still thinking, still learning, still trying to understand

This post more or less picks up where my last post left off, with some of the thoughts over the last year or so.

To start, i’ll set the scene with a relevant quote from that post:

I don’t think i’ve ever had a really solid “sense of self”. There have been incidental things that i’ve attributed to my personality, like “a warm demeanor” or “a go-with-the-flow mentality”, but nothing that i’ve synthesized into a “whole person” that i can point to when i want to point to “me”.

[footnote attached to the preceding paragraph:]

An important thing to note is that this didn’t change or go away when i started taking HRT or transitioning! Trans people experience depersonalization more often than cis people, but usually, medically or socially transitioning is an effective treatment for trans-related depersonalization. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for me. That lack of clarity on my self-image after taking hormones or “living full-time” has created a sort of “gender impostor syndrome”, so to speak, where i compare the common narrative of “strongly feeling trans” or “lifting the veil shortly after taking hormones” against my experience, and feel like i’m “doing it wrong” somehow.

While it certainly hasn’t been the only thing going on in therapy (sometimes things just happen in my life and that conversation takes up the time slot), there’s definitely been a lot of time spent thinking and talking about personal identity in the year+ since the events of the last post.

A therapy approach my therapist picked up early on that we returned to periodically is the concept of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of the self. The idea here is that people can generally pick apart their mind into a set of “parts” that each contribute some certain cluster of reactions, thought patterns, or the like. The IFS model also posits a “core Self” layered underneath the “parts”, but i still had trouble connecting with that idea as such. Still, it was a useful model to build up over time.

Two major players in the parts-model that came out were “the logician” and “the storyteller”. “The Logician” was drawn to breaking things down logically, seeing the chain of cause-and-effect, and generally understanding how things work in a mechanical way. In other words, it’s the part that’s so freaking interested in code. “The Storyteller”, on the other hand, is much less interested in the mundane. Instead, it loves to find fanciful metaphors to dress everything in, or ways to connect things into a fantastic story. It sometimes shows up as a desire to speak in a overly formalized tone, or turning existing concepts into gateways for magical thinking. A good example of this is this old Twitter thread where i described common traits in Rust using silly or abstract metaphors.

During one session, we were talking about how “the storyteller” seemed to have created a situation where i could imagine a hypothetical future but not be able to take the initiative to put it into action. All the situations it seemed to dream up were dressed in a veil of impossibility - if most of my daydreams at some point are magical thinking wanting to get out of my mundane life, i start to think of even the reasonable daydreams as impossible, as well.

At some point, my therapist went out on a limb and asked, “are you willing to bring the storyteller forward, and show them the world in front of you?” The idea here was to talk to the “part” that was creating these daydreams, and connect them with “reality” in the hope that i could stop seeing every daydream as impossible.

I paused for a moment. “I think so.” It took me a second to shift from the model of “these parts are representations of the way i think” to “these parts can be addressed individually”, but after some time, i was able to connect with “the storyteller” in a way that let me continue with the exercise.

What happened next was jarring. I started to fill with dread - “this was supposed to be a story! it wasn’t supposed to be real!” I had thought i was investigating the rationale behind a thought process, but the resulting emotion was so visceral that it caught me off-guard.

The moment passed quickly, but the experience shook me. I had enough time left in that session to debrief somewhat, and the ensuing conversation kicked off a lot of introspection and research.

For the next several weeks, i spent a lot of time inside my own head, and reading some information my therapist had given me. I started to lurk in a new community, to pick up some new jargon and see some new experiences.

Over time, i started to look at myself in a new light. It was somewhat refreshing to have a new model that i could use as a jumping-off point into a totally different way to view the way i interact with the world. There was perhaps a bit of nostalgia to it, too; a few people in the new community i started lurking in had set up personal sites on places like Neocities or Dreamwidth, echoing earlier days in the internet where people would set up on those sites’ predecessors, Geocities and LiveJournal.

Another aspect that kicked up some nostalgia was the way that it allowed me to “tell a different story” about myself (if you’ll pardon the pun). This means more than just what i said earlier, though; as a kid i had a habit of creating a kind of character to role-play on the internet, as part of that “magical escapism fantasy”. As i found myself sliding back into that mode again, i started to worry i was going in too deep - if this was supposed to be my “model of self”, what does it mean if it includes that fantasy?

I also had a lot of self-doubt about whether even the less-magical version of the model fit me at all. Much like when i was first trying to figure out the “trans experience”, it was easy to find the exaggerated or sensationalized version of things. Then, as now, i was put off by not being able to relate to the extremes.

