When Online Friendships Cause Distress

Is it time to "log out" of a friendship?

Posted Sep 20, 2017

It’s not uncommon for people to establish friendships with individuals who “show up” in online and virtual settings. There are virtual support groups, listservs, chat groups, etc. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be totally honest or upfront in their online communications as you might want them to be.

The online platform provides a place where we can create a persona that projects the qualities that we only wish we had. Some of us might show our best self to people who we probably will never meet in public. We can be kind, caring, supportive, and a million other positive, pro-social traits, so long as we only have to “present good” for limited amounts of time.

Other people might project a needy persona—someone who is facing significant life challenges and needs all the “virtual hugging” and “praying hands” they can get. They share tales of heartache and misfortune that are designed to wring your heart and perhaps even encourage monetary donations to help them ease their plights.

Then there are the people who use the internet as a way to let down their guard and show themselves in the most honest way possible. They may actually be much more likely to expose their vulnerabilities and bring candid honesty and genuineness to the relationships they create. Research shows that it’s “safer” to be open and honest about our struggles, deficits, and anxieties with “online buddies” that we are unlikely to ever meet than people we will interact with the face-to-face world. We tend to feel less exposed when we hide behind the keyboard.

And, just like in any type of relationship, there’s a broad spectrum of “friendship quality” among online buddies. Depending on the identity of the “virtual friend,” you may be building relationships that are closer than those you have with real-time friends—or building fantasy-grade relationships with people who are not truly anything like the person that they have created online.

Why do we open up to strangers about the most personal issues?

It’s surprising how freely people will communicate about mental health, physical health, or relational health issues online compared to what they might share with a face-to-face friend or family member—whether it’s depression, panic disorder, eating disorders, or sexually transmitted diseases. There’s a huge stigma still attached to these types of issues, especially mental health-wise. 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.

The “covert overt” online support group set-up may be the best possible environment for those individuals who feel the need to “tell someone,” but fear how their face-to-face 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 “OK” when they are far from “OK.”

Can you ever disclose “too much”?

People today publicly broadcast a great deal of intimate information which suggests that there is almost nothing too personal or private to share with the masses. Yet the things that matter most to us, or the things that we feel the most protective of, are perhaps topics that we should be careful in addressing in public spaces. Once we put something out into the virtual world, it takes on a permanence that is almost impossible to undo. Recognizing that a photo posted online has an indefinite shelf life should encourage us to think about the power we give up when we give up all our secrets.

“Virtual Friends” who are toxic nightmares

Many people make "friends" through online support groups, but there is definitely a broad spectrum between “honestly seeking support” versus “playing for attention.” Many “attention seekers” suffer from compromised emotional well-being and, as a result, feel the need to take advantage of others in order to find the sense of support and belonging that they so desperately crave. There is a sense of tragic hopelessness in some people...they have not learned the skills necessary to build healthy face-to-face 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 we might 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” online, at least in the early stages of a relationship, because of the control that each of us has over our online “projection.” When you see someone repeating the same story repeatedly to new people who join a group, yet who never really want to seek help or follow others’ suggestions for improving their situations, that is one hint that the person is aiming to get attention, not better.

If an online friend singles you out for personal chats/messaging and leaves you feeling uncomfortable, there is usually a reason you're feeling that 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 as it seems.

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, whether it’s 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 gut.

Vague-booking and attention-seeking

Some people haunt the online support and chat room hungry for affection, acceptance, or attention. For some people, every “praying hands” or “virtual hug” is like gold. The world of IM’ing, “Liking/Loving,” etc. has given rise to a new and almost tangible “economy of feelings” and “economy of popularity.” When people send out a generic vague-booking call for attention, such as “I can’t believe anyone would actually do that to me ...” without any 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” or "They don't recognize your true worth" is what they want to see posted back.

In a way, if someone is “playing a group” for attention, giving them all those virtual hugs may be reinforcing a bad habit. But for those friends who seldom ask for pity or share the heartaches/losses online, the truly heartfelt “praying hands” emoticon might actually have some value. 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.

If a person is consistently begging to be noticed by the group and continuously obsesses about the same things, telling her story repeatedly until people feel that they can’t listen another time, or if she starts harassing people for more attention, donations, etc, she may be the "toxic friend" you need to let go. If someone doesn't give as much as he gets, in terms of support, and he's been called for the failure to give others what he's asking for himself, there may be a sense of power and control (narcissistic tendencies) that is being fed by the group.

Some relatively sure signs of a toxic relationship include a persistent lack of 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.

When is it time to back away?

If you’re always being “needed,” whether in-person or virtually, it can quickly become overwhelming and you 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 have their own need for support fulfilled. Even the most open-hearted, selfless person can lose perspective and get sucked into needy people’s insatiable neediness.

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 you are physically exhausted, you wouldn’t dream of running a 10K. We need to learn how to check our own emotional temperature and make decisions accordingly. Don't bend to others’ needs when it’s not in your best interest. Friendship is meant 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.

Log out when ...

You feel that your investment in a friend’s well-being is bigger than the investment she has in your own, or when you realize that you are avoiding responding to her, it’s time to take stock. Once you realize that the relationship has become a one-way relationship, it's time to address the imbalance or take a break.

If you would like to share a little bit about how you handle face-to-face and online friendships, please complete this survey.