Rules

When I revisited the Myers-Briggs personality typing through the perspective of the cognitive functions, I changed my high school-era typing of INFP to INTP for the strong resonance I felt with the Ti function. To completely gloss over its intricacies, it’s the idea that Ti users interpret the world by maintaining internal logical consistencies — a set of concrete rules governs everything, and new information constantly amends or adjusts these rules.

I like when things have discernible rules. For that reason, I always liked math class. As an example, here’s a rule I learned early on in elementary school:

You can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number

A few years pass, and, oh? You can do that? Well, then, we’ll have to change the rules.

You can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, or you will get a negative number

And then whole new sets of rules were developed for negative numbers, and then I made new rules when we had to include variables in our equations, and the set of rules grows so complicated as I advance through calculus and linear algebra and advanced statistics and…

But it’s all still a set of rules in the end. I learned them little by little, and now it’s intuitive. Sometimes I know something doesn’t follow the rules without explicitly knowing what rule is being broken. The same goes for grammar —

The subjunctive form of “to be” is “were” for I and she

— for mechanics —

A semicolon separates two complete sentences; it can also be used to separate a list of items when a comma must be used within an item in the list, for clarity

— and, oh yes, for programming. The rules for programming are so sterile, so exact, so observable and obtainable and discrete. The logic may be esoteric, but there is a defined logic to it. Computer science is so much more delicious than any of the physical sciences. We discover new rules in physical sciences; we ascribe our own logic to it to try to comprehend it. Computer science, on the other hand, is built by our own logic.

This way of thinking is fine for those types of systems. There are lots of scenarios where my need to study a field and understand how its rules interplay is a bit detrimental. For example, driving a car.

Come to a full stop at a stop sign and look both ways before proceeding

Driving literally has a written set of rules — perhaps known better as “laws” — and I certainly studied those before ever setting foot in the driver’s seat of an automobile, but there’s so much of it that can only be learned through practice.

You can safely turn right in front of an oncoming car onto Marlkress Road if they haven’t yet passed the woods surrounding the playground

In all things, I want to know the full set of rules before I engage in an activity. I’ll read the rules cover-to-cover for a board game before playing. I’ll read the full set of instructions for how to put something together before I touch the pieces, and I probably did a lot of Googling on how to do it before I even got the box with the pieces in it. Driving doesn’t afford that luxury. It’s a learn-by-doing activity, which I’m usually fine with, but only when it doesn’t involve putting physical safety on the line.

Nobody actually yields at the yield signs before on-ramps onto major highways because you have to build up too much speed, except maybe that one asshole who honked at me today because he thought I didn’t see him Jesus Fuck it’s called merging I saw you clear as day you ignorant black 2016 Honda Civic

It’s taken me seven years since turning sixteen to get on the roads with that much confidence. I still hate driving places I’ve never been before.

Something even less exact, but that I still try to build a set of rules for, is social interaction.

When meeting someone, say, “Hello”

There are some rules that are simple, where this works. We have a lot of formulaic conversations.

If someone says, “Thank you,” the response is, “You’re welcome”

Well, what’s the use of these rules? What happens when one is broken?

I have vivid memories of being a stubborn toddler at my grandmother’s house where we were told we could only have a lollipop if we followed the above rule, and requested it with a polite “please”. Out of curiosity, I pushed back. I refused.

I did not get a lollipop.

Some people have power over others

For better or for worse, I have been reducing all interpersonal conversations to a set of rules to which I am still adding new findings, or highlighting forgotten passages. As someone who self-identifies as an INTP and has at least never questioned the “I” bit — for introvert — social interaction has never come easily to me, so I guess this was the best way I could make sense of it.

If someone asks, “How are you?” the response is, “I’m good, thanks; how are you?”

Where my system falls apart is in sequences like this, where I’m less a polite human and more the man in the Chinese room.

For those of you who haven’t played my favorite video game series of all time, Zero Escape — or just don’t know about this particular thought experiment as a metaphor for the limitations of artificial intelligence — the Chinese room is the proposition that, if you stick a person in a room filled with Chinese phrasebooks and dictionaries, they can simulate the understanding of Chinese, if all communication is carried out by exchanging written messages through a slot in the door. The person might not know a lick of Chinese in actuality, but by following the instructions in the book, they respond as they’re supposed to.

When I say, “I’m good, thanks; how are you?” it’s not the truth. I’ve been having a spike of anxiety within the past couple of weeks, and I’m struggling with thoughts of self-harm more often this past month than I have in a long while. My blood pressure tanked sometime in the past few years until I literally blacked out in the middle of exercising in mid-April, and now I’m constantly noticing how disturbingly often I get head rushes and lose my vision when I stand up or laugh too hard. I’m a closeted transmasculine person who wants so badly to be out, and the shes and ma’ams and misses are starting to hurt. I am not good. I’m having a lot of trouble.

