Parasocial relationships can be incredibly uncomfortable. They are also nearly impossible to avoid if you are an indie developer who wants to market your game. Platforms like Twitter and Twitch can be huge assets for catching attention and engaging interest.
The power of these platforms goes beyond business. In a world of constant stimulation, the loudest voice often makes the biggest impact. How do you get a loud voice in the digital world? Have a bigger social media following. Get more channel subscribers. But as your platform grows, your ability to know and interact with individual people rapidly diminishes. The parasocial relationships forms.
This is hardly a new problem; it’s been the problem of celebrity for generations. But now it’s a problem that many people who never wanted celebrity—who maybe just want to make games or make political change or talk about their passions or play games—face.
Today I want to dive into a bit of the psychology of parasocial relationships: why they can be so uncomfortable and some possible methods for easing that discomfort.
Laying the Groundwork: Understanding the Stress
To understand and cope with a situation it can helpful to first identify the problem. In the case of parasocial relationships, person-centered psychology’s way of defining problems seems helpful.
Person-centered psychology breaks down experience into six key concepts.
1. Predictability helps us feel safe. Therefore, it makes sense that we process the world and experiences in a way that would help us predict future events.
2. We create this sense of predictability by establishing the “self-structure.” First, we experience the world. (Through direct experience like sensory information: what we see, hear, taste, etc.). Second, we create a system of beliefs and values to organize all of those experiences into a guide about what we, other people, and the world are like. This guide helps us predict how we, other people, and events in the world will act in the future. This guide is how we structure our understanding, i.e. “self-structure.”
3. This guide gives us a sense of safety—at a price. Once we have formed a belief, sometimes we shut out experiences that don’t fit. We can distort, deny, or re-define our experiences to fit our self-structure.
4. Whether or not we shut out or distort an experience is closely tied to our level of self-acceptance. Importantly, acceptance here is not about “good” or “agreeing”, acceptance is meant in that most basic sense: I accept reality. I accept I am experiencing this; (this event, these thoughts, these emotions). I don’t need to distort or ignore my experience.
For example, part of our self-structure includes labels we give ourselves: I am a funny person, I am a dependable person, I am a forgetful person, I am a shy person, etc. Having labels for ourselves isn’t necessarily a bad thing: if I know I’m a person who hates crowds, I’m not surprised when I feel anxious at a crowded event. My reaction was predictable, and predictability builds safety.
These labels become unhelpful when they cause us to distort information because they “must” be true. If I “must be a success”, I will start to distort experiences that make me feel like a failure. If I “must” be happy, I’ll ignore sadness or loss or difficulty.
There can come a point where our lack of self-acceptance—our inability to accept our own experience—means we stop trusting ourselves. We doubt our experience. And that is profoundly destabilizing. If I cannot trust my experience, how can I interpret and cope with the world?
The very “guide” that was meant to help me find a safe, predictable route is suddenly useless. Now what?
5. Our self-acceptance is fundamentally influenced by our relationship with others. This theory depends on a crucial point about relationships: as people, we want to belong. We want to be accepted by others, have relationships, feel connected, etc.
But many relationships involve something called “conditions of worth”, i.e. “I will accept you if…”
This can start with families and cultural values. For example, the message “men don’t cry” becomes a condition of worth: “If you are man and you cry, I won’t accept you.” There’s that old nursery rhyme: “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what girls are made of.” This can become a condition of worth: if you are a girl, and you aren’t nice, I won’t accept you.
These conditions of worth aren’t limited to family or cultural messages however, they can show up in every relationship: “I like people who ‘tell it like it is’….I like people who are kind…I like people who enjoy the same hobby as me…I like people who are confident…I like people who are angry about this political/social issue…” etc.
We, as social creatures, want relationships…so we, as social creatures, can tailor our self-structure to fulfill these conditions of worth. In other words, we rewrite the guide we use to understand the world so that we move towards fulfilling those conditions. This is like peer pressure, but instead of changing how we act in one scenario, it changes how we define ourselves, other people, or our expectations for the world.
This means we begin to distort our own experience so we can fulfill those conditions. If girls are “nice”, and I want to be accepted, I might start to suppress the times I feel angry. This could become such a reflex, built into the map of myself and the world, that I don’t even know I’m angry anymore. I don’t know how to be angry.
6. A disconnect between our experience and self-structure causes distress. Person-centered therapy highlights the importance of a thing called “congruence”. Essentially, I am congruent when my experience matches my self-structure. I’m incongruent when my lived experience conflicts with my self-structure. That conflict causes negative feelings.
In others words, I am healthiest when my experience and my understanding match up.
