Face-to-face friendships are most frequently built on proximity, shared activities, or life events. Online friendships are similar in that they usually develop around the same three factors and in a way that’s even more intense that it might be in real life. We connect with strangers online who show up in groups that center around interests and activities. Just to name a few, these include new mothers; the newly divorced; military spouses; graduate students in particular programs; weight loss forums; self-help groups for substance abusers; yoga practitioners; or support groups for individuals who suffer from a particular illness. We will be drawn to particular individuals whose stories are similar to our own or whose experience intrigue us. In effect, the shared activities and life events are the point at which our lives first intersect with potential virtual friends; the proximity is often a non-issue, as these friends are as close as our computer or our cellphone! We carry our “support group” in our pockets and our shared interest bonds us even closer. We can obsess about our issues and those of our virtual friends — more than our “face-to-face friends” probably would ever have the patience to allow us to do.
Just like in any type of face-to-face friendship or relationship, there’s a broad spectrum of “relationship quality” among online buddies. Some online friendships are built more on the “projection” of how we would like to be seen by others – and not necessarily how we “actually” appear in real life. We can be our “best self” for virtual interactions in ways that it is difficult to maintain in real life (IRL).
In other online relationships, though, we may actually be much more willing to expose our vulnerabilities and bring candid honesty and genuineness to the relationship. Research shows that it is “safer” to be open and honest about our struggles, deficits, and anxieties with “online buddies” than with people we see on a regular basis. When we share intimate information and reveal information that is less than flattering or even personally damaging to individuals we know only through virtual connections, we don’t have as much shame as we might if we opened up with friends face-to-face. We feel less exposed when we hide behind the keyboard.
Stigmas lose their Power in Virtual Environments
One of the most positive aspects of online communication is the availability of support groups that may not have parallel face-to-face groups in your area. One of the reasons that support groups are so effective in helping people feel hopeful and supported in making changes is the sense that the people in the room have empathy with you as you face whatever struggle has brought you all into the group. Whether it’s substance abuse, depression, grief and loss, overeating, depression, anxiety, etc., not all of your friends would feel comfortable having conversations about these concerns. There’s a huge stigma still attached to these types of issues . . . we worry about being branded “mentally ill” and viewed as “defective” or “less than” when we openly discuss our emotional challenges or behavior/mood issues. This “covert overt” set-up is like the best possible environment for those individuals who feel the need to “tell someone,” but fear how their f-2-f friends/families would react. The fear of shame is a powerful motivator – rather than admit weakness, many people would rather falsely admit strength or being “okay” when they are far from “okay.” Having an online community can provide needed support that may not exist in real life.
Warning: the Seemingly Neediest among Us may be Emotional Vampires Not Truly In Need
There is a broad spectrum between “honestly seeking support” versus “playing for attention.” Sadly, many of the online “attention seekers” are actually suffering from their own compromised emotional well-being. This can motivate some individuals to take advantage of others in order to find the sense of support and belonging that they so desperately need. There is a sense of tragic hopelessness in those people . . . they have not learned the skills necessary to build healthy f-2-f relationships, so they create a personal storyline that is designed to get others to notice them and reach out.
Emotional vampires do exist . . . and when we are in the big wide open web, we are much more likely to come across them than most of us would in real life. We’d also be more likely to recognize that we’re being fleeced in real life than we are online at the start. There are a lot fewer clues and “tells” that we can discover online because of the control that each of us has over the online “projection” we put out there for others to see. When you see the same person sharing the same story repeatedly to new people who join a group, yet they never really exhibit a desire to seek help or follow others’ suggestions for improving their situations, this is one hint that the person is aiming to get attention, not better.
If an online friend starts singling out people for personal chats/messaging and makes people feel uncomfortable, then there is usually a reason the targeted person is feeling discomfort. If someone is asking for money or other resources, but you still don’t know who/where they really are, that’s a sign that something isn’t necessarily what it seems.
When helping professionals are being trained to work with clients, they are reminded that if they get a “funny feeling” when they’re with a particular client or if their gut feeling is that something is more amiss with the client’s well-being than the client is letting on, it’s important for them to trust their instincts. Whenever you’re around someone who makes you feel uneasy . . . online or in person, it’s smart to trust your intuition and put some distance between you and that person. This might be in the form of an online friend who seems to be getting needier by the day or a group member who seems to be taking pleasure in making you feel bad about yourself. When you don’t like the way you feel when interacting with someone, step back and reflect on what you’re feeling and what you feel is going on. No one is as much an expert on your relationship needs as you are. Trust your feelings.
