Perfectionism and the Fear of Embarrassment

There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not reminded of the supposed crowning achievement in my life. It got me on Kimmel and the Today Show; I get introduced at parties to girls with this factoid; and I’ve been asked to spell words in locations as far apart as Monte Carlo and Melbourne. It will probably be the first line of my obituary.

I don’t want to be cliche and say winning the National Spelling Bee in 2002 was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me but in many ways this is true. It afforded me many opportunities I will never be grateful enough for but it also cemented me on a path of perfectionism and anxiety that plagues me to this day.

Like every little kid, I was told I was special. You can do whatever you want. You’re going to be great. Nothing can stop you if you put your mind to it. The thing is, after the Spelling Bee, I believed it. I had conquered my childhood dream and was now destined for certain immortality — -the only question was what problem of the world would I solve?

My identity became inextricably tied up in my intelligence. I won the freaking National Spelling Bee — -I was supposed to be the guy who had all the answers. All of a sudden, if I missed a question in class, everybody would laugh. Kids were looking over to see my test scores and wildly celebrate if they beat me. We’d play a review game in class for a test and the other team would claim it was unfair that they didn’t have me.

At an age where your self-image is already precarious and wrought up in your peers’ thoughts, I became certain that I could never make a mistake without being brutally embarrassed. I had to be perfect all the time. Suddenly, basic tasks that anyone could accomplish crippled me with self-doubt and fear of messing up.

Go to a grocery store and there’s a self-checkout line. Well, what if I take four extra seconds because I can’t scan the item or the credit card machine doesn’t work? People will think I’m stupid so better head to the cashier.

Drive a car. Well what if I mess up once and cause an accident? I need to be perfect. Might as well just not learn how.

Someone hands me a set of keys to let a friend and me get into a house. What if I turn the key the wrong way or have trouble opening the door? I’ll look like an idiot — -why don’t I just make up an excuse to let my friend have the key?

On and on it went. My entire life and thoughts were (and are, to this day) centered around avoiding the embarrassment of looking stupid. I had to maintain my image of the genius that everyone admired or my world would come crashing down.

Poker

Finding poker during college and being successful enough at it to pursue a career after graduation only helped me postpone my adulthood. I didn’t need to worry about getting a “real job” or being responsible. More importantly, I had the autonomy to carefully choose what experiences I would undergo.

In the beginning of my poker career, I was a relative unknown and the lack of pressure of that was a huge boon. Suddenly I was no longer the guy who was expected to come up with the stellar results. While I was still putting a lot of internal pressure on myself to be the best, I felt separate enough from the mainstream that the creeping thoughts of embarrassment and unworthiness did not enter my mind.

That started to change when I became a student of Mike McDonald. People knew who I was and when I ripped off back-to-back top 20 appearances in EPTs, people saw it as the start of my inevitable rise. The story of being a former Spelling Bee champion became common knowledge and it was simple in everyone’s mind, including my own: He already became the best at something, of course he’s going to be the best or one of the best at this.

The pressure started to become enormous. As poor result or one unhappy final table after another piled up, I found myself constantly miserable, wondering if I was ever going to get it. If I messed up the psychology of a hand, I worried that I just didn’t get how to read people in hands. If I messed up a mathematical part of a hand, I knew that I was just too stupid to ever figure that stuff out.

People asked if I kept getting eighths because I “wasn’t a closer.” As stupid as that question may sound to some of you, this ate away at me inside. Did I just not have the intestinal fortitude to win tournaments? Did I fold under stress? Given the enormous amount of pressure I put on myself, I wasn’t sure I could truthfully answer no to those questions.

Then the script flipped. I racked up nine final tables and five top-3 finishes over the course of eight months and I was on top of the world. See, the funny thing is: if you bind up all your self-worth into your accomplishments and status, there ARE times where you’re at the top. I felt like I did in middle school after the Spelling Bee. I was the best tournament player in the world in my own mind. I had done it.

