Not All Failure Is Epic

In gaming there is a concept known as the “Epic Fail.”  Roughly translated this means, a failure so colossal, so unbelievable in its nature, that it will go down in history as epic.  Epic failure can be extremely frustrating in the moment, but is almost always funny in retrospect.

Recently I was playing Dark Souls, and I was trying to down two bosses known as the Belltower Gargoyles.  Just as you get one down to half health, the other, who likes to breathe fire on you, shows up.  Oy.  I kept getting killed, which sent me back to a save point, running back up the belltower, and trying again.  What kept me going up there was that each time I was surviving a few seconds longer, and each time I was getting the gargoyle’s health down a little more.  At one point I started to consistently kill the first gargoyle before the second one finished me off.  Finally, through an unbelievable feat of mashing all the buttons, luck, and strategy, I beat them both.

The failure that kept happening was not what I would call Epic Failure.  It was certainly what Jane McGonigal et al call fun failure though.  It was failure with just enough progress mixed in that I’d say, “Oooh, you’re going to get it,” to the gargoyles and try again.  And again.  Fun failures in video games are designed to work that way.  The game can’t be so hard that the person gives up, but can’t be so easy that you don’t feel challenged.  Because if you don’t feel challenged then there is little or no sense of accomplishment.

Heinz Kohut, one of my favorite psychoanalytic thinkers, would probably have a lot to say about video games if he were alive today.  Kohut knew that failure was a part of life and human development.  In fact, he thought that therapy was full of failure.  He talked about empathic failure, when the therapist fails to respond empathically to the patient in some way.  Maybe we don’t pay attention enough to a story, or don’t remember something, or start 5 minutes late.  These are all parts of the therapist being human, and therefore being unable to stay absolutely in empathic attunement with the patient.  This kind of failure is inevitable.

Kohut goes on to say that it is not necessary to deliberately make mistakes and empathically fail our patients, because we are going to do so naturally in the course of our work with them.  In fact, to deliberately fail our patients is rather sadistic.  But usually we aren’t being sadistic when we forget something, or run late a few minutes, even though the patient may experience it that way.

So first a note to therapists here.  In the course of your work with patients you are going to fail a lot.  But not all failures are epic.  That is not to say that your patients won’t experience it that way.  That vacation you’re going on may be an epic failure on your part, as far as they are concerned.  Does that mean you cancel your flight plans?  Of course not.  Our job is initially to help the patient by understanding by empathy the epic nature of our failure from their point of view.  We try to imagine ourselves into that moment they are having.

But that doesn’t mean that we stay there.  We need to maintain some perspective, have some sense of fun failure, to keep doing our work.  By that I don’t mean have fun at our patient’s expense, but rather be able to be lighthearted enough in our introspection to say “Oops, I missed that one,” or “there I go again.”  If we can do that we are able to then refocus on the patient.  If we instead get sucked into the idea that this is an Epic Fail we will lose all perspective, and actually start focussing on ourselves rather than the patient.

Do you ever say to yourself, “I’m such a bad therapist?”  I don’t.  Of course, I also don’t say, “I’m such a perfect therapist” either.  I do frequently think, “I was not at my best today,” or, “oooh, how come I keep missing that with patients!”  This helps me keep perspective so that I can get back in the game as soon as possible.

Whether you are a therapist, a gamer or someone else who is still breathing, chances are that you are failing sometimes.  In fact, this time of year with all its’ hype and expectations about being joyful and loving families can make you feel even more like a failure.  Some examples of Epic Fail statements that we think consciously or unconsciously include:

  • I’m a terrible parent.
  • I’m a terrible daughter/son.
  • I’m a terrible sex partner.
  • I’m a terrible worker.
  • I’m a terrible cook.
  • I’m a terrible student.

and the list could go on.

If any of those sounds like you, take a moment to reflect.  Is this really an Epic Fail?  Or are you distorting things?  Chances are you are not a perfect parent, child, worker, sex partner, student or anything else.  But if you really identify this as an Epic Fail, chances are you are solidifying a form of self-identity rather than accurately appraising yourself.

Why would we do that?  Well, one reason is that we learned those messages of Epic Failure as a child.  You probably still remember a few failures that can make your stomach churn if you think of them.  But as often, I think we grasp on to solid identities, even negative ones, so we can stop working on ourselves.  I’m just X, I’m the kind of person who can’t Y, Nobody ever thinks Z about me:  These all kill our curiousity about ourselves and help us stay stuck.

Mindfulness is about fun failure.  It is about being able to look at ourselves and reflect on ourselves without going to extremes.  Mindfulness is about being able to be curious rather than judgmental, having roominess in our minds and souls rather than rigidity.  This perspective leads to “Ooooh, I’m going to get that boss down this time.”  The other leads to hopelessness.

So try to remember this as the days are getting shorter and tensions may be rising:  Not all Failure is Epic.  And if we can be right-sized about our failures we can learn from them.  We can take an interest in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors rather than judge ourselves.  If we catch ourselves saying “what kind of monster I must be to hate Aunt Myrtle,” we can perhaps think, “oops, there I go again. Isn’t it odd/interesting that I feel hatred towards Aunt Myrtle, what’s THAT about?”