But the answer in this formula is, “I’m good, thanks; how are you?” so that’s what I say.

I choose this question-response pair mostly because it’s a classic example. Most people say they’re doing well even if they’re not, because it’s just polite, unless maybe it’s with a close friend. I figured out I was supposed to do it like this because of another rule I absorbed sometime in high school, maybe in a bad way.

People don’t really care that much about your life, especially if it’s negative

(Incidentally, why I haven’t come out as trans.)

At the time I picked up on this little devil of a rule, it was actually a breakthrough. Around fifth grade, I found out that people gossiped about each other, especially girls, and they loved to gossip about awkward people. Keep in mind that, in fifth grade, I was not only a young person building my understanding of social interaction as if writing a rulebook, but also I was a trans boy expected to assimilate with girls. Awkward was a pre-existing condition on my bill of mental health.

So I did all I could to learn new rules as quickly as I could, because I wanted to be liked. And it worked! I saw what traits I displayed that made others admire me, and I developed those.

Intelligence is a good trait, but only if you aren’t a snob about it

I thought I was hot shit. (Honestly? I was hot shit. You were right, middle school me. Right on.)

Being talented at hobbies is a good trait, but only if you don’t brag about it

But there was a rule against that, one underlying all of my juvenile understanding of the rules.

I liked myself a lot! I thought I liked myself too much. Even if I never said anything about it, I thought it was bad that, deep down, I had all these feelings about how much better I thought I was than anybody else. That wasn’t a nice thing to think.

Being nice is a good trait

I wanted to be admired. I wanted everybody to know about all the cool things I was doing, the good grades I was getting, the stories I was writing, the drawings I was making, the music I was playing. I imagined people thinking about me, about how cool I was as I was walking into the music room, as I was typing away at my fantasy novel during my free time, every waking moment of my life. And then I had the breakthrough that, since I wasn’t watching other people that closely, no one else was watching me, either.

People don’t really care that much about your life

And that’s how I stopped thinking so highly of myself. This morning, I had a moment of respite from climbing anxiety when I entertained the sudden thought of my body being sliced in two by a giant pair of gardening shears.

Where did my life go so wrong?

People, especially girls, gossip about other people, especially awkward people

I learned that lesson from a dear childhood friend whom I’ll call V.

It was the summer before fifth grade, and she pointed it all out to me clear as day. I would refer to it in years to come as the moment I felt I “woke up”: when I was no longer just a passive rider in my life, when I started to reflect on it, to first form the crude approximations of opinions about events.

She said there were some people who just “didn’t get it”. They were immature. She was more mature than they, and she wanted to surround herself with more mature people.

To this day, I have no idea how she thought I was one of the more mature ones. I think it was just because we had been best friends since first grade, and I had always been rather agreeable, which was pleasing to her personality type. But more on that later.

I looked over her shoulder at every step to see what she was doing. The cool, mature girls carried pocketbooks, and inside was their makeup. Okay, I need to get a pocketbook and makeup.

(I didn’t realize that V and the cool girls had Gucci and Elizabeth Arden, while I had glittery garbage from Target.)

I had another dear, dear friend who was waking up and starting to form opinions around the same time. She formed a type of opinion common to children having reached that level of emotional maturity. She saw that I was changing my behavior, and she decided she did not like this change. So she told me she did not want to be friends anymore, and she told her friend not to be friends with me, either.

Being inauthentic to win the approval of others may cause you to lose the approval of those you truly care about

Watch out for this rule, because you’ll catch me breaking it again over the next few minutes of reading. Maybe that’s because this wasn’t really the conclusion I drew from the incident. Maybe the real lesson I learned is the reason I’m trans now.

Wearing makeup and carrying pocketbooks is a bad trait?

The feminine phase ended pretty swiftly, and after it had passed she asked if we could be friends again. We made up, on my terms, a few months later. Fifth grade was a dramatic year.

So I won approval from others in authentic ways, and it worked, and I liked myself, allegedly too much, so I cut myself down with some negativity. More broadly than that, I was vastly expanding this social rulebook because of what V had opened my eyes to.

And I was always looking over her shoulder to see what rules were next.

One morning before school, a girl was crying because last night her older sister ran away from home and nobody knew where she was. V looked at me angrily. “Aren’t you upset?!” she yelled. “You have an older sister, too! How would you feel?!”

