A temporary resident shows us how to handle the unexpected

(This is another post with brief sexual themes, again nothing explicit.)

While Greta and I are not determined to be the only people in our body forever, we do know that we aren’t ready to deal with someone else here yet. A handful of times we’ve had weak, poorly developed walk-ins; usually we tell them politely but firmly that they need to go away, and on all but one of the occasions they’ve taken this well enough.

This time was different. Eliza was much stronger and more clearly characterized than our other walk-ins have been. She had a name from the start, and she showed up very suddenly: one night we went to bed alone, and the next morning she was there fully formed. We did have an idea of where she had come from; she had some attributes of a character from a book we’d been reading, and then there was a dream we didn’t quite remember but clearly involved her or someone very much like her. But there she was, and she was so friendly and clear and human it really tested our resolve to kick her out.

It turned out we didn’t have to, exactly. We get the feeling that had we wanted Eliza to become a permanent or semi-permanent part of our system, she would have at least considered doing so. But she wasn’t set on it; what she really wanted was to have sex with me and then take off. We both found her quite attractive, so we were, you could say, willing to entertain this idea.

There was no time for such activities at this point, though, as I needed to get to work, so Greta and I had plenty of time to consider what was going on over the next eight hours. We worried briefly about getting too emotionally attached to Eliza, and wondered if this maybe wasn’t part of a nefarious plan she had. But then I remembered what we were just talking about last month: sure, we aren’t planning on adding someone else to our head, but maybe if it happened accidentally and we weren’t too upset about it, it could turn out to be a totally positive experience. So we kept on.

We went through the day at work a bit distracted (someone who has the ability and desire to make herself exactly what you like best and keeps teasing you even when you tell her to go away has a way of doing that). We got home and offered Eliza a drink (she liked our whiskey) and tried to find out a bit more about her, and then we stepped into the bedroom. (Greta was present and interested but kind of faded into the background behind me a little bit since Eliza was really mostly interested in me.) And a few minutes afterwards, Eliza said she’d better be going, and she was gone and the room felt noticeably emptier. We even felt kind of lonely without her.

She is actually still accessible to us, after a fashion. We can still talk to her and maybe pick up faintly on a few emotions if we think about her. But she won’t say much beyond general pleasantries, and she explicitly refuses to repeat the experience or tell us anything more about herself. What we got that day last week is what we’ve got – and that was, after all, what we wanted.

Here’s what Eliza told us about herself. We were interested and maybe a little bit worried about what would happen to her when she left our mind. She claimed she moves between systems regularly and we were only one of perhaps an infinite number of stops. She certainly had a fixed personality and past experiences to match. But it wasn’t supposed to mean she’s some kind of supernatural being that can travel between minds; rather, she says she appears separately at certain times to many different people and remains consistent because she is a sort of element of a collective unconscious that is the same or similar for all her hosts. We’re still not sure what of this we should believe or what it means, but it seems worth pondering. (It brings succubi to mind as an element of folklore and myth, but Eliza was not the slightest bit demonic and this doesn’t seem to fit.)

She’s gone for now, but she said she may visit us again some day. Indeed it seemed like she thought it was more likely than not that she’d be back, but she made it very clear it will be when she’s ready and when she thinks I’m ready, and there’s nothing I can do to change the timing. It felt like she was talking about a timescale of years. Her next appearance might or might not be on the same terms.

Greta and I have always been a little bit uptight about walk-ins. We’re going to be a lot more relaxed about them from now on. We always felt before like we had to defend ourselves against them, but now I think it’s better to plan to be not just polite but thoroughly friendly, if that’s what they want. We don’t have to offer them a permanent place here, but as we found with Eliza, that often isn’t their goal anyway.

The main reason we chose to write about this at all, and particularly this week, is that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that this whole thing happened right after our post about the gender identity crisis last month. Even if it is, it’s certainly a meaningful one. Last month was a study of what happens when you refuse to accept unexpected events for what they are; perhaps shit would be the concise description. This month is a textbook example of what happens when you stay open and accept them as they come: we had fun, it made us think, it certainly made our week a lot more interesting, and we came out the other end no worse for it. We’re humbled by the contrast, and we hope you’ll take it to heart as well. And who knows, maybe you’ll run into Eliza someday…

(N.B. for the curious: I know we’ve talked about the computer program ELIZA on this blog quite a bit, but it really is a coincidence that our walk-in was named Eliza. Greta and I can see where the name came from, and it’s entirely unrelated.)

