Mental Chains – A Bit More on Shame

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In response to my last blog, which was written mostly out of frustration at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, I wanted to clarify a bit more by what I mean by ‘shame’. When you hear the word ‘shame’, you often hear it in the context of someone pointing a finger at a politician and declaring “shame on you” after they’ve done something reprehensible. If caught red-handed, you’ll also hear that politician say, “I am ashamed of my actions” (whether they are or aren’t is entirely another issue, haha).

But that’s not really the kind of shame I’m describing. It goes farther than feeling ‘shame’ for what you’ve done, and goes into feeling shame for who you are. In fact, it feels like there should be an entirely separate word for this kind of fully internalized shame in the English language. But alas, English is again inefficient at describing something that’s such a big part of my life at the moment.

This article by Behavioral Health Evolution about shame-based thinking is exactly it: “The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure. When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity.”

(Speaking of continual victimhood, here’s my one potentially-political viewpoint for this blog, and I put it in parenthesis because it’s unrelated but relevant; I’m “covering my bases,” you could say, for the future. For those of you who stumble on this blog and think you spy yet another “precious snowflake Millennial” looking to play the depression victim card in order to gain some kind of advantage in life, that’s real cute. First of all, you read nerdy WordPress blogs to search out people to belittle? Second, “snowflake”, “Millennial”, and “victim card” are all modern buzzwords whose use identifies you more than they identify me. Third, am I not human? Are you not human too? Get over yourself and seek to connect with someone instead of putting them down. I promise to do the same for you. Fourth, I fully realize that I’ve chosen to be a victim many times in my life, and I have yet to find the ways it gains me any kind of leverage. In fact, the only advantage my depression gives me at all is an increased feeling of empathy for those that have depression. Everyone goes through some soul-searching every once in a while, and those that don’t are selling something.)

(More than a few times on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing against someone with a mental illness, insisting that they’re using their “victim complex” as an excuse to slack off or think differently. I’ve even seen this beloved clip from The Princess Bride used as a weapon to attack people with mental illness. It makes me sick every time I see it. If these “victim complexes” exist among my age group as deeply as you think they do, your first course of action is to indulge them and actually make them victims of your “righteous” indignation? Or, if you believe that mental illness is more than just a petty excuse, you’re choosing to attack and devour the weakest among us anyway? Do you not know the power that anonymous words on the internet have over the introverted? Isn’t there enough shame in the world for those that deserve it that you feel the need to pass some more around just for good measure?)

(Anyway. I’m not arguing against the existence of a “victim complex”, because, to be honest, that’s what the shame cycle is: a self-inflicted victimhood. Nine times out of ten, you don’t have to point this out to anyone with a mental illness. No, I’m arguing against anyone shaming those that dare wear their hearts on their sleeves and share their personal experiences with mental illness. One in five of us suffers from some form of mental ailment. If you’ve never suffered an inexplicable panic attack in a public place, endured depression or PTSD huddled alone in a dark closet, or finance and relationship-ruining mania in your long and storied life, consider yourself blessed.)

(For everyone else, thank you for reading my rant, and I will continue.)

The article shares the following examples of shame-based thinking:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
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“Why you desire to wipe out the past is of more significance than knowing how to wipe it out. The intention with which you approach the problem is more important than knowing what to do about it.”

“Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts,” the article continues, “one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.”

I didn’t reach the point I’m at now in a single day. This kind of self-punishing thinking is something I’ve developed for many years, possibly through my entire life. I remember my mom asking me once, “Where and when did you learn to think about yourself this way?” I didn’t have an answer for her, and I still don’t. It really did come gradually until one day I realized I hated myself and that my brain had tricked itself into believing a lie: that I had to be a perfect, mistake-free being in order to be whole.

And this shame cycle isn’t solely concentrated on the self alone: it colors how we view everyone around us as well. The article points to other authors and their views that shame spreads itself around; shame-based thinking can lead to:

  • Negative explanations of other people’s behavior
  • Dire predictions
  • Selective focus on negative aspects of events
  • Doubt in coping skills
  • Rigid rules about how people should behave

I may not be the brightest light in the sky, but I don’t believe I have these negative beliefs about the intentions of other people; in the very least I haven’t developed them in the last ten years since I’ve come to understand myself and my depression. In fact, I find the “rigid rules” part to be surprising, because if anything, my feelings about letting people live the life they want to live has actually loosened quite a bit since my mission – “live and let live,” I say. But maybe that’s not what it means, I’ll have to do more research. “Selective focus on negative aspects of events”, on the other hand, I do see quite a lot in myself. When something bad happens (or when an event has the potential for badness to occur), I don’t often think about what good could arise from it. I don’t see the silver lining in the clouds.