Eighty-five percent of the time gamers are failing.  And yes some of those are Epic, but the gamer attitude is to view those Epic Failures as moments of camaraderie and learning.  In life outside the game, do you treat the Epic Fail that way?  Do you seek out others and try to learn from the experience, or do you isolate?  There is always some observing ego in the game Epic Fail that is often lacking in our non-game life.  And in some ways that is understandable, you can’t always reset in life outside video games.

But consider this:  Where there is life there is hope.  If this was a true Epic Fail in your life you can still learn from it in time.  Failures are inevitable, but with time and perspective they can be instructive as well.  In the end I’d say that whether you think you’ve had an Epic Failure or not what matters most is how you move on from it.  Who knows, maybe the only real Epic Fail is the one where you give up..

Note:  No real Aunt Myrtles were hated in the writing of this post.

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Skyrim, Stealing & Sadism

If you have been a therapist for at least, oh, say three months, you’ve probably had a conversation with a patient who steals. Sometimes it is mandated counseling as a result of a criminal charge or EAP referral; sometimes it is the confession of shoplifting. But if you haven’t talked about stealing yet, chances are you haven’t asked.

Stealing is always a metaphor and enactment. It may be other things as well, a means of survival, an indication of impulse control: But for the patient it always means something consciously, preconsciously or unconsciously. (If you don’t believe in the existence of the unconscious, why are you reading my blog?? No good can come of it.. 🙂 ) Sometimes the stealing is a symbolic expression of the desire to possess something that one feels was stolen from one: for example, a survivor of sexual abuse who steals toys to express the experience that her childhood was stolen. Sometimes it is to express the fear of being deprived; for example someone who steals and hoards food or clothing. I’m sure you could come up with plenty of examples, but let’s move on and discuss it in terms of narcissistic rage.

The difference between anger and narcissistic rage, according to some psychoanalytic thinkers like Kohut, is time and revenge. If a situation makes one angry, it usually has a short time span, and little to no accompanying desire for revenge. If a narcissistic injury occurs, the accompanying rage can last for a lifetime, as can the accompanying desire to have vengeance upon the person responsible. We experience both forms of feeling in our lives, and I’d say they’re different rather than better or worse for someone. And both are very useful sources of information about a patient’s inner world.

Skyrim is the latest video game in the Elder Scrolls series. This much-anticipated game has shipped 7 million copies worldwide its first week garnering $450M. Within the first 24 hours 280,000 PC players were downloading it, and within 48 hours Bethesda reported 3.5 million copies sold. It is looking to be one of the most popular video games this holiday season, if not Game of the Year.

Skyrim is a single-player game, not an MMO, but one of the things that makes it impressive is its scope, which is closer to MMO games than traditional single-player games. It has an immense game world, the province of Skyrim, and has an open-ended quality to it, in that you can play the game to your heart’s content without ever completing the main quest line. There is a main story, but you can choose to ignore it, and focus on doing other things. There are side-quests to train at Mage or Bard College, there are achievements to unlock and crafts like mining and smithing to learn.

And then there is stealing.

In Skyrim, there are lots of things lying around for you to take. If they are in a cavern or the world at large they are usually loot. But go inside someone’s shop or inn and you’ll see in red the option to steal them. If you do steal something, you may get caught or not. You may get caught and persuade the guard to let you go. You may get thrown in jail and forced to pay bail. Or you may get killed. The same applies to any lockpicking you do to break and enter someone’s real estate.

The more you steal, the higher the bounty on your head in each city gets. And each city has its own record of your crimes, meaning you can have a different reputation in each city. In fact, if your do enough criminal activity, the Thieves Guild, an invite-only thieves guild, may recruit you.

Not every video game allows for stealing, and by now some of you may be asking, “Why would anyone want to play a video game where they steal things?” Good question, let’s not dismiss this phenomenon: This game is 5th in a popular series which has consistently allowed theft in the game world, and developers don’t create and keep dynamics that nobody wants or plays. But to return to my earlier assertion that stealing is always a metaphor and enactment, we can begin to see the importance of asking our gamer patients about it in the particular, i.e., “What makes you steal in Skyrim?”

One of the advantages to taking a gamer-affirmative approach with patients who play video games is that you look at the video game as meaningful, rather than as merely a symptom or pathology. Once you do that the questioning loses it’s dismissive tone, and can become a useful part of the treatment. Why does the patient or gamer steal in Skyrim? Are they acting out a loss? Are they trying on a new way of being in the world? Or are they allowing some part of themselves to be expressed in the game that they try to hide from themselves in real life?

For example, did one of Skyrim’s NPCs with their Schwarzenegger accent say something insulting to you when you went in their shop? Maybe the fact that they sound like Schwarzenneger means something to you, and you like the idea of taking some tough bodybuilder down a peg. If you feel slighted, and steal from the innkeeper to “teach them a lesson,” this is an example of narcissistic rage. Having seen this in the game, can you begin to see any connections with people in your world outside the game whom you’ve felt insulted by, whom you wish you could teach a lesson?