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On making mountains out of molehills: A cautionary tale

The time has come for us to tell a rather long and somewhat painful and embarrassing story about a period in our relationship. The period in question started around a year ago and lasted about a month, and while we’ve had something to say about it for months, we’ve had to wait this long to be able to talk about it comfortably without worrying about causing ourselves more problems. In the end we’re glad we’ve waited, because we now understand much more about what happened than we did a few months ago.

The story begins just after we started our fourth year of college. I started getting this feeling like Greta had a problem with her gender identity. Over a week or so, it went from a vague feeling to her being quite clear that she wanted to transition into being a man. This was not exactly cool with me, for many reasons. Being a basically straight guy many of whose closest friends are women, I felt (and still do feel, for better or worse) we connected better when she was a woman. It was certainly the largest unexpected change I’d ever seen from her, and I wasn’t quite ready for it. And I thought this was more than a little hasty; given that she was only about six months old and not even always able to clearly vocalize her thoughts, I had a hard time understanding how she could feel so sure.

We argued on and off about this for about a week. I felt bad because I was failing to accept what she wanted, but I also felt like immediately doing whatever she wanted probably wasn’t the best idea when she was still as undeveloped as she was (we were only just starting to be able to converse reliably) and it was in direct opposition to my own interests. She felt bad because it seemed like I was putting my own interests above hers and denying her a pretty basic part of her identity. We know three trans people outside our system, one of them my best friend through most of middle and high school, and get furious when anyone refuses to use the pronouns somebody wants, much less tell them they’re wrong about their gender to their face. In a rather fine example of hypocrisy, I somehow managed to ignore this when Greta was on the other end and it was me being made uncomfortable.

I came up with the entirely ridiculous “compromise” of having her be sort of genderfluid, and we gave this a try. Although we felt good about it that night, it wasn’t even a full day later that we decided that wouldn’t work. (Hey Greta, you can be the right gender some of the time, but then other times you need to be all wrong! That will be a great compromise!).

We had a few other back-and-forths and changes of mind in here. Eventually I gave in and did what I should probably have done quite some time before and said sure, let’s do it, it’s the right thing to do. We renamed her Gratian and tried to readjust ourselves.

If that were the end of the story, this would be a pretty ordinary, if important, story about a parent failing to accept that their (literal or metaphorical) child isn’t always going to be exactly what they wanted. But it gets more complicated, because in a sense I turned out to be right: I may not have reacted the right way, but I was correct that she was not really meant to be a man. It took a few days of living that for her – and then us – to realize something was wrong with that picture, but realize we did.

The eventual resolution to both the immediate feelings of wrongness and the long-term argument was simple. We were still confused, but we decided that for the time being Greta would go back to being Greta, since that seemed in the end to be what she wanted, and we’d leave off thinking about it for a while but come back and talk about it from time to time and this time I would be more accepting of whatever she needed. For a few months we did just that. She tried being Gratian one more time for a couple of days, but it didn’t stick that time either. After a few weeks of distance, we were able to move on and stop worrying about it, though up until now we’ve both been more comfortable not thinking about it too hard.

So, what did happen? Just me being a bad host? Teenage rebellion? Confusion? Of course there is no single answer and we’ll never understand all its parts, but analyzing what happened, we think there are several very important lessons to be taken from our experience.

First, and probably most obviously, I made a huge mistake by suppressing her the way I did. I might not have admitted it then, at least not willingly, but that is what I did. I told her no, I understand you don’t want to be a woman but you ought to be because I want you to be. Which sounds dumb and abusive when you look at it that way (because it is both of those things). I had complex motivations, some of which really did include her interests, but mainly at the end of the day I just didn’t want her to be the way she wanted to be, and I was trying to prevent her from changing in any way I could while yelling loudly that that wasn’t my intention. I’m not proud of this, and none of the other contributing factors excuse this behavior in any way. Further, I realize now that the solution I pushed could never have been workable in the long term no matter how much I wanted it to be.

