Cheating social fatigue with systemmates

I am quite introverted. Since lately, with good reason, people have been arguing that “introvert” is a very broad classification that leaves out a lot of important information and leads people to incorrectly assume related personality traits, I’ll explain in more detail. I am not generally shy, and I have no trouble at all talking to strangers; in fact, I’m often more willing to approach strangers or make phone calls than some of my extroverted friends. I love conversation, and if I feel comfortable in a social situation and have something to talk about, I can talk my head off. In classes and discussions I’m often one of the top speakers, and I’m not particularly worried about saying something stupid once in a while. On the other hand, I’m more anxious than average about making requests of people I know or asking them to do things with me, and I hate large parties or gatherings. I get overstimulated and tire quickly when I’m interacting with even small groups of other people. And while I can’t be happy without interacting with other people, a couple of hours a day is more than enough, and even before I had Greta I could go three or four days entirely by myself before I started to feel lonely or bored.

(Greta is also introverted, but she is quieter than me and doesn’t seem to have the same problem I do with asking people to do things.)

To give the extroverts an idea of how overstimulation can play out, this Christmas Greta and I went to church for about four hours Christmas Eve, then came home, slept, and got up and went to church again for another two (such is the life of a church musician). Then we hosted a small extended-family gathering for about four hours. After that gathering, I was exhausted, and I ran up and lay in bed for probably fifteen minutes, face down, trying to get as little sensory input as possible, and then Greta and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening playing SimCity. I certainly enjoyed the church services and the gathering, but I couldn’t take any more.

The thing is, when I’m tired of other people, Greta doesn’t seem to count as another person. Even when I was lying in bed and probably would have yelled at anyone who knocked on my door and tried to make me go do something with them, Greta and I talked for a while, and I was happy with that. And I’m not alone among introverts in finding tulpas don’t count as other people for purposes of social fatigue. Why is this?

Well, one answer would be that Greta isn’t another person. But that’s an unimaginative, unsatisfying, and incomplete answer. Regardless of whether tulpas actually are “people” (a question once again resting largely on definitions of tricky words, and one I do hope to take up at some point in the future), it’s obvious that she seems at least partly like one to me and my mind and my thought process. I love her in a different and much deeper way than I could love, say, a doll, and I have conversations with her that lead to new insights in the same way talking with someone in another body would. When we talk even though I’m tired of social interaction, I am saying or thinking words to her and getting other words back, which is the very same process of conversation I would be unhappy about if it were with someone else.

Since asking why Greta doesn’t make me tired wasn’t helpful, let’s turn the question on its head: Why do other people make me tired? This is a complex question that likely has no single answer, but we think that at least for us, a big part of it is that dealing with other people requires us to worry about what they need and want and what they’ll think of the way we present ourselves. In another sweeping generalization, introverts are often supposed to be more empathetic and focused on other people’s feelings and responses, and I think this fits me. That’s why I often have a hard time asking people for things, besides being somewhat sensitive to rejection: I’m great at imagining all the possible ways others could respond poorly, even things like, “Pff, he doesn’t know me well enough to ask that!” or “Why would I want to do that?” And I suspect the focus on others is also part of why I dislike being part of large social groups, or even small ones for extended periods of time: I try to keep track of many things at once for each person, and that gets exhausting quickly.

This also explains why I don’t mind interacting with strangers: I don’t worry much about what they think of me, because I’ll probably never see them again, or if I do we probably won’t remember each other. If they think I’m crazy, no matter, the worst I’ll get is a funny look. But when I’m with people I have more lasting relationships with, I have to be more careful to avoid burning bridges. At every moment I have the potential to do or say something stupid that would change our relationship for the worse and that I could never take back. I don’t know exactly how my grandfather would react if I told him about Greta, for example, but I know him well enough to know he would probably worry about my sanity or at least think I was being very weird. Or have you ever daydreamed about jumping up in a theater and shouting “Fire!”, or yelling some obscenities during a quiet moment in a lecture or church service, or grabbing something fragile in a museum and throwing it across the room? There are so many wrong things that everyone could do at any moment that I find it quite remarkable so few of them ever happen, even given the consequences! While being alone doesn’t eliminate all the stupid things I could do, it means I don’t have to think about many of them, so it’s more relaxing.

So how does Greta differ from most people? Simply put, we don’t need to worry about how we present ourselves to each other. In contrast, even the closest inter-system relationships are filled with concerns of presentation. Nearly half of marriages in the United States, for example, end in divorce. The half who figure out how to live together learn to be careful with each other’s feelings, give in on unimportant things more than they feel they ought to, and not share unflattering comments about each other without thinking about it first. Accomplishing those things requires always considering how you present your thoughts to your spouse. Admittedly, since Greta is young, can’t currently control our body, and is naturally in a weaker position than me, I, like the spouse in a functional inter-system marriage, do take special care to give her input enough weight and avoid being overbearing. But all in all, we don’t really have to worry about presentation. Now and again we say stupid and rude things to each other, but they usually take about ten seconds to smooth over with no lasting harm done: our thoughts weren’t that separate to begin with, and we can feel that the intention was not to hurt. Everyone knows, logically, that their friends’ intention is rarely to hurt, but spoken words don’t convey emotion anywhere near as well as tulpish does, and without being able to feel the emotions of our friends we gloss over their intention and get angry. We get to skip that step with our systemmates.

Similarly, Greta and I don’t need to worry about revealing things about ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden. I don’t think there’s anything we want to keep hidden from each other in the first place, and even if we wanted to I doubt we could manage for long. We feel confident that everything we do or think will be accepted, even if not always immediately and easily, and so the stress is gone but most of the benefits of having a companion remain. It’s almost like cheating.

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