How Approval Addiction Can Wreck Your Poker Performance

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"They don’t like you."

Four little brass-knuckle punches to the gut.

A poker player told me that two well-known British poker players didn’t like me. 

As a writer, it's not unusual to be disliked. Those four words should just breeze through me like Casper would.

But it's several days later and I'm still holding an internal dialogue. Why don’t they like me? They've never even met me. They've never spoken to me.

And then I take it deeper. This is what’s wrong with the world. We dislike people without giving them a chance.

Why does it bother me so much? Why do I crave the approval of others? It's an addiction.

I Was Woody Wallpecker

When I was a kid I had wood chip wallpaper. For reasons I can't remember I used to pick the wood chips out from behind the paper leaving holes everywhere.

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My parents would tell me off but I was like Woody Wallpecker. I couldn't stop picking.

One day my Dad sat me down and said, "If you pick one more piece of wood out of the wallpaper I'll send you to a home."

My Dad is not my biological Dad. The other guy with the sperm fucked off before I was born. I have always felt abandoned. Like a child left in a Moses basket outside a fire station.

Threatening to send me to a home didn’t help things. But there it is: the root cause of my approval addiction.

Ever since my father threatened to send me to a home I have felt unloved, unwanted and craved the attention of others in the form of sex, love and kind words.

It has affected me in every area of my life. Work. Relationships. Hobbies.

Poker.

We Can Only Control Our Thoughts

An addiction to approval can be a nightmare for your poker game. You play the game in a straightjacket, fearful of the view of others.

You keep risks to a minimum. You are not as aggressive as you should be. You take the path of least resistance. Your game becomes stale. And it's ridiculous.

The core principle of Stoic philosophy is 'we can only control our thoughts.' Only our thoughts have the ability to elevate our spirits or amputate them with a bone saw.

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Nothing that anybody else says matters.

Nothing that anybody else says matters. Other people’s opinions cannot create pain unless we believe there is an element of truth in what they say.

Imagine you are sat at a poker table wearing a red top, red jeans and red trainers. A man who you know is a goalkeeper short of a football team comes up to you and starts calling you The Devil.

How would you feel? You wouldn’t care. You would think the guy is nuts and get on with your game because you wouldn’t believe his statement was true.

His opinion is not your problem. It’s his.

It’s human nature for approval to feel good and disapproval to feel unpleasant. These natural forces only turn into a whirlwind if you start to use the feedback as a measure of your self-worth.

We judge, that’s what humans do. You might be judging my writing right now.

How many times have you moaned and groaned about people? Wished that they would just shut the hell up and keep their bad beat story to themselves? Or silently mocked someone for their terrible play on the river.

Ask yourself this question: “When thinking this way were you casting a moral judgment that the person at the end of your vitriol was a crappy human being?” 

The Self-Respect Blueprint

It wasn't my fault my Dad didn't have any idea how to express love and kindness to his child. He was raised by a father who knew no better. He followed the rule book of life handed down to him.

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You'll feel like Antonius in no time.

But it is my fault if I continue to wallow in this stinking pit of vulnerability as an adult. I am a big boy. I know that a narrative from the past is nothing but a memory.

I am choosing to link a negative association to it. And if I want to move on in life and be able to show more confidence in my relationships, work and at the poker table, then I need to do something about it.

I took advice from a man called David Burns, the author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and the co-host of the Feeling Good podcast. I wrote an entry in my journal titled: Why it is Irrational and Unnecessary to Live in Fear of Disapproval or Criticism.

As I put fingers to keyboard I started to feel much better and it dawned on me that this practice would also improve my poker game. Here are some bullet points from my notes:

1. When someone critiques my play at the poker tables or reacts negatively to me in other ways, it's very likely that their irrational thinking is their problem and that has nothing to do with me.

2. If the criticism is valid. If I did make the incorrect call and found favor with the Poker Gods, then that doesn’t mean I am a bad poker player. I made a mistake. Phil Ivey became the greatest player in the world by making mistakes and learning from them. So stop sulking and learn.

3. Sticking with the incorrect play, what was your play like before that? What about the play after that? What about your plays during your session that day? What about every hand of poker you have ever played in your life? Did you screw them all up? How many of them did you get right?

4. People will judge your game but their judgment cannot affect your performance. Only self-reflection effects your performance - your thoughts and beliefs.

5. Even though that one person thought you made a howler, not everyone will share that opinion. The beautiful thing about poker is the variety of different ways of looking at a hand. Meaning not everyone will reject you because of your mistake.

6. Suffering is a part of growth. Suffering is a part of poker. You must take risks to become a great poker player. These risks carry pain. It hurts. But it's only a flesh wound more akin to a pinprick than a shotgun wound to the head. The pain will pass.

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Being critical is natural. But is it useful?

7. How do you know if the person's negative view of your play is because he doesn't like you? And even if so, have you asked them why they don't like you? Sometimes inquiry can reveal that the problem was illusory. Sometimes gossip is just gossip.

8. I criticize people all of the time. It seems to come naturally to me. I am not casting aspersions on their moral character when I do this. I am venting. So why do I believe that every little criticism about me is a moral issue? It cannot be. They are human just like me.

Not That Little Kid Anymore 

1,200 words later and I already feel much better. My mood has lightened. I feel confident to ask these two players why they don’t like me.

The feedback I receive could make me a better writer; maybe even a better person. But I don’t think I will bother. I am not that little kid anymore.

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