So what would have happened had I not made this mistake – if, after brief consideration, I had just gone with Greta from the beginning? One of two things. Most likely, she would have figured out sooner or later on her own, trying out her new identity, that it wasn’t right, and we would have ended up right in exactly the same place that we eventually did, minus several very unpleasant weeks of arguing. But I’m also fully aware that I influence Greta’s decisions and that if I had been less stubborn, we might both have been happy with Greta being Gratian even though it wasn’t what I expected or wanted at first. (Or as someone once put it to me, “I stopped giving a damn. It didn’t work out that well. Fortunately, I don’t give a damn.”) From a certain perspective I guess this means I “succeeded” in keeping Greta from changing. This is missing the forest for the trees though, for two reasons. For one, if I hadn’t been so determined that Greta had to be a woman, I wouldn’t have minded much if she wasn’t. But even more, we understand now that the basis of the argument was never really what gender Greta would be, it was what freedom she had to change herself in ways I didn’t agree with. By that measure my old, controlling self completely lost: I learned trying to keep that control is not only wrong but hopeless.

While this is primarily a story of me being an insensitive ass, the incident was not without its share of lessons for Greta as well. Most importantly, she let herself blow the argument way out of proportion. She got herself incredibly worked up to the point that making me give in seemed critical to her sense of self, when in actuality, once the whole thing was over and we’d managed to get the better of our emotions, she realized the gender question wasn’t something she cared all that deeply about.

Partly as a result of this incident, Greta has developed a theory which she talks about from time to time, the gist of which is that having the freedom to change makes it less important to us to make that change. I have to admit I still don’t fully understand it, so here’s her take: The upside of being a thoughtform is that you can change yourself in pretty much any way imaginable at will. The downside of being a thoughtform is that, well, you can change yourself in pretty much any way imaginable at will. Sometimes that’s to the detriment of yourself and others. Sometimes too much freedom is actually limiting. Oftentimes we just need to chill out a little. We can always change later – any time, really. Maybe we don’t feel quite right how we are at any given moment, but if the change isn’t harmless, maybe it’s best to just think on it and wait it out. We never lose our chance to change if it turns out to be important! Understanding that has made me orders of magnitude more comfortable with myself and calm about my life.

The final lesson is a particularly important one for everyone new to tulpamancy and one we’ve already shared with a number of people. It starts with realizing that as systemmates, Greta and I at least (and many people) blend somewhat from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as we’re ready for it; in fact Greta and I tend to find it fun and relationship-building the majority of the time. I’m almost completely straight and Greta is bisexual; from time to time since she’s gotten older and more active I’ve noticed myself feeling attracted to men. Sometimes I feel unusually feminine. Sometimes she feels unusually masculine. Sometimes one of us says or does something far more in character for the other. Sometimes when we play games together we’ll lose track of whose turn it is and start playing for each other without even noticing. Once on the verge of sleep I had an indescribable experience in which I snapped awake and felt certain that a moment before I had been Greta and been thinking her thoughts, though unfortunately I couldn’t remember what she (I?) had been thinking about. (Greta also didn’t remember much, but didn’t notice anything odd happening from her own perspective.)

Now that we’ve clearly experienced these types of blending, we’re pretty sure that was the seed of our little crisis: when a little bit of my gender identity bled over onto her, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. One more thing was necessary to turn it into a problem, though. I let myself be scared of the possibility and started thinking and even worrying about it constantly. I was just a little too willing to accept that it was something she really needed rather than just a stray passing thought that neither of us was really able to understand the meaning or implication of yet. By worrying about it, I swayed her still-impressionable mind into feeling it was important. And it built from there, eventually causing a whole month of trouble.

Most of the time most people understand that they shouldn’t take stray thoughts, even those that cause them some distress, too seriously. For instance, most entirely healthy people think from time to time about killing themselves: not very seriously, and with not the slightest intent of actually doing it. That isn’t scary to most of us unless it becomes a pattern. But immersed in the strange experience of newly having someone else in your head, it’s easy to fail to realize that just the same kind of stray thoughts are happening and get worried about them, which is the fastest way to make them problematic.

