The Long, Painful Journey to Better Self-Awareness

Erica and I are sitting on a small bus with 8 other fellow Mozcationers, in transit from Cape Town to a kloof on the Northeastern side of the Cedarburg Mountains. It’s 90°+ outside, and the air conditioning in the bus can’t keep up. It’s a little too uncomfortable to read, and while the scenery is amazing, so is the company. We strike up a conversation about books that moves into comics, games, and random geeky hobbies of all sorts. As the conversation winds down and we turn back to look out the windows, I think for a minute, then tell Erica how amazed and impressed I am at both her passion for these pursuits as well as her complete lack of self-consciousness about them. She doesn’t bat an eyelash about explaining the plot of a super-niche science fiction comic. I’m amazed. And I’m jealous.

I’ve always been ashamed of the enjoyment I get from geekier pursuits. I try to hide the fact that I worked as Wizards of the Coast in college, that I tried to play role playing games in middle school (but couldn’t find anyone to play with me, except my little sister, who was too young at the time to really understand), that I still love computer games (though I almost never play them). It’s so bad that I still feel anxiety, get sweaty, and feel my pulse pound if I’m playing a game on the weekend and Geraldine comes back from a shopping trip. Honestly, what the @#%! does it matter if I play a computer game in my spare time? No one cares.

I’m just afraid they will.

Figuring out why is a quest I’ve been on lately, and it’s one that’s taking much longer and proving vastly more mysterious than I ever suspected.

Obviously, I’m not just trying to understand why I feel repressed shame about interest in video games, but why I am all the ways that I am. I’m especially interested in those facets of my personality and emotions that create negative feelings, though eventually I want to get to a point where I know more about what makes me happy and brings me joy, too.

When it comes to my shame about games, I think there’s a few factors at work. When I was young, I got teased for having these interests, and I watched other kids become ostracized for it. My parents were mildly supportive of video and computer games, but I vividly remember, after my Dad bought me a TI-99/4A, he’d occasionally play Space Invaders or Parsec with me, until one day he remarked that he couldn’t play anymore, because it was a waste of time that could get dangerously addictive.

In later years, I’m pretty sure I projected most of the scorn and derision I sensed from people around me about games. While at college at the University of Washington, I worked for about a year at the Wizards of the Coast Game Center (before it shut down in the early 2000’s). Pokemon cards were, at the time, selling like hotcakes across the US, and were unavailable in much of the country due to supply chain issues. Working at the Game Center, I could buy cards at the employee discount and resell them on Craigslist and eBay for 2-10X the price. The market for the cards eventually plummeted and I quit, but I built up a pretty hefty collection of Magic: The Gathering cards that I, even as I type this, I feel ashamed for sharing.

Thinking back, the feelings I had probably didn’t stem from my college classmates, old dorm-room friends, or my girlfriend’s sorority sisters actually making fun of me, even though, were I to tell the story a year ago, that’s exactly how I’d have described it. Instead, I suspect it was my own insecurity magnifying something almost non-existant into what feels like a real memory, and projecting my fear onto the actions of others.

This self-examination stuff is hard. At first, I only knew that games made me embarassed and uncomfortable. Only after I’d spent time and inflection on other aspects of my psyche could I get deeper than surface-level, and I’m probably still not all the way there. I know, for example, that I’ve struggled for a long time with my relationship with my younger sister, who’s an avid LARPer (Live-Action-Role-Playing Gamer) and is more heavily into that world I’m ashamed of – perhaps the two are related.

Despite the daunting challenge posed by examining my fears and limitations, I’ve become convinced that this process is one of the healthiest, most productive, and most positive things I can do for myself and the company I’m leading.

I’ll give another example.

I’m clearly obsessed with transparency. I want to share everything about myself and our company that I possibly can. It frustrates me bitterly when there’s a subject that’s too sensitive to share or when a topic wouldn’t be empathetic (to some co-worker or third party) to bring up. Just recently, there was a blog post written by a venture capitalist that I wanted to skewer with my own, directly contradictory experience with that person and their firm. It’s still burning a hole in my blogging pocket.

Where does that addiction to transparency come from? Why can’t I be happy with sharing what I already do (my performance review, our annual financials, internal emails, failed VC processes, etc)? Because sometimes, that addiction causes serious problems.

Last summer, as many of you probably know, Geraldine was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She named it Steve. The three weeks leading up to her surgery were probably the toughest of our marriage, and part of that was because of my addiction to transparency.

