Mastering anxiety and becoming Real

The last week before my GDC talk in 2011 felt like one of the worst weeks of my life. I say “felt”, not “was”, because I know now that it was a complete phantom of my mind. I was alternating between low-level anxiety and all-out panic. Normally I enjoy coffee but during this time I could only drink steamed milk, due to the excess adrenaline coursing through my body. I lost 7 pounds, due to stress and lack of appetite. I had to take medication to sleep and to function – something I never had to do before then. When my friend Brian mentioned that my venue would be expanded to fill and accomodate an extra-big audience, I became unable to speak, started shaking, and was in that state pretty much until the presentation. The talk went over well – it was rated 4.53 (out of 5) and I got some nice positive comments. But none of that matters very much when I suffered so much to get there.

So this year, when I was invited to speak about how our community helped us ship Natural Selection 2, I was torn. I really wanted to tell our story, but I remembered how horrible the lead-up was. I would’ve said no immediately, but I felt this unshakeable desire to tell our story. I had a sudden insight when I realized that the story of The Velveteen Rabbit could be an apt and powerful metaphor for our story. It felt like the story had been written specifically about us us and I knew I had to give it a shot. So I listened to that inner voice and reluctantly accepted the invitation.

Then the anxiety started appearing again. I felt like I was in a long dark tunnel leading to a drop-off. There was nowhere to go except off the edge and all the anxiety came flooding back. I suddenly realized that I had a constant low-level of anxiety in my life. My hands would be cold whenever I was going somewhere, even to meet friends or to a celebration. I was always saying things like “So far so good” and “Yes, it’s working…for now” and always framing things in doubt’s shadow. It wasn’t terrible, but it drained pleasure out of my life. The breakthrough was when I realized that speaking wasn’t a problem in itself: it was just a magnifying glass on an existing problem. I also had the shocking realizing that if I didn’t solve this problem RIGHT NOW, I would never speak again. I wasn’t worth it. To me, that was a sad and daunting proposition, and totally unacceptable! So I set about finding ways to fix it once and for all.

I found a book called Be Heard Now, which, unlike other books on public speaking (or Toastmasters, which I tried), it doesn’t talk about technique or performance in any way. It is the opposite of performance. It’s about total authenticity and fully connecting with your audience. The idea is that if you are connected to your audience, you don’t actually have to say anything. That is, being present with your audience and “doing” nothing is actually more powerful, interesting and transformative than delivering a talk perfectly but having a wall up between the real you and your audience. It’s a bit hard to take, but there are exercises within that started to convince me. And I couldn’t argue with it when I started to feel better almost immediately. The author hosts “speaking circles” here in San Francisco, which feel almost like therapy or twelve-step. But the results were instant and palpable, so I decided to take a chance: maybe I could be totally relaxed, totally myself and the audience would appreciate anything I said?

Another technique that helped me a lot was “body wiggling”. It feels kind of like dancing, where you are kind of gyrating in place subtly. I think at a distance of 20 feet or so, people wouldn’t notice, but it’s probably not something I would do on stage! It’s a way of focusing completely on your body, and therefore pulling yourself out of your mind, which is on overdrive projecting all sorts of future scenarios (and giving you that anxiety). Another effect technique is doing a “sumo”, which is a slight-crouch, as if you’re trying to prepare against being knocked over. Doing these for 30+ seconds has a noticeable effect on my anxiety.

Then, a week before my talk, I was re-reading The Power of Now – which suddenly clicked with me and I had another powerful breakthrough. I suddenly realized that my whole life, I’ve been living in the future. I didn’t even know how to live in the Now. I’ve been so fixated on how I want to build my life and create a future that I had no idea how to actually enjoy what I had. So many wonderful things have happened in my life recently, and yet I could only focus 3 months ahead of me. So this had nothing to do with public speaking. This is a problem in my life. And I could stop all that anxiety immediately and start feeling really good all the time, if I could somehow focus on the Now (or possibly turning off my frontal lobe). There is no future – all experience happens in the Now. Living in the future is not really living. I started to believe it.

Over the next few days, I started to live this way. I breathed deeper, looked more at the things around me and everything felt…a bit uncomfortable actually. In my “old life”, I felt like I was in a car, driving at night, with my headlights on. I could see everything in front of me, quite well. In my “new life”, I felt like I was turning off the headlights completely, and just listening to the whine of the engine and feeling the road vibrations through my car seat. I really feel like this is the right way to live my life, although it’s completely unproven. My old way of vigilance worked, and this new way just feels…irresponsible? But I can’t go back to that anxiety and never speaking again, so this must be the new way forward.

Two days before it I became increasingly relaxed. I was still overly-focused on it, but I was able to enjoy my life and wasn’t suffering. I kept feeling myself almost “wanting” to say I was anxious, but it wasn’t true. It felt like habit, an excuse, an old part of me pointing his finger to the sky as it sank underwater (Ekhart’s “pain-body“). Buh. Bye. As I walked to the convention center, my hands were warm and I was smiling at people on the street. Even as I sat in the large audience right before, I was largely relaxed. Two weeks ago, I could never even imagine feeling this way.

I don’t know how the talk was received, and I don’t really care. I told the remarkable, and previously-untold, story of powerful forces that arose out of our community to help us succeed. I was so happy to put our community up on the big screen in front of my peers and lavish praise on them and talk about their amazing feats. I don’t understand why or how this happened, only that it happened. And now over 400 game developers also know this story of the Velveteen Marine. Thousands more will hear the tale through the video, which was recorded in the annals of game-dev history. This feels so much better than cowering and staying silent and lost forever. And through all of this, I’ve received yet another gift, which may be the biggest I’ve ever gotten.


3 thoughts on “Mastering anxiety and becoming Real”

  1. Never thought you were that stressed from such events, I guess you’re more the introvert type (like I am).
    Anyway, nice read, I’ll be sure to check the GDC talk out when it comes out.
    Your community will always be with you guys, Playtesters even more! (You should drop more often on teamspeak during PT, it’s always nice to have devs on Teamspeak and be able to talk to them 😉 )

  2. Thanks for sharing this experience with us, Charlie! I’m eager to watch the GDC talk and consider buying the book for myself.

  3. Being the big chief on a project like ns2 would put pressure on anyone, good that you pulled through.

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