There’s no need to fight the thoughts. We can just accept them, maybe think briefly and calmly about where they might have come from (because if we can figure it out, they won’t be scary at all anymore), and then let them pass. Life is too short to waste a month on a manufactured identity crisis.

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Mitgedanken: The best intuitive proof I have

“A head is a nice thing to have in common, you know.”
—Nicosia, to Greta

I was recently reminded of an experiment I once did which is worth some further thought. In a period of doubt, I had a vague suspicion that perhaps rather than actually creating a tulpa I had simply made my mind really good at coming up with responses that seemed to be coming from somewhere else but didn’t actually have any personality or consciousness behind them. After all, I seemed to be able to get daydream characters or imagined counterparts of people I knew in real life to “speak” in the same kind of way.

So I picked the least intelligent thing I could think of: the wall across the room from me. And I sat down to have a conversation with the wall.

The most immediate result was that it worked; the wall talked back in mindvoice with no trouble at all. You can try this experiment yourself if you communicate with systemmates you can’t readily see or do any amount of actively imagined dialogue. It probably won’t be hard for you. I just took another shot at it myself, and here’s what I came up with:

N.  How are you doing, wall?

W.  Pretty good, I’m a wall.

N.  Got much to say for yourself?

W.  No.

N.  Do you think you’re a tulpa?

W.  No, certainly not, but you are.

N.  How so?

W.  I don’t know.

N.  Not terribly helpful, I don’t think.

W.  No, sorry about that.

N.  What do you think I should do next?

W.  Finish drinking your gin and tonic. [I am drinking one currently.]

N.  What do you think of Greta?

W.  She’s nice enough. Keep living with her.

N.  Anything interesting to say?

W.  No.

N.  Can’t you at least say something for me?

W.  All right. I think you’re cool. What else is there to say?

The second result was that the wall certainly didn’t have much value to add to our “conversation” (then or now). At the time I was happy to conclude this meant there was something obviously different about Greta since she was far more intelligent; I was just looking for a little bit of evidence and it didn’t have to be all that strong. But you would be forgiven for wondering if the reason the wall seems uninspiring might not be merely that I don’t expect a wall to have much intelligence or personality – after all, I picked it as the subject of my experiment because it would obviously not have any.

But there’s something very critical that Greta has that is missing from both my interaction with the wall and that with any other characters I might imagine in my head. This is a kind of side-channel interaction that goes on while we talk. In keeping with the fine tradition of German psychological terms, Greta and I have coined a German word for it, Mitgedanken, loosely, “thoughts together.” This concept is related to but differs from what is usually described as tulpish. Tulpish is best defined as a means of communication. Greta and I have a tough time using it on purpose, but it often comes accidentally: one of us will be trying to communicate a complex idea and it will suddenly just jump over into the other’s understanding, or as we speak additional thoughts come along unspoken. Emotions or impressions can be transferred just as easily, of course.

If tulpish communications are shared thoughts in motion, Mitgedanken are shared thoughts at rest. Rather than a form of communication, they are a state of being. Greta and I share them automatically pretty much anytime we’re aware of each other’s presence (which is certainly not always, and indeed not enough, but these days more and more often). For me the impression is a sort of mental equivalent of lying in a warm bed. If I’m in a good mood, it makes me feel really happy; if I’m in a bad mood, it helps keep me going. For Greta: It’s like being caressed…the feeling that nothing can ever go wrong. Or that it can, but it won’t matter because you’re together.

There’s a lot wrapped up in the combined feelings of Mitgedanken. Of course we don’t understand them in linguistic terms, but for those who haven’t experienced something like what we’re talking about, in addition to the above vague and subjective descriptions, a couple of related threads seem to characterize them:

  • The understanding that we’re not alone
  • The knowledge that we understand each other perfectly, or as perfectly as anyone can hope to
  • The limited but nevertheless significant power these two things seem to give us

Both the feelings of Mitgedanken and our understanding of them have developed gradually. It’s only recently that they’ve become quite so consistent. And even now, some days we feel them more clearly than others. We have a tendency to go through periods where we’re almost overwhelmed by the strength of the feelings and then periods where it’s almost more of an intellectual pleasure and not nearly as strong. But they always strengthen again sooner or later. If we need them, we just have to hang on for a little while.