This spurt buoyed my confidence even in things outside poker. I felt more comfortable with girls, I showered my friends with gifts, and generally strutted around like a king. My entire self-image was wrapped up in intelligence and by “winning” at poker, even my normally crippling fear of embarrassment seemed to be at bay.

Downswing

Now this is the part in the 30 for 30 episode where it all starts to go terribly wrong. I started bricking a few tournaments. Now for most people that’s just part of the job and they’re hoping for a better result soon. But with each tournament lost, I lost a little bit of my confidence. Each one chipped away at my carefully sculpted image of the smart guy who had figured out poker.

Doubt started creeping in. People weren’t casually naming me as one of the best tournament players in the world anymore. People seemed either more hesitant to swap with me or didn’t even bother to ask. People were making more jokes at my expense about how many tourneys I’d bricked in a row or how many bullets I was in for in some of them. Each little statement was like a sledgehammer.

Did people think I was a fraud? Just another sunrunner who got hot for a few tournaments and would fade away like so many others? I woke up every morning thinking about how people must be laughing at me behind my back. This guy thought he could step up to the elite level of highrollers! Ha, he’s a fraud! He’s only a Timex wannabe!

The doubt was paralyzing. People like to make fun of the concept of momentum in tournaments because the way it’s commonly used is irrelevant and susceptible to confirmation bias. Winning a previous allin has no effect on your next one and we obviously only remember the few guys who strung together two or three scores, not the dozens more who had one score and then no results for longer periods of time. The way I like to think about “momentum” in tourneys is that it simply puts you in a better spot to win all the smaller, in-between pots. You make a little bluff here, trust your gut in a different calldown spot there, etc. All the extra chips give you a better shot to win even if eventually it might come down to the allins.

I’m not sure I was winning much of those over the back half of 2015. Every hand was a battle of self-doubt. Am I going to make another mistake to blow a tournament? Will I ever win at poker again? How can I trust my instincts when I haven’t won in so long?

In the span of seven months, I went from drunkenly shouting at people that I was the best tourney player in the world to wondering if I was a winner in any highroller. The dropoff in confidence was staggering but I didn’t really understand how and why I had fallen so quickly and so drastically.

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with Kory Kilpatrick, another poker player, about a month ago at Bellagio that I finally began to understand myself. My entire self-worth was tied to the results of these tourneys. When I won, I was a good person. When I lost, I was a bad person. I was embarrassed and hated myself every time I busted a tournament. When the losses began to pile up, I truly loathed Pratyush Buddiga, the person I saw as a charlatan poker player, who was never as good as people once thought.

Kory and I were able to trace this self-hatred back to the Spelling Bee. Since that moment, I had put an unsustainable standard of perfection upon myself. If I wasn’t the best, I was the worst. Nothing else — -not my friends, not my family, not my other interests — -mattered in determining my worth as a person.

Now

So the challenge began. It was time to start learning to like myself again. More importantly, it was time to start separating my self-image from my raw accomplishments or intelligence. I have a lot of friends who like and respect me regardless of whether I win the next 100k or not. I have a family that loves and cares for me whether I’m ranked first on GPI or 700th. I am a person worth knowing. I think Tara Brach put it best in Radical Acceptance: “I had to learn to be my own best friend.”

So that’s what I’m doing now. I don’t need to be perfect. I want to get over my fear of embarrassment and realize it’s okay to fail. Each failure is an opportunity to practice compassion and mindfulness towards myself. This journey is just beginning. I know there are going to be many slipups and falls along the way. I’m sure there are going to be nights where I stew in misery thinking I’m the worst person on Earth. But I hope those nights become fewer and farther in between.

This blog post (and any future ones) is part of the healing process for me. A month ago, opening up like this publicly in a very potentially embarrassing way scared me to death. What will people think? has been the guiding force throughout so much of my life. I don’t want to live like that anymore though. I plan on living honestly and benevolently towards myself. If you’re struggling with some of the same issues I’ve gone through, I hope you do the same and feel free to message me on book suggestions, meditation ideas, etc. I’m nowhere near an expert obviously but I think I’m beginning to travel the right path.

Thanks for reading.