Over time, though, i settled into a version that fits. Even if the concept and terminology i land on don’t 100% describe my personal experience, it’s still fine if they provide a decent-enough model that i can use to describe what’s going on. And if i “go off the deep end” and find something fantastic or magical that also works, that’s also fine! The ultimate idea doesn’t have to make sense to everyone, as long as it makes sense to me. I’m already so far off the beaten track of “well-understood experience” with being trans, being autistic, and experiencing derealization, that going any further just means that “some people won’t understand me”, which is already true! I just need the vocabulary to understand what’s happening, in my own words.

With the aftermath in mind, i want to return to the earlier anecdote; there’s an important part i left out that happened right at the end. The “ensuing conversation” involved me saying something along the lines of “fronting with the storyteller was a new experience”. My therapist picked up on the specific use of “fronting”; it’s a term of art in a particular community, and they knew it. They encouraged me to see if there was a deeper connection going on, which led to the aforementioned soul-searching, and ultimately this post.

…so it turns out i’m plural.

More accurately, “i” am the “host” member of a plural system, simultaneously ignoring yet taking input from my fellow system members for… i don’t even know how long?

So let’s revisit the previous section, and approach it from this angle. Shortly after that therapy session where i “brought the storyteller forward”, i tried to connect with that “part” as if it were a fully-fledged “headmate”. Whoever it was, they had obviously had a big influence on my life, and i wanted to approach them on their own terms. It took some effort to understand how to communicate with someone who lives in your own head, but over time “the storyteller” came forward with a proper name and pronouns.

I went back and forth not being sure if i was making everything up or not. The popularized pathology of plural systems involves some amount of consciousness switching, where you “lose some time” as a different member takes over, right? How could i fit that if i don’t feel like i’ve lost any time like that?

In the end, i learned about “median” systems, and the idea of “co-consciousness”, where system members aren’t 100% separate from each other, or share memories and sensory experiences, respectively. It was extremely helpful to understand that there was a gradient of plurality, and that many systems reject the “popular understanding” as reductive. (Kind of like the “popular understanding” of trans people, heh.)

Most importantly, it turned out that i stopped struggling with the question of “who am i” once this came to light. This was both because i had much more interesting things to think about, and also because i could meaningfully break up parts of my experience into a model that made way more sense than the “core Self” of IFS.

Let me rewind for a second. The world of plurality has so many specialized terms that every introductory post comes with its own glossary. In lieu of writing yet another “systems 101” style introduction, i’ll instead link to a handful of resources before going on. You don’t need to go through them all end-to-end to continue, but if you’re curious, there’s a lot of information you can read.

The story is far from over. As the title of this post implies, there is still a lot to learn. But i’m very happy that i can work together to create a shared understanding about the inside of our head.

So what does this mean for people who need to interact with us now? I’ll call out some important points in a sort of question-and-answer style:

so do i have to start calling you something different based on who’s in control at a given time?

Not really; in fact if you’re unsure, i’d ask that you keep calling us victoria. We have individual names and a system title, but i’m uncomfortable asking everyone to follow that convention, to be honest. Also, “i” am usually “in front” most of the time anyway, so the question is moot in this specific situation. (Individual systems may vary; don’t take this as general advice for plural systems in general!)

can i ask you a billion questions about systems stuff?

Oh god please no. For one, it’s like trans stuff - a lot of it is pretty sensitive, and for us personally i probably won’t have an easy answer - like i said, we’re still figuring everything out. But also, there is a truckload of information about plural stuff online; the links above are a good starting point.

why are you still using “i” all the time here?

Habit, and also to keep the voice of the “quiet misdreavus”-branded blogs consistent. Even in purely-systems-focused areas, though, i tend to use “i” a lot because of the specific situation of one member being in front most of the time, and generally being unsure if other members are around for a given experience at any given time. I switch around for whenever it feels right. /shrug

are you going to post about plural stuff on twitter a lot now?

Not on my main @QuietMisdreavus account. It has a voice of its own at this point, and i don’t feel like compromising that. I’ve registered accounts on Twitter and Mastodon to talk about systems stuff; if you follow those links you can see another site we set up to talk about our experience from the in-community/jargon-filled perspective. I’ve been using the Mastodon account as a center for experimentation, but i registered the Twitter account recently in preparation to follow more systems that use Twitter more. Pick whichever suits you.

I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for a while now. If you made it this far and haven’t either unfollowed/blocked me or posted something rude in reply, i want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart. The plural experience is so stigmatized that it’s really hard to find acceptance in the world. I’m hopeful that i can continue to find a positive experience in my little corner of the internet, even if the way i interact with it changes a bit.

  1. Note that the use of “people” here is somewhat problematic, since members of a plural system are generally just as much “people” as the singlets that surround them. I hope it makes for a decent enough shorthand without turning this post into a glossary, itself.