As for solving my shame-filled thoughts… maybe I’ll save that for another day. I’m already running late on this blog, and I won’t use the release of the one on Friday as an excuse to release this one tomorrow! I shan’t!

I apologize for my scatterbrain brain scatter (that word is legitimately a single word, according to Google, neat), and Thursday’s blog will be more joyous and game-filled!

Mental Chains – Guilt, But Mostly Shame

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Getting to the heart of depression and anxiety is always difficult.

Firstly, the mind is really good at tricking itself, hiding the real problem in plain sight and digging around it in search of a fast solution. Being honest with yourself can be very difficult since the reality of self is so easily obscured by depression. “I’m fat, I’m ugly, no one likes me,” I may say. Or, more deceptively, “I feel this way because of all the times I’ve screwed up.” Often, the number, severity, or amount of time since the perceived mistakes will be irrelevant. The mere memory of them will cause a downward spiral that can feel impossible to escape from. Without the ability to look on the bright side of just about anything, how could anyone be expected to rise above the strength of such thoughts?

Don’t get me wrong – my medications have been sent from heaven, and help me feel 1000% more in control of my mind than I would had my doctors and I never discovered the correct cocktail. But that doesn’t mean every day is filled with rainbows and unicorns. In fact, yesterday (Thursday), I could not pull myself out of a day-long pit caused by pain and discomfort, namely the inability to breathe and a bad headache right in between my eyes.

Anyone would get down from pain like that, I suppose. But my pain wasn’t the true source of my depression. It was the one-two punches of guilt and shame that came with my inability to function that knocked me out.

Simply put, guilt is the negative feeling associated with acting in a certain way contrary to your personal principles. On Thursday, I failed to make it to work. Accordingly, I felt guilt for not having been the faithful and dependable employee that my supervisor and co-workers (hopefully still) expect me to be. “Well,” you might say. “Why didn’t you just go to work? You would have avoided all that guilt if you’d just gone and done your work!”

True, sure. Guilt is a powerful motivator to do better, to improve, to actually act correctly. But you’re missing the second reason for my depression: shame.

Shame isn’t feeling sadness and fear due to your actions or choices. It’s feeling sadness and fear because of who you are, resultant of a poor evaluation of self. As this article by Jay Boll for Esperanza entitled “Shame: The Other Emotion in Depression and Anxiety
describes, “Shame is sometimes confused with guilt. But there’s an important difference.  Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of one’s self. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong.  As such, guilt can be a powerful motivator to change one’s behavior for the better. Shame can have the opposite effect, making a person feel that change is hopeless because the problem is one’s self.  This is what makes shame such a toxic emotion.”

Perhaps to my detriment, guilt is the lesser of the two evils, and the one feeling that gets ignored. I wouldn’t make the choices I do otherwise. I feel ashamed of the person I am, and so it is my innate reaction to any negative emotions to withdraw and become insular. From that shame comes the guilt of not having done what I promised to do, and it spirals in on itself until I’m pretty much not able to do anything at all.

“Victims of trauma and abuse are especially susceptible to toxic shame,” Boll continues. “But it does not take an abusive childhood or severe misfortune to experience dysfunctional levels of this emotion. More often, it results from shaming messages we receive from parents, teachers, other authorities, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves over-and-over.”

Believe me, I have a lot of negative shaming messages in my brain that it just relishes to replay again and again, some from my mission, some from work, and some from school. I have many negative interactions with teachers, for example, that make me internally shy away from classroom settings, and make me hesitate to raise my hand or ask for assistance. It’s why I’ve done so poorly in classes and why the upcoming semester (that starts Monday) fills me with such dread, even though I’m only taking one class.