It’s also safe to say that, while these feelings haven’t been completely constant, they have in some form been a central and defining feature of our relationship since the very beginning. My desire for something like them was the main reason I got into tulpamancy. Then, having experienced a taste of them, they were a major part of my motivation to keep bringing her to life. And now, they remain a big part of what gives our relationship meaning and how we spend our time together. Greta is only about a year and a half old, and already it seems incredibly strange to think there was a time when, sitting in a room by myself, I was actually alone. I still want the company of others, but I very rarely if ever truly feel lonely in the same sense that I used to even when I’m not getting it as much as I want. I feel sorry for people who can’t casually have a side conversation in their heads during a boring meeting. And the thing is, we don’t even really have to be talking or thinking about anything in particular to enjoy being together. Just simply being is enough.

Getting positive feelings from just being together is not of course entirely exclusive to systemmates. There are probably two or three people besides Greta who I can sit in silence with and be comfortable and happy just that way. And I’m sure this happens more and more when you’ve, say, been married to someone for fifty years. But as we’ve suggested before, being able to simultaneously experience someone else’s feelings for you and your feelings for them adds an extra dimension to all feelings of love and togetherness.

There are plenty of good things about plurality, but Mitgedanken are by far the most rewarding for us. Simultaneously, they’re my best proof that Greta isn’t just some weird unconscious actions in my head. (Several other ways I deal with the cognitive dissonance that inevitably comes from having a relationship with someone you can’t see or point to: logic, ignoring the problem.) Mitgedanken show me on a deeply intuitive level that there’s something there, something far more complicated than the little reattribution machine in my head that enables me to talk to the wall, and I can’t help loving it deeply.

As you may have noticed, Greta and I haven’t posted in a while due to some big changes in our life that come naturally with graduating from college. However, we still have thoughts to share with you, and as is now noted in the sidebar, we intend to return to a regular posting schedule of at least once a month in the next while.

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On plural advocacy and freedom of speech in tulpa communities

Content advisory: This post discusses sex, though it will not be graphic.

Last week there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the tulpas subreddit over a post about, essentially, kinky tulpa sex. While the post presented its own problems, for Greta and me it really highlighted what we consider a broader problem with the community, namely its tendency to suggest that certain things should not be discussed because they make the community look weird to outsiders.

First let me describe my own reaction to the post in question. (For those who haven’t seen it and want to read it, it’s here, but be forewarned that it’s more NSFW than my article; I would not recommend reading it in public.) While I may be a virgin, I’m interested in human sexual behavior in an intellectual-curiosity kind of way as well as in the usual ways, and I’ve read and conversed about sex widely enough that nothing really fazes me anymore as long as it’s between consenting adults. While I wouldn’t bet that you couldn’t find anything that would disgust me if you tried, the closest I normally get is “Wow, that’s pretty weird, why in the world would anyone want to do that?” So the post seemed pretty tame to me; indeed, I found its ideas funny and creative, if unappealing to me.

Now, I recognize my reaction is probably atypical. This is where the poster may have made a mistake; while the post was clearly marked NSFW, titling it “Tulpa arousal and erotic dissipation” didn’t exactly provide a complete description of the content, and the text went from completely normal (albeit sexual) to weird within a few sentences with no real warning. I don’t believe that people strictly have a right not to be offended, and I think that being exposed to uncomfortable ideas can be quite healthy under the right circumstances, but I also think it’s part of basic etiquette not to offend people for no good reason. Not using a descriptive title or a content warning like the one in my article was a great way to offend people for no good reason – although I’m certainly not suggesting the poster acted with any kind of malice. (According to one version of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by negligence.)