You see, the Monday after the discovery of her tumor (the prior Wednesday or Thursday), I went into the Mozplex and told our exec team at lunch what was happening and that I might need to take a break for a little while or a long while from work stuff. That afternoon, I called an impromptu company-wide meeting. I stood in front of ~60 Mozzers, including plenty of close friends of Geraldine and mine, and told them about her tumor, and the potential possibilities (we didn’t yet know it was relatively treatable). I was so choked up, I couldn’t get through half the sentences. It wasn’t my finest moment in front of my team. I think I made half the staff cry with me, and probably instilled more fear and uncertainty than anything else. It was Crystal‘s first day at Moz, so I tried to look at her and tell her, since I didn’t know her at all and I couldn’t cry in front of someone new, right? That was probably horribly embarassing, difficult, and unfair for her.

But the worst part was… I hadn’t checked with Geraldine about telling the company.

She later joked about this on her blog and to our friends, but it was a huge, collosal, monstrous fuck-up. Possibly the worst one I’ve made in our 11.5 years together. And of course, she forgave me, and teased me about it, and we moved on (after making some clear rules about sharing). Her tumor turned out to be benign and very slow growing, which means she probably won’t need surgery on it ever again.

This example, to me, proved that it wasn’t just the things that made me feel bad that I needed to diagnose, but the roots of all my obsessions and quirks and traits. That understanding seems to be, at least for me, the first step in the journey to harnessing these elements of myself in the right kinds of ways and controlling what can otherwise be dangerous and harmful to all sorts of aspects of my life – personal and professional.

So where does my transparency come from? Again, I’m fairly sure it’s rooted in my upbringing, and that I don’t completely understand or remember all of the elements. One part that I think I’ve identified is the conflicts that often arose from keeping information secret between myself and my parents, between my teachers and my parents, between my siblings and my parents, between my friends’ parents and my parents, between my granparents and my parents, and even between one parent and the other – it sucked. I’m sure every kid deals with this a little, but I remember having to internalize lies and explanations that would keep me (or someone else) out of trouble far too often.

And, of course, for the first 5 years I worked with my Mom at the company that would become SEOmoz, we had to hide our increasingly large personal debt (which reached nearly $500,000 in 2005) from my Dad. That was horrific. I think it probably hurt our family relationship long-term. I’m pretty sure my Dad’s still incredibly upset about it, despite the eventual, positive outcome.

Transparency for me is a reaction. It’s a rejection of the things I hated having to deal with in my past and a value that I cling to so I, hopefully, won’t have those same issues in the future. It’s an obsession that makes me more critical than is probably fair to individuals and organizations who fail to be transparent (ahem, Google).

For me, this process has become rinse and repeat. I react strongly to something, and I try to question why I feel that way. Sometimes it’s weeks or months before that first epiphany hits me about the experiences or feelings tied to the emotion. Sometimes it’s the same afternoon. But every time I do it, it feels like a power-up — like I’m little Mario and I just ate a mushroom and now I’m big Mario and I can reach higher blocks and take more damage from Lakitu throwing those annoying little spiky dudes. It’s a great feeling, but more important, it gives me a place to start from in controlling the emotion and harnessing the good parts while reducing the bad. I love it.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d urge you to try your own short experiment in self-examination.

  • Identify an element of your self, your personality, or how you react to certain situations, people, or stimuli that’s strong and relatively consistent (it can be positive or negative – likely it’s at least a little bit of both)
  • Try to remember and list all the earliest experiences you’ve had that relate to that element – very often these are from childhood or early adulthood.
  • Conduct a critical examination of the relationships between those experiences and your reactions today. Is there a pattern? Is there a reason you might be overly embracing or harshly rejecting something because of those experiences?
  • Repeat as best you can, especially if you find a behavior or an attitude that you suspect may be harming your ability to grow/mature, love/find closeness, achieve a goal/overcome a barrier, or find happiness/reduce anger.

If you’re feeling especially transparent and are brave enough to share your discovery in a blog post, please leave it in the comments here, and I’d be thrilled to include it as a link in the post (update, check out posts from Aaron Friedman here and John Doherty here).

I know very little about formal psychology or therapy, though I want to learn more, and might explore that path myself. Certainly, if the help of a professional can help discover these roots and get me on a path to better self-awareness, I’d be really excited to attempt it.