room on a train…
A moving train…
An escape room…
On a moving…train…
Needless to say, when the opportunity first came up Errol immediately pushed himself onto the project and I followed suit. We both love the mystery and romance of trains. The idea of being able to design an adventure on one was too good to pass up.
It’s been an insane but rewarding journey. I thought at first that I would blog about the design process, the lessons I learned about narrative along the way, and the things I would do differently should opportunity ever come my way again. And perhaps, eventually, I will either by podcast or blog.
But this week…this week I would like to talk about something different.
The more I dabble in writing, specifically writing for a completely different interactive medium, the more my anxiety has reared its ugly head. There have been consequences from that re-emergence, most notably I have felt my friends’ trust in my ability to handle situations dwindle.
This time around was no different but for one exception: I caught myself and became much more aware. It did not make things that much easier but it did make for an interesting experience which will hopefully lead to easier times in future.
So I thought, what better way to face that anxiety than to chronicle some of my experiences working on the escape event?
Then I thought “NOOOOO, DON’T DO IT! DO NOT SHOW YOUR WEAKNESS”
So I watched Doctor Who instead.
Then I talked myself back into it.
For five minutes.
Two weeks later I managed to ignore the panic voice in my head and finally put fingers to keyboard.
It quickly became evident though this was going to be a massive blog post.
After quelling Panic Manda’s shouts of “WELP, GUESS YOU SHOULDN’T WRITE IT AT ALL”, I instead decided to split up my post into separate entries, each one dedicated to a particular aspect of what happens when you have to work with anxiety.
So without further ado, let’s talk about…
I…hate making mistakes. I dread it. I want to avoid mistakes at all cost.
Being human and incredibly flawed though, mistakes are inevitable. When I do make a mistake, and they happen far more frequently than I would like, it is a punch to my very soul. Every mistake, big and small, feels just as devastating.
I forgot to send an incredibly important report for work? I should be fired and probably will be.
I did not notice spelling mistakes? I don’t deserve happiness.
You can imagine the number of potential mistakes that could occur with an event no one had ever attempted before with a narrative design by a person with incredibly little experience.
I made all of them.
I could talk about the specific mistakes themselves: the missed e-mails, the myriad of spelling errors, the design missteps. But in the end they all led to the same result: I felt terrible about it.
The mistakes themselves are not the issue. Mistakes WILL happen. Dealing with them is what is far more important. Working on this event, I began to become aware of a pattern I would get myself into far too easily:
The pressure and stress of working on something so important would cause me to rush my work. Trying to rush my work led to mistakes. The mistakes led to guilt. The guilt led to fear of consequences. The fear of consequences led to inaction. The inaction led to the mistake becoming bigger. The bigger mistake led to those I work with losing trust. The losing trust led to self-loathing. The self-loathing led to panic. The panic led back to rushing my work which leads to the cycle repeating all over again.
Catching myself in this pattern was incredibly important. If there is one thing I have become good at in the last few years, it’s awareness of when my anxiety is driving something.
Rewiring my brain to deal with these patterns is another issue.
The thing is, I am not dumb. I know, logically, that mistakes are made so we can learn from them and grow stronger. I mean come on, I have seen the Lion King.
Even without Disney’s guidance, I only have to look at someone like my baby niece who is figuring life out by failing at it on a daily basis to see the importance of making mistakes. If we gave up after one misstep, we would never learn to walk.
But in the process of discovering an error, something in my brain blocks all of that logic from getting through. Deep down inside, I am terrified of being seen as incompetent.
For our train event, after catching myself for the thousandth time in this pattern, I began to make a conscious effort to rectify it. I tried to go a bit further than just identifying the problem. I tried different ways of dealing with the problem.
Was I successful in all of them? No. But I did get a good start, and here are some of the things I learned to do:
The Newer Something Is, The More Mistakes
Yes, we are back to Disney levels of obvious here, but this is an important lesson I took away.
I spent ten years training as an actor. I had a school that served as a safe space for me to get all of my crappy, student ideas out of my system before I began to actually refine into a craft. After I graduated I got to a point where people were asking me to be in shows.
Then I decided to try writing.
THEN I decided to try writing for an interactive medium with almost no previous training and no safe space to screw up.
I had to face up to the idea that I was not immediately amazing at what I did. I am not terrible, but it will take years of practice before I can call myself a true expert in the field of interactive writing. It was a difficult lesson to swallow. It still is.
There is great value to learning by doing. But just keep in mind: the newer something is to you, the more stumbles you will have along the way and the tougher it might be to continue on.
Suggestions Do Not Mean You Have Failed
Sometimes when someone tells me a way to improve my writing, I immediately assume I am crap at everything and I should give it all up now.
Logical? No. Productive? Definitely not. Do I still do it? Oh yes.
Let’s look at the word “that”.
Errol got advice from an English major friend of his about superfluous words in writing. If you put a word in a sentence and then take it out and a sentence loses nothing in meaning, it means the word should not even be there to begin with.
I use “that” too much apparently. An example might be “The things that parents don’t understand…”. It could just as easily be “The things parents don’t understand”.
Every time Errol pointed this out in my drafts, I despaired and assumed I had made a terrible life choice by deciding to write. It did not seem to occur to me that he was being helpful to a writer in training.
I caught myself luckily and am now working to break myself of my bad grammar habits. It’s…killing me to eliminate my beloved “that’s”. But it’s making me a more aware writer.
Don’t Get Defensive
During the process, Errol would often ask me would be “Did you read that document I sent you?” or “Did you do that thing I needed you to do?” or “Did you think of a solution to that problem we have?”
Sometimes the answer to all three was a resounding “Heck nope.” or “I completely forgot”.
But I would not say that. Instead a million excuses would spring into my brain. Things like “I didn’t have time” or “Yes, but I just skimmed it”.
Errol is also, as it happens, not a dumb person.
What looks worse? Someone who simply says “I forgot, but would it be okay if I got back to you later?” or someone who says the equivalent of their dog eating their homework?
Luckily this only happened a couple of times. After that I tried my best simply to own up to my delinquency. It did not necessarily make it easier, but at least there was less bullshit involved.
Which leads me to…
Sometimes You Are Going to Lose Trust, and That Is Going To Have To Be Okay
The words I dreaded hearing from Errol (or anyone for that matter) upon making a mistake was “Just give it to me. I’ll do it myself.”
We were on a tight timeline for designing the game. If something went wrong, there was not always an immense amount of time to fix it.
If I made a mistake or neglected to complete a task, there was the possibility that Errol would simply fix it himself. Which, in my mind at least, meant I had lost his trust in my ability.
To be honest, this is the single most difficult issue I still have to deal with. Trying to get the will to work after someone has essentially told you they no longer view you as an option.
I had two options: despair and beg for another chance or move on to the next task and focus on doing a good job on that regardless of what others thought of me.
Admittedly I occasionally went for Option 1.
But eventually I started to force myself into Option 2. I would admit to myself it sucked. I did not know if I would get a second chance. Then I would gather my resolve and simply keep working.
Anxious Manda did not like that one bit. She kept wanting to draw attention back to the mistake already made. She did not want to take the chance of making all new mistakes for all different reasons. But dwelling and fretting is not productive. So I pressed on.
Sometimes I will make mistakes. Sometimes people are going to be annoyed or upset or enraged about it. Sometimes they might stop asking me to do projects or tasks.
But I will not learn unless I keep trying. Anxiety does make that tough, but I think I have started the steps to being okay with my mistakes.
My many, many mistakes.