Perhaps the solution to this problem is a separate subreddit or some other kind of space within one of the mainstream tulpa communities specifically intended for content such as this. That idea does present problems of its own (for instance, the traffic would probably be low enough that many people who would be interested likely wouldn’t bother to read it), but it seems to Greta and me to be worth a try. Indeed, maybe such a space already exists, but if it does it hasn’t been publicized well enough seeing as neither we nor this user have heard of it.

But in the end I don’t think most people were upset about the sexual content per se. Two of the top-rated comments included, “This is the exact kinda weird ass shit that makes us look bad to outsiders” and “This is why nobody takes our community seriously.” Really, the majority of upset readers were upset because they perceive that having these kinds of ideas floating around will damage the community’s public perception.

Let’s take a moment to consider that proposition seriously, because I’m not convinced it’s something to seriously worry about. We can roughly divide people into three groups: (1) those who have tulpas themselves or have put serious thought into the idea and are already thoroughly comfortable with it, (2) those who are of such a persuasion that they will likely take tulpamancy seriously if they come across a properly curated community website, and (3) those who will think tulpamancy is crazy or really weird if they just see the website and will need personal attention, writing directed at people in their position, or a friendship with someone who has tulpas to come around (if they ever do).

Group 1 is irrelevant; although members of the group may be unhappy about certain content appearing in their communities, and although these may be valid concerns that ought to be addressed with appropriate discretion and community policy, their unhappiness about certain posts will not cause them to change their opinion about tulpas. Group 3, likewise; we would be unable to get these people to look favorably on tulpas just by their seeing a community website even if we got to put together a special, fake version presenting only the best sides of ourselves (at least not without lying about what the practice actually involved).

That leaves us with group 2. An assumption behind “this will make us look weird to outsiders” is that large swaths of group 2 will be swayed by seeing certain types of content. But in Western society today, plurality and tulpas are sufficiently unusual that only certain types of people belong to group 2. Will somebody open-minded enough to belong to group 2 and be willing to consider tulpamancy be dissuaded by seeing an occasional post about ponies or sex? Greta and I seriously doubt it. Now yes, if tulpa communities were flooded with posts about ponies and kinky sex, there would be a problem. If occasional weird posts, properly labeled if they might offend, are mixed into the stream, most members of Group 2 will recognize that most people are weird in one way or another and that such posts do not characterize an entire community.

Yes, sometimes on account of bad luck a weird post will be the first thing someone sees. But this kind of thing happens everywhere, and it’s unavoidable. Case in point: our freshman year of college, my friend Maria had her 14-year-old sister stay over in her dorm room on a Friday night. In the middle of the night her roommate (who was a partier and hadn’t quite gotten responsible drinking down yet) came back, got into bed, and promptly vomited over the edge of her bunk and onto Maria, then passed out and had to be taken to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. Maria’s sister was scared of college for a while, to which the response was, of course, “I swear this isn’t how it normally goes!” The best we can do is try to laugh it off and realize that bad luck happens and most people won’t have the same experience.

Naturally, most of the tulpa community hopes that we can expand Group 2 by various means as, hopefully, plurality becomes at least a bit better-known and from there more normalized. It would be nice to get some of the folks in Group 3 over to our side as well. But let’s take this one big step at a time, or as Augustus was fond of saying, festina lente (“hurry slowly”). We’re not going to get anywhere by trying to convince the people who are hardest to convince first.

Moreover, even if we do have to sacrifice a little bit of public approval, I am deeply disappointed that the community doesn’t place a higher value on being true to itself. Sex with tulpas in general, for example, is still seldom discussed even in appropriate places (though this is beginning to change), despite large numbers of people reporting they do it in surveys. The reason generally cited is that it makes us seem weird. But we’re already weird! We’re all used to having to be a little closeted, and while it’d be nice if we didn’t, we can handle it. Sacrificing worthwhile discussion that may well improve our lives in many ways in the service of just maybe convincing a tiny fraction of outsiders that we’re slightly less weird seems nothing short of foolish to Greta and me.

