People with an overabundance of self esteem are referred to as narcissists, after Narcissus, the son of the Greek river god Cephissus. Apparently, and perhaps understandably, there were no gods or godly offspring who had a low enough opinion of themselves to lend their name to the opposite condition.
I’ve struggled with low self-esteem for the majority of my life. It is equally powerful and damaging to the individual affected. As well as a general tendency to underestimate your own abilities and to focus on the negative aspects of your appearance and personality, those affected will often be reluctant to trust their own judgement, make decisions or take on challenging tasks. They tend to be tormented by past mistakes and the potential for mistakes in the future, and can be withdrawn and highly anxious in social situations.
The worst aspect of the condition though was that I didn’t know I had it. To me, there was nothing false about the way I was seeing the world or myself. I was just acknowledging the reality of my own shortcomings.
By my mid twenties I had graduated from college and was working as a designer for a husband and wife team of book editors. I enjoyed the work but I found it incredibly stressful, with lots of potential for my mistakes being immortalised in thousands upon thousands of full-colour books.
Up until that point in my life I hadn’t, except for a few brief yet exciting flirtations with arcade cabinets, played many video games. Computers were just coming into the workplace and Geoff, one half of the editorial team, suggested that I get myself a computer for home. He helped me set my newly acquired PC up and, that weekend, I ventured out to explore the crowded Aladdin’s cave of empty boxes that was your average gaming store of the time.
I’m honestly not sure when I started to understand that my view myself was wrong. It’s hard to say if the change was caused by something singular that happened or if it was a number of small factors that slowly pushed aside that destructive perspective.
Games like Lemmings, Myth: The Fallen Lords and The Secret of Monkey Island brought me lots of joy, but as I moved on to more social experiences, such as World of Warcraft, my problems followed me. I was just as anxious online as I was in real life. Being a healer (possibly not the best choice for someone with a heightened fear of mistakes) meant that I spent most raids in a state of constant stress, desperately fighting to stop the green health bars of my compatriots from dropping to zero and, after the raid had finished, plenty of time beating myself up over the things that had gone wrong.
I played Myth: The Fallen Lords and its sequels' online multiplayer a lot. My love for the games mechanics overrode my natural reticence and anxiety. Slowly, I found more online games where my enjoyment of the game distracted me from my negative thoughts. I’m sure, in some small way, role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate helped me with my decision-making paralysis. You can’t play games for too long without coming to terms with mistakes and the fact they are in inevitable part of progress.
For some games I adopted a strategy that took the pressure off me as much as possible. For the first ten matches I didn’t care if I scored any points or won any fights. For the next ten matches I would just try not to be the last person on the scoreboard. After that I’d aim for being around, preferably above, the middle of the scoreboard. Over time I would, very occasionally, find myself at the top of the leaderboard, which was a profoundly unsettling experience. I felt like contacting everyone involved and letting them know that the result was a fluke and I wasn’t really that good.
Games led to podcasts, and podcasts to the Gamers With Jobs forums, all of which I consumed avidly. None of my childhood friends had played games or had consoles so it was incredible to have contact with so many people who loved the hobby as much as I did.
Outside games, Geoff, the editor who persuaded me to buy a PC and possibly the unsung hero of these events, introduced me to the local drama group. I started out writing sketches for the annual comedy revue. For the shows themselves, I helped move props on and off stage. Soon though, our director at the time told me she’d give me one or two lines in a show. She cast me in three sketches, and I found myself performing on stage.
In one of the oddest contradictions in my life, it turned out that I was completely fearless on stage. I was able to take forgotten lines or missing props in my stride, often making jokes of them. In the end I was included in the cast of productions as a matter of course. During one show, as we waited in the wings, dressed in silly costumes, Geoff told me, “Your secret is that you are relaxed on stage. When you don’t look concerned the audience will enjoy anything that happens.”
No longer a publishing designer, I now teach art for a living. The classroom is my stage.
My life, like most people's, is still far from perfect, but I see it through a better lens now. Mistakes are small things that can be overcome, decisions are a matter of weighing up what is possible, and friendships are there to be made and maintained.