Sometimes, Active Listening is all that you can Provide
Sometimes, what is really needed by an online friend or a face-to-face friend, is an ear to listen (or eyes to read). None of us want to have a friend begin suggesting solutions before we finish telling our story. Proving empathy, naming the emotions that they seem to be feeling – “Wow, it sounds like it tore you up when that happened” or “Geez, you really got ticked off when he did that” – lets friends know that you really get them. A lot of times, if you try to push solutions, they won’t be ready to hear your suggestions or will counter with the frequently heard, “Yeah, but . . .” and give reasons why the solutions you’re suggesting won’t work. Most of the immediate solutions we offer are ones that our friends already know – they don’t want someone to necessarily fix their problem, they just want to know that someone cares.
Do Emoticons and Gifs make the Pain Easier to Bear?
Well, for some people, those gifs are like gold . . . the virtual world and its emoticons, hashtags, gifs, and liking/loving check-ins have combined to create something akin to a tangible “economy of feelings” and “economy of popularity.” When people engage in the practice of “vague-booking” call-outs (sending out a generic, “I can’t believe anyone would actually do that to me . . .” and not give details), they are sending out a desperate plea to get their friends to contradict or defend their worth. Things like, “Who did WHAT to you? I’ll give’em a piece of my mind” is what they want to see posted back.
If someone posts that they gave in on their diet and wolfed down a whole chocolate pie or lost some other personal battle, they “want” the group to respond in some way. For them, the virtual hugs do “help” in that they feel that they have the support of their online support system.
Not surprisingly, if someone is “playing a group” for attention, giving them all those virtual hugs may be reinforcing a tragically pathetic habit. However, for those friends who seldom ask for pity or infrequently share their heartaches/losses online, the truly heartfelt “praying hands” emoticon might actually have some value. It’s also true that there are individuals who feel “left out” if they neglect to send virtual hugs to someone and everyone else in their group of friends had done so. They may experience the same type of feeling that you get when you’re left off an invitation list.
If you’re the kind of person who would still send greeting cards in the mail, those virtual “love-ins” might make sense. If you’d rather send a handwritten note or make a phone call, skip the “virtual hugs” and do what feels more genuine for who you are.
Do Online Platforms feed Narcissism?
If a person is consistently begging to be noticed by obsessing about the same things, telling her story repeatedly until people feel that they feel that they can’t listen to it one more time, or when they start harassing people for more attention, donations, etc., these may be symptoms of narcissism or histrionics. If a friend doesn’t give as much as she takes, in terms of support, and she’s been called on her failure to give others what she asks for herself, it’s likely there’s a sense of power and control (narcissistic tendencies) that she are getting from the group. Narcissists are masters at working crowds and getting others to feed her hunger for attention and support.
Signs of a toxic relationship – there’s no balance between what is asked and what is given – attention, support, etc. An online friend who wants to co-opt your time through private chats, calls, “demands” for more attention, and so on are often veering into toxic expectations.
Compassion Fatigue can Result from 24/7 Support Demands
When you spend too much time at the screen and you are immersed in the stories of individuals who have created a “community-in-crisis,” so to speak, you can exhaust your ability to feel much of anything – even compassion.
If you’re always being “needed,” whether in-person or virtually, it can quickly become overwhelming and you may begin to feel that you have had all the “kindness and compassion” sucked out of you. No one can keep on giving to a group of “emotionally hungry” friends and not need time to get their own need for support fulfilled. Even the most open-hearted, selfless person can lose perspective and get sucked into needy people’s endless neediness.
You must Support yourself if you continue to Support Others
When you feel that you just can’t log into the group/open an email/read a text/etc. listen to your gut instinct and don’t do the thing you feel you don’t have the emotional energy to do! If your body is exhausted, you wouldn’t dream of running a 10K. We need to learn how to check our own emotional temperature – not bend to others’ needs when we know it’s not in our own best interest. Friendship are truly supposed to be mutually rewarding and nurturing. If you’re doing all the giving, that’s not a true friendship – it’s an unhealthy and unbalanced attachment.
Look for the Exit Sign in a One-Way Relationship
It’s time to exist a relationship when it feels like it’s become a one-way relationship. When you feel that your investment in a friend’s well-being is more significant than the investment she has in you and the balance hasn’t shifted in quite some time or when you realize that you are avoiding responding to her, it’s time to take stock.
In friendships, the balance between who is giving or receiving more generally shifts over time. However, most everyone tends to keep a mental scoreboard of how often our needs are met and how often we meet the needs of a friend when a friendship is first developing. However, in quality relationships that go deeper than surface level, we tend to forget completely about the tally of “friendship investments,” because we’re focused on the depth and meaning, not the measure, of the relationship. However, if the mental scoreboard has become a flashing neon sign in your mind, it’s a sign that you need to take a break from the friendship and spend your emotional and relational energy somewhere else.