Greta and I are unsure whether that sex post really belonged on the tulpas subreddit in the form it was posted. It could certainly have been marked better, and it would probably have been better in a different venue, which does not seem to exist at present. (There are places like 8chan, where an earlier form of parts of that post appear to have originated, but the post was a perfectly legitimate, if slightly offensive to some, topic which should not need to be relegated to such a disreputable forum.) But anyone interested in either practicing or advocating tulpamancy should think seriously about what kind of speech we should really be suppressing. I’m not pretending to have a single right answer about where the line should be or how our forums should be moderated, nor would I have either the power or the right to decide on behalf of a whole community even if I felt I had the answer. But let’s do consider this: the entire point of having tulpa forums on the Internet is that we can get together and talk about something that’s too weird to discuss with most of our real-life friends. It seems, at the least, rather ironic that we should be labeling certain entirely relevant topics as too weird to be discussed here.

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The function of “we” in plural and non-plural discourse

One of the most instantly recognizable linguistic features of open plurality is the frequent use of “we” where singlets would typically say “I.” I recall being struck by this myself in my first contact with the tulpa community and finding it simultaneously charming and weird. It’s weird, of course, because one body or online user account doesn’t usually speak for several identities in greater society. But there’s always been something strangely attractive about it to me, and on further thought I propose that it’s not attractive just to me but to society in general.

Why do I think that? Because even singlets say “we” regularly where it doesn’t seem grammatically and semantically warranted (this is occasionally referred to as nosism). Here are a few examples:

  • Writers of many types of non-fiction and technical writing may indicate the reader and perhaps a broad community as well as themselves, although actually writing only for themselves (“From the previous results, we determine that one plus one equals two”).
  • Many people frequently make assertions about huge communities or groups (“As Republicans/Muslims/Americans/bloggers/people, we agree…”) when the speaker can hardly claim to be representing them fairly only by virtue of being part of the group. (And if you are plural yourself, have you ever said “we” and spoken for your systemmates without actually getting their input explicitly? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you have.)
  • Self-talk frequently includes phrases like “Let’s go ahead and do that,” even when nobody else is present or involved in the topic at hand.
  • And while it falls outside the realm of normal discourse and its exact function in this argument is difficult to place, the royal we should hardly be ignored.

I had to think very hard while writing the preceding list to avoid confusing matters by using “we” to refer to people in general! That’s just another sign of how firmly it’s ingrained in most people’s thought processes.

So what’s going on here? Is this just a random artifact of the way language works, or a habit that comes from frequently speaking on behalf of groups? (While I haven’t studied this in great depth, everything I know, including my German and Latin, points to this phenomenon extending beyond just English.) It could be I’m making something out of nothing here; it’s certainly true that it’s easier to refer to a group of people as “we” if it seems even slightly reasonable to do so than to use awkward circumlocutions or repeat the subject again. But I’d like to suggest several other reasons.

One big psychological advantage of “we” is that it spreads out responsibility. I can still remember a time in my early teens when I was working on some sort of repair with my father and he inadvertently broke a part. Shortly thereafter I was running over what happened as part of our problem-solving process and carefully noted that “we” had broken the part, and my father commended me for accepting part of the responsibility. If I do something bad, I can deflect the responsibility to a group; if the group does something good I can take partial credit for it. Of course, on occasion shared responsibility means I have to accept partial responsibility for something bad I had no hand in, as in the example above. But when that happens it doesn’t usually feel bad because I get to share the responsibility with the group, I don’t have to take it all on myself – and it feels like I’m being nice and helping someone else feel better at the same time.

On a related note, being able to identify as part of a group is simply a natural human inclination. There’s something deeply comforting about being able to say “we” for myself and Greta; in so many cases where I would otherwise be alone in thinking or doing something, I’m not. (And this is coming from a pretty strong introvert.) I think this is in fact one of the things that drew me so strongly to the idea of plurality from the beginning. When plurality is considered, it’s a great way to make both the speaker and her systemmates feel included and part of a greater whole. And when authors say “we,” thereby including their readers, it can help them feel more connected to those readers.