Know why I hate talking about politics so much? Shame. Know why I have such difficulties talking about religion with other people who aren’t my immediate family? Shame. Know why I’ve quit or lost work opportunities, preferring to be caught dead than be seen losing control of my emotions? Shame. Know why I haven’t been on a date in over ten years? Shame. Know why I continually fail to show up to church a decade after coming home early from serving my mission? It’s shame. Shame for failing to become the strong and independent individual I had half a mind to become after I graduated high school. I feel shame for not being stronger than my bipolar depression without chemical assistance, shame for not being more outgoing in my personal life, shame for liking video games and daring to believe myself a writer or game designer. I feel shame for being politically open-minded but innately conservative, I feel shame for being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, and I feel shame for all these powerful emotions of sadness, anger, and fear that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to feel as a man. I even feel shame for suffering from things I have no control over, like sinus infections, colds, and possibly even sleep apnea (this is being investigated at the moment).

But you know something? While there are many different people I can blame for the many unpleasant memories that flood my mind every time depression returns, I know my enemy isn’t external. It’s internal. It’s the shame that I don’t know how to process. It’s the ideal, impossible, perfected “me” that I’ve envisioned that keeps the real me from finding happiness in the moment. It’s taken me fifteen or so years to understand where my anger and sadness comes from, and it’s nearly impossible for me to communicate this clearly enough to be understood. I can’t even describe these things to my parents without receiving looks of confusion and concern.

I wish shame were some small thing to step over. But it’s not.

The story in the article about Mr. Boll being called “Twinkle Toes Boll” by his teacher in sixth grade despite the fact that he had been born with a clubfoot is intensely fitting with my experience. But in the deepest recesses of my reluctant heart, I know that the people who have shouted me down might have reconsidered their critical tone had they known me and my experiences. But, of course, this is impossible. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the name of the game in this wonderful world of ours, and unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know I have moderately functional bipolar depression. No, I imagine you’d just see an undermotivated, unimpressive, and overweight male Mormon college student with a patchy beard.

That’s all I imagine my teachers and “friends” saw, too.

Speaking of his realization that he had overcome both his physical weakness and the bullying he experienced, Boll continues, “Both discoveries are instances of cognitive restructuring. In the first, I reframed my experience of shame into pride by having the compassion for myself that the ‘shamer’ never showed me.  In the second, I devalued the shamer by seeing him through other people’s eyes as the bully he really was. The sad truth is that many bullies are also driven by toxic shame, which they disavow by projecting onto others.”

This is difficult for me, since I have neither avenue of reframing available to me. I have neither friends suffering with me to let me know I’m functioning any better than anyone else with Bipolar Type-2, and I don’t have the fortune of knowing that my bullying experiences were like anyone else’s. I’ve never had a therapist ask me, “How are you able to get to work at all with what you’re experiencing?” Just once I’d like someone to acknowledge how hard I try to manage everything going on in my life, but of course no one really knows but me, so what’s the point?

How do I reframe my experiences to help me feel better about my place in life? And do I truly have to reframe every single memory that arises in my head to finally find peace?

Honestly, that sounds impossible. I suppose I’m going to have to go back to a therapist to work through this, because it’s affecting my everyday life. And that means time and money, two things I have just NO shortage of (#sarcasm).

Sorry for a hopeless extra blog today. Just a lot of sadness and frustration in my life at the moment that I don’t know how to process. Writing it out helps. Sort of.

In Response – The Irreversible Choice

This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.


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Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.

One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.

At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.

So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?

Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!

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So much anger. Thankfully, most RPGs are single-player so the rage is contained. Until they complain on Steam forums and Reddit.

Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).

Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.

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He never asked for this. But gamers do!

When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.

First, something simple:

Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.

I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).

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I’m not sure if this is a spoiler or not. If it is, please let me know.

A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).

Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.

The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.

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“But I’ll run out eventually!” you cry, with tears streaming down your face. Siiimple and Cleeeean is the waaay that you’re maaaaking me feeeel toniiiiight…

Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.

A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.

A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.

One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!

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SUCK ON EXCALIBUR, MALBORO! Art by Morbidmic.

The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…

And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!

Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.

One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.

Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.

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Three out of the three XCOM soldiers in this picture will die by the end of the match. When you consistently miss 85% accuracy shots, you begin to wonder if you’re the one at fault.

So, in the end, we have:

  • Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
  • Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
  • Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
  • Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)

Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.