When Confidence Takes a Beating

 

Confidence is the foundation of your mental game so it’s important to look out for anything that can weaken it. Ironically, this includes you. Being intensely self-critical can create a vicious cycle when it comes to building and sustaining confidence.

In both The Mental Game of Trading and The Mental Game of Poker I covered a concept called “Beaten Dog Syndrome” that is often connected to fear and anger, but can also affect your confidence.

Here’s how the syndrome typically starts: After being intensely self-critical over a long period of time, you develop a fear of making mistakes because you want to avoid the pain of the criticism. This is akin to a dog that’s regularly beaten by its owner and eventually becomes fearful when its owner enters the room. The dog is on edge and nervous that any wrong move may provoke being hit.

In the same way, when you are harshly self-critical after making mistakes or losing, you develop a fear of losing or looking stupid. You eventually become risk averse, second-guess standard decisions, and take extra precaution to prevent mistakes or losses because you want to avoid  another self-inflicted beating.

The solution to Beaten Dog Syndrome, however, doesn’t begin by trying to correct your fear. Your fear is reasonable. It’s protecting you from pain. You can’t correct it until you first reduce the self-criticism to a reasonable and productive level.

 

Beaten Dog Syndrome and Confidence

There’s a very similar version of Beaten Dog Syndrome that I’ve seen happen with confidence.

If, for example, you regularly go through boom and bust cycles that you can’t seem to break out of, continually have blow-up days seemingly out of nowhere, or repeatedly make “dumb” mistakes that you shouldn’t be making, your confidence takes a hit. The problem can be compounded, however, if you also get down on yourself for not knowing how you’re going to get past these recurring problems.

It’s common to be down, pessimistic, or have less confidence when you are stuck and unable to find answers. But for some of you, these emotions linger and hang around so long, you think they are the actual problem – much like my clients who originally thought a fear of losing or a fear of mistakes was the main problem, only to discover that anger and self-criticism were the real culprit. 

Take a page from my story. For those of you not familiar, I got into mental coaching to solve my own problems choking in big golf tournaments. When I looked around at the existing material on sports and golf psychology, I didn’t find the answers I needed to solve that problem, so in the classic entrepreneurial tale of trying to build a better mousetrap, I studied counseling psychology to find my own answers.

But the first time I choked was not what motivated me to look for answers. Choking once didn’t make me think I had a problem. Of course I wasn’t happy about choking in a US Open qualifier, but I was not fearful that it would happen again. That came a few months later after I choked again in the US Amateur qualifier, and played much worse because of it. That confirmed there was a problem and that’s when I began to look for answers.

But as much as I was unhappy with the situation, I wasn’t trying to change how I felt about my performance. I wanted to understand why I was choking. In the same way, you need to look past your negativity, low confidence, and how you feel about the problems you’re facing in trading, poker or golf, and instead, focus firmly on the problems themselves. Use my system to identify and correct the underlying flaw, whether that be fear, FOMO, greed, Tilt, overconfidence, etc. 

There will be ups and downs. Progress and setbacks. So long as you don’t get down, pessimistic, or have less confidence THAT you’re having to face these problems, you’ll find your way through them faster and with less emotional volatility and preserve the confidence needed to work through those problems. 

I know that’s easier to say than do, but that’s the perspective you’re fighting to acquire.

 

After Making Progress

Here’s the funny thing – after you reduce the fear, FOMO, greed, Tilt, overconfidence, etc., you might still reflexively not feel as confident as you should. Here you are actually making real strides to reduce those problems, and yet you’re still worried about a blow-up, and unsure whether you can handle the next drawdown, downswing, or slump. 

That’s reasonable. Think about it like a professional athlete coming back after suffering an ACL injury – they may not immediately trust the injury is healed, despite what doctors and trainers have told them. 

One approach is to throw yourself into the fire, and, if you reflexively have doubts, repeat an Injecting Logic statement such as “This is old. I’m strong enough to handle it, now let’s prove it.” You’re reminding yourself that the reflex is no longer relevant, you’re strong enough now.

Or, if you are not sure how much stronger you are yet, like the injured athlete still early in their physical rehab, consider scaling down the amount of money you’re risking, or degree of pressure you’d feel at the golf course. 

Slowly test yourself, so you can begin to prove whether the progress is actually there or not. With less on the line, less emotion is triggered and progress has a better chance of showing up. If you’re organized and focused, you can create a cycle that can rapidly build trust that your newfound mental strength, or absence of emotional problems, can hold up under the pressure.

Lastly, be patient with the process. A beaten dog who is put in a loving home still needs time to trust their new owner before their reactions change. 

 

Written by Jared Tendler

November 6, 2023

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