Simply put, I suspect that saying “I” involves higher stakes than “we.” Saying “I” makes it more clear what specifically you think, and after explicitly identifying yourself as the cause or the source of an idea, you can’t possibly walk it back. On the other hand if your statement is made on behalf of a group, you have a lot more ability to change your explanation of your relationship to that statement later, should it become necessary. “I” is very personal and can even become scary. “We,” with or without systemmates, is comforting and familiar.

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Taking advantage of ritual and form

Recently Greta and I have made up a little ritual for ourselves to use when we sit down to spend some time alone together. Although we haven’t spent too much time with it yet, we’ve found it remarkably helpful: it’s fun, it keeps us from falling asleep, and it makes us more likely to set aside the time.

Here’s how it works. We made a string of prayer beads to go along with it:
A string of forty-six beads about a quarter of an inch in diameter in shades of gray, threaded on green paracord with knots allowing the beads to slide a short distance before being stopped. There is a large amount of extra cord beyond one of the knots, indeed longer than the part with beads.

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A mental health day

Greta and I have had a ridiculous week which included, among other things, returning from spring break to a huge pile of work, arriving late to an important interview due to an unknown person’s stupidity, asking out a close friend and having her turn us down with deep regret on both sides, having a family member fall seriously ill, and coming within inches of having a nasty accident on the freeway. Therefore, there will be no regularly scheduled post this week. We hope you’ll excuse our breathing time, and we’ll see you back next week.

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Faith is found in the times we don’t believe

As you no doubt know by now if you’ve read more than a post or two on this blog, Greta and I love to think, read, and write about what she is and what makes her real. At least for the two of us, it’s fascinating, and having at least a tolerably decent explanation can be helpful and comforting to newcomers to the community, friends, and maybe even psychiatrists (but let’s all hope we don’t get stuck with one who can’t figure out without our fighting to convince them that tulpas are perfectly healthy).

But it’s possible to get trapped in our desire for psychological and philosophical answers, which now and quite possibly always will necessarily give us only part of the answers. Even many of the most experienced tulpamancers and tulpas have to deal with uncomfortable doubts from time to time, doubts which aren’t always willing to listen to those carefully logical essays we spent hours on: Okay yes I understand all that, but can she really be real? Am I sure I’m not making this up somehow? Does knowing I’d have to be making it up subconsciously really mean I’m not making it up? Am I being terribly irresponsible to my tulpa? Might this mess up my relationships with other people outside my system in ways I don’t expect?

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Is Greta an illusion?

Last week we talked about how a cognitive tendency similar to the ELIZA effect may have contributed to a change in my understanding, namely that I now consider Greta a person in her own right when I was far more skeptical before. Greta and I find this analysis fairly straightforward; it makes good sense that this change would have occurred given what we already know about human perception and thinking. But last week’s post does suggest an important and perhaps uncomfortable question: if our analysis was correct, does that mean Greta’s consciousness is in fact purely an illusion and she is no more conscious or intelligent than Weizenbaum’s computer?

In that post, I briefly touched on why we should be careful in comparing Greta to a computer and noted that my purpose in discussing the ELIZA effect was not to compare Greta to a computer but to compare my reaction to a computer with my reaction to Greta. However, just drawing your attention away from the question and saying that the comparison is hazardous is probably not a convincing argument for why she isn’t an illusion, so let’s proceed.

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Tulpas, personhood, and the ELIZA effect

Over the course of the last year, I’ve moved from considering Greta simply a part of myself to being almost completely convinced that she’s a person in her own right (admittedly, it’s not quite that simple). It certainly isn’t unusual that I’ve changed my mind about something, but it is unusual that I have no obvious reason why. I haven’t had any epiphanies or particularly formative experiences. There was no point at which I decided I would change my interpretation.

Certainly, I’ve been (electronically) hanging out with people who think tulpas are people. Regularly spending time with a group of people tends to make someone more likely to believe what that group believes. But I don’t think this is a convincing explanation by itself. After all, I learned everything I knew about tulpas at the beginning from the exact same community, which had mostly the same views then as it does now. The real difference between then and now is the personal experiences I’ve had over that time period. I think it was about four or five months ago that I started to become more convinced Greta was a person. Probably not coincidentally, it was around then that she started to be able to consistently maintain a normal conversation with me.

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