Whenever people talk about the loneliness epidemic, I can’t help but nod my head in agreement. For people who know me, that may seem odd because I’m constantly surrounded by friends and loved ones. But loneliness is felt in the soul rather than in physical space. I guess that’s why there’s the idea of soulmates. In fact, sometimes I feel even more lonely when I have friends but no one I feel like I can really talk to.
I’ve been exploring ways to build safe spaces online where we can be vulnerable when a friend shared this:
I’ve been looking for someone else to be vulnerable to because it’s not been helping my relationship with my girlfriend. The problem is that people form an impression of you with every interaction. If you have a lot of these vulnerable, messy, incoherent interactions, then they will look at you in a way you may not want. Even my girlfriend who has seen me as a sharp communicator gets too much of the rambling thoughts when I have to work out something big, and I can feel her perspective of me shift.
What a powerful observation. Most of the time it feels like all I have is “vulnerable, messy, incoherent” thoughts, and I want to work them out without repercussions.
Most people would assume that this is the job of our strongest relationships — our close friends and loved ones. After all, we always talk about “unconditional love.” However, the sad reality is that love is more conditional than we’d like to believe. Even when we truly love someone, we can’t help but adjust our picture of that person if we are on the receiving end of too much vulnerability. We all know how capable our brains are at betraying us.
I used to think that the longer you’ve known someone and the more time you spend together, the stronger the relationship is. But I find myself opening up more to new friends than I am able to with some of my best friends. I think the reason is that as relationships age, we start to find the right level of vulnerable we can be with each other because we know more about each other and the stakes are high.
If we think a loved one will be too affected emotionally, we may choose to protect him from hearing what we have to say, even if that’s just us being presumptuous. If we think a best friend will change how she perceives us or just won’t “get it,” we may not reveal what we are really thinking, even if that’s just our insecurities talking. If we’ve known each other since we were kids, but we’ve never shared career-related problems with each other, then it’s risky to introduce that topic now for fear of changing the nature of the relationship. The point is that relationships become brittle over time, and the context more or less becomes fixed.
Vulnerability and relationships
Let’s take a step back and think about how relationships are formed in the first place. Vulnerability is how we build relationships because sharing is cathartic. When we put our true selves out there, we are violating our survival instincts. We could easily be exposed as weak or a fraud or a bad person. But when instead of punishment or ostracism, we receive love and validation, that feels like we just got away with something. That’s when a bond is formed with the person. You’re both on the inside of a thing called a relationship.
We had an easier time making friends when we were younger because young people are vulnerable by default. We were not expected to always know what we were doing, and when we made mistakes, so did our friends. Seeing each other mess up brings us together because we validate each other’s vulnerabilities just by existing.
But as soon as we begin the process of “adulting,” society stops giving us breaks for messing up. We have to put on our grown-up clothes because the stakes are higher, and the same grown-up clothes make us afraid of laying ourselves bare like before. We start to judge others more harshly because it’s only fair that no one else catches a break if we don’t catch one ourselves. Making friends is hard as a grown-up because we can’t let anyone see our messed up selves.
What we need may not even be “friends,” at least not in the conventional sense of the word, but just opportunities to work ourselves out.
“Single-serving friends” and safe spaces
If what we’re looking for is not necessarily “friends,” then what is it? I think our ability to address this basic human need hinges on articulating the answer to this question. My answer is something like — we need opportunities to feel the catharsis when we expose our messy selves and walk away with no repercussions.
The movie Fight Club’s idea of a “single-serving friend” that you meet on the airplane is interesting because the ephemerality of the relationship means that the interaction begins as a clean slate and there is no assumption of a relationship after. You can be your full self or you can be someone else. It doesn’t matter because no meaning will be assigned to it.
But that’s different from, for example, anonymous forums on the Internet. When you are anonymous, you can say whatever you want, but are you really being seen? Your post could go viral, but the throwaway account will never be traced back to you, so did you actually get away with anything? If you are not seen, then there’s no catharsis. Additionally, anonymous forums are notoriously unsafe because they lead to attacks from others also hiding behind their keyboards.
Since this is a very basic human need, we’ve come up with a variety of ways to address it. “Single-serving friends” is just one (admittedly clickbait-y) way to get at it. For example, if you can afford to, you can pay a therapist to help you. Most people I know who go to therapy don’t really have a “condition.” They’re simply paying to bare themselves in a safe space and work themselves out. You can also attend something like Burning Man where the spirit, environment and costumes make you feel semi-seen yet safe (I’ve never been but that’s what I hear). If you can’t afford very much, generations of Internet entrepreneurs have attempted to create digital safe spaces. In the past we had AOL chatrooms, Tagged, Habbo Hotel, Second Life, then we had Omegle, Kik, reddit, lots of social gaming, and now we have Friended (Disclosure: I’m an advisor), 7 Cups, Wisdo, and the list goes on. Most of these spaces end up becoming cesspools because of the anonymity and ephemerality. Some find revenue opportunities in dating or therapy, but then alienate the majority of users who are looking for connections but not under those labels.
We’re nowhere close to solving this problem and I don’t have the answers, but the parameters is probably something along the lines of a safe space where we can be our true selves, be seen and validated.
Maybe “single-serving” anything is just not what we want long-term. I wonder how much of that is our social wirings, and how much is just human nature. Our society would say that the idea of going to a support group is to get better so we can get out and get back into our grown-up clothes. Our society would suggest that after hooking up with different people on Tinder, you should lock one down and “upgrade” to a more meaningful relationship because single-serving can’t be nearly as meaningful. But is that true? Or maybe some of it is just human nature. After chatting with strangers online for a while, you may want to become actual friends with a few of them because it’s natural to want to progress. Either way, when “single-serving” gets upgraded to a relationship, the context changes, the stakes get higher, and once you ride out the “honeymoon” high you end up with the same problems all over again.
I think “single-serving” and safe spaces are underrated and worth highlighting. I’m sure we’ll continue to see products and services that try to create safe spaces for us to be ourselves or create single-serving opportunities, even imbuing those single-serving relationships with the same level of significance as our traditional relationships. Reflecting on my own life, I’m fortunate to have a few relationships that are as close to unconditional as it gets, and I strive to offer that to others. Finally, I just finished reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and here’s a relevant quote.
The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.
We’re all on a quest to be seen, to be safe, to be our fully gorgeous selves.