Use facial expressions to convey empathy when someone else is talking

“Did you make it a coffin?” she said when I told her the reason I was so distant that day was because my hamster had just died. “Did you bury it with flowers? Why not? You should have made it a little coffin.”

Only talk about personal matters with people who are sympathetic or you might end up just feeling worse

“I hate her,” V said (I paraphrase) of many girls in private. “She’s stupid, fat, and ugly.”

Being stupid is a bad trait
Being fat is a bad trait
Being ugly is a bad trait

In high school, I became more withdrawn, and she dealt with the pressure in her own way. She was constantly outdoing herself with outlandish things she would do and say in public, overreacting to the slightest inconveniences (I always dismissed this as just “drama”), and having heart-to-heart conversations with me where she said she wasn’t really sure who this bubbly social persona was.

One day we were friends, the next day I cancelled a plan and she decided that was the last straw. She refused to speak to me after that final phone call.

I had learned everything I knew about social interaction from V. I copied her moves when I had no other guide. So when she pulled the rug out from under me, it destroyed me.

I can trace the start of my adult anxiety back to that event. In every moment, I was now monitoring myself. Is this something I did to hurt her? Is this a rule I haven’t yet learned?

My brain kind of imploded to fill in the perceived gaps in my knowledge and decided that in every moment henceforth, there’s probably a rule I’m breaking. What’s the rule? Don’t know. But I broke it, and the other people who were with me all know it, and they’re judging me now.

I’ve already told you which rule you would catch me breaking, but I haven’t told enough of the story to make it obvious I was breaking it all along. That’s because to me, it was normal background noise. I was treating her the same way I would treat myself.

V was the primary source of my social information from when we first met in first grade to when we moved from elementary to middle school and she expanded our social network. With the increase in friendships came a number of new perspectives. From there I started to see where V was fallible, where the other girls — impossible as it would have seemed in elementary school, when she was brilliant, cunning, talented, and assertive — began to make fun of her for her own flaws. She was too loud, too overbearing, too much of a drama queen.

And so maybe she continued to be my primary source of information, albeit in a passive way.

A louder presence is a bigger target for hatred and ridicule

This was where I began to make the biggest mistake of my life. Not only for my own personality, which I have carefully contained in a tiny picture frame for palatable presentment to others, but also — and more tragically — for hers. It is a habit I fell into that I still feel myself slipping into when I get too familiar with someone and they let me close enough to see their little quirks and imperfections.

I tried to make her follow my rules — most prominently, this rule I still impose on myself, the twisted mutation of logic that I still have to follow because I still want to follow it, even if it’s wrong:

Be small

When she was loud, I quieted her. When she wanted to raise trouble, I made her stop. When she had a breakdown, I told her to let it go. Being loud may make you heard, but maybe you weren’t heard because no one wanted to listen to you in the first place, so what’s the point of raising your voice?

People don’t really care that much about your life, especially if it’s negative

Instinctively I try to get others to follow my rules, thinking I’m helping them. But my priority is and has always been to be liked by other people. Objectively speaking, that’s certainly not everyone’s priority, and subjectively speaking as someone for whom it is their priority, that’s a shitty priority, anyway.

Because of this line of logic I pushed onto myself, I stopped liking myself in high school. V, on the other hand, had this logic forced onto her externally, by someone she considered to be her best friend no less, so she was even worse off.

She once said she stopped singing because of me.

I found out later V was raped by her boyfriend in tenth grade, and it had driven her to self-harm and suicide attempts. She came to me a few months after our first falling-out because she wanted to pursue legal action against him and she needed support. Because even if I was the shittiest support she had ever had in her life, I had also been there for her for ten years. There, as in passively standing by at best, and actively pressing weight down on her at worst.

We had another breakup, just as sudden as the last. She asked me to turn my cell phone on more often, I said she couldn’t expect me to instantly reply to her every message, she said I drove her to drink bleach, and we never spoke again.

Being inauthentic to win the approval of others may cause you to lose the approval of those you truly care about

I’m pretty sure I know where I went wrong with V now. In addition to the pressure I put on her, I couldn’t be emotionally present for her when she needed me because of my own budding depression. I had learned early on that humor was a desirable trait, but it wasn’t until after our falling out that I amended the rule to make sure I never made other people the butt of my jokes. I reread our old messages and now I see the lines between her drama and her cries for help, help that I couldn’t give, but that a therapist could, and I should have directed her there, kindly, firmly, repeatedly, maybe to her parents. The past runs together and I didn’t record enough of it to know what other mistakes I made, but I know those were the biggest. I follow the new rulebook. I’m a better person now.

Despite all that, my brain’s still broken.

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