It is often easier to look at our sadism and our narcissistic rage in the symbolism and displacement of a dream or art. Video games, which are social media and art forms with elements of dreams, are rife with opportunities to do this. The gamer-affirmative therapist can ask if your stealing to become noticed and recruited by the Dark Brotherhood might have any connection to the rage you feel that the girls/women/boys/men in your life only seem attracted to “jerks,” not “nice guys” like you. Or do other interesting (to a therapist) patterns emerge? Do you only steal from male NPCs? Do you ever regret stealing? Does whether you steal during gameplay depend on your mood that day? Do you think it is wrong to steal from the NPC? Why or why not?

Therapists: Don’t take the excuse, “it is only a game,” because any gamer knows, in fact we all know on some level, that play is not meaningless. You don’t accidentally steal, ok wait, scratch that–you can inadvertently click on something and steal it in Skyrim, and then all hell breaks loose. But if it was an accident, did you feel anything after it happened? Do you do it again? What does this say about your learning style, or repetition compulsion?

And sometimes, people steal in Skyrim to experience a conscious, guiltless pleasure and awareness of their own sadism. In video games, like in all fantasy, we get to do things we’d never do in real life, and enjoy them. If you’re recoiling at the idea of taking a loaf of bread from a little girl in a video game, stop and reflect: Might you have an overactive superego? Might you be splitting off and disowning some sadism here? Or was Oscar Wilde wrong when he said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

There is a reason why the Germans have the word Schadenfreude in their vocabulary: There is something archetypal about taking joy in the suffering of others. In real life it can be more problematic than satisfying for us, or it can be an ethical dilemma. But in fantasy and in psychotherapy, exploration of sadism is often meaningful and important.

Gamers might worry that talking about the joy they experience stealing from or even killing characters in Skyrim will have adverse effects on them. In one direction, you may worry that exploring these fantasies and the satisfaction you feel might demystify and ruin the game for you. I doubt that will happen, understanding the meaning of an unconscious fantasy doesn’t have to spoil the fantasy, in fact it might enrich it. Or you may worry that talking about these fantasies will be trivialized or pathologized by your psychotherapist. To that I say, if they do, perhaps it is time for you to get a new one.

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How Do You Want to Be Remembered?

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Recently, a bulletin board I participate on had a thread that really made me think.  A colleague posted a copy of an email she’d received from a third colleague.  The email was basically an introduction, a brief explanation of the therapist’s practice, and concluded with an invitation to visit her website and hoping to receive referrals.  The string of comments that ensued were mostly, although not completely, negative.  But I was struck by how openly critical many of the folks who replied were.  And what was even more striking than people referring to the email as unprofessional was how quickly several of these professionals began to say hurtful and insulting things to each other.  Personally I always applaud emails like the one in question, as I think it takes guts to self-promote, but I accept that other people have variations in opinion.  What I had a harder time accepting is the negative quality of the discussion.

A related incident occurred over the past few weeks with my blog.  A colleague began emailing me after each blog pointing out typos or grammatical errors.  I was a bit surprised, but at least she was taking the time to read it.  The last email was a bit more frustrating, in that she started the email criticizing my latest post and then asked for free consultation!  Still, I replied with a brief and polite answer to her question.  I wasn’t expecting a thank you or anything, but I was really surprised at what happened next.  When I posted a note to a listserv I am on with a link to my next blog post, which said, “You may find this blog post of interest,” she posted to the listserv saying simply, “No Mike.”

I tell you these two incidents to remind you that every time you post anything with colleagues you are also building your online presenceEverything we read tells us something about you. If you post something sarcastic you let us know that you are sarcastic.  If you post something clinically astute we know you are clinically astute.  When you post an article link you tell us that you are keeping abreast of research, as well as your areas of interest.  When you post online about a patient you tell us that you talk about your patients online.  And when you don’t play well with others you tell us about how it might be to collaborate with you on a case.

If you are mindful of this and are doing things the way that is in keeping with your professional style and identity, great.  There are lots of different ways to be in the world.  My point is to make sure you are mindful about how you are presenting yourself, because your online presence is everything out here!

Sometimes I get the impression that the same sense of narcissistic invulnerability we acquire when we get behind the wheel of our car happens when we get online.  We feel protected by a sense of anonymity and the asynchronous communication.  We say things that we might never say to the colleague’s face if we were in the same room.  We sacrifice sensitivity for the opportunity to seem witty or clever in front of our peers, even if it hurts someone.  We forget there are people behind the screens, or we decide we don’t care.  I am sure I have done it too, nobody is perfect.  But please think about what you are doing, because it can be really detrimental to building your business.

Take a look at the last 5 posts you made out here in Web 2.0.   What do they say about you?  If they were the only things a potential colleague or patient knew about you what might they think?  How do you want to be remembered?