In unhealthy patterns, we try to force congruence by altering our experience. But when we have self-acceptance, when we are not twisting to match conditions of worth or rigid labels: “we are flexible...We can predict or recognize what is acceptable to us and to others and make choices without distorting or denying our experience. We can change our judgments and values according to our own experience.”1
Distortion in Parasocial Relationships
Based on the person-centered model, parasocial relationships are primed to cause distress.
Parasocial relationships are tangled up in conditions of worth. Some of this is built into the social media platform: likes, retweets, shares, subscribes, follows, etc. These platforms in many ways are mechanized on the idea of conditional worth. If you say this thing I like, I hit the heart button. If you are entertaining while playing this game, I subscribe. These platforms are constantly giving the targeted person feedback on what is “worthwhile” in their behavior.
Advice to “not care” about conditions of worth is often unhelpful. It is natural and healthy to want to be accepted. In many ways, these platforms have built their fortunes off exploiting this truth. To stop caring about acceptance is another form of distortion and denial.
Conditions of worth are powerful in any relationship; the intensity-currency of social media platforms emphasizes them in an often toxic way. This is often overwhelming and over-stimulating, which make its users need a sense of safety even more. Safety comes with two key things: acceptance and predictability. This intensifies the instinct to conform to conditions of worth, while also incentivizing rigidity. Stepping outside the predictable pattern can upset followers and upset the “safe” pattern that has built up.
Conditions of worth and a rigid self-structure become the perfect intersection for distress: decreased self-acceptance, decreased flexibility in how we understand and react to the world, and denying parts of our lived experience. I’ve heard countless people express this frustration: they feel boxed in to a certain role or label, pressured to “perform” within this rigid identity.
Person-centered therapy looks at negative emotions as useful messages. Distress, in this model, means a disconnect between our self-structure and experience. The “guide” we are using no longer fits the situation we find ourselves experiencing.
Distress becomes the first sign that can lead us to a more healthy experience.
Managing the Parasocial Stress
I’m not going to go into a full review of therapy-based coping skills. Essentially, we need empathy, acceptance, and a flexible self-structure (i.e. ability to make meaning of our experiences). I want to talk about a few practical strategies based on this model.
1) Spend time with people who can empathize. Having people who deal with similar stressors who can understand your experience is incredibly helpful. Why? If we’re doubting our own experience, having someone with a similar experience say, “That happens…that makes sense…I know what you mean,” starts to rebuild trust in our own experience. If self-doubt destabilizes, the empathy of others rebuilds.
It can be easy to dismiss this process as “shop talk” or think “we shouldn’t talk about work” when we want to avoid stress, but talking about it with people who truly understand it can be a crucial way to actually decrease distress.
2) Spend time with people who know you and accept you. Part of the way we battle conditions of worth is by spending time with people who don’t place them on us. If we don’t have to perform to certain expectations, it gives us a chance to express more of ourselves.
Now, in some cases it might seem hard to find people who fully accept us. “That sounds nice Cass, but if I had a group of people accepting me fully my life would be fantastic.”
Ideally, we could all have a community space that knows and accepts us. On a practical side, we don’t need to put this all on one person or one space. Sometimes this means cultivating relationships with a range of people and communities. I don’t bring my dark humor to the gaming table. This isn’t being inauthentic; it’s knowing that my humor connects best with people in a similar profession. The difference is I recognize all these different aspects of my personality and I know they are acceptable because different people have shown me acceptance with each of them.
3) Mute/time out/block/ban toxic relationships that feed distortion. Distress can be a good sign that it’s time to mute or block someone. Muting and blocking (or timing out and banning on streaming sites) isn’t mean, it’s the digital version of creating some space. In physical spaces we have the ability to walk away or move away from people, or avoid people. Muting can be a version of ending a conversation or walking to another room; blocking can be a version of not attending events we know someone will be at, or no longer inviting someone to events.
It is really easy to mute someone on one thread, see their blanked comments pop up on another, and see what they’re saying this time. And it’s really easy to unmute someone when you want to “rejoin” them in conversation. It’s the physical equivalent of walking back into the room.
And here’s the thing: it doesn’t just have to be people making “negative” comments, it can be anyone triggering distress. Sometimes it’s the too-positive or too-flattering comments that spike up distress. Overly-positive distortions are still distortions. Fan relationships can be full of conditions of worth…as anyone who “sells out” or “turns on their fans” will know.
4) Look at distress as way to learn more about yourself and your experience. First, I want to say distress is uncomfortable and painful and I’m not trying to minimize that.
At the same time, distress can provide really useful information: distress can be a sign of conditions of worth coming into play, or a sign of self-doubt, or a lack of self-acceptance.
I don’t want to highlight any specific interaction, but I’ve had multiple times where people made a comment and I felt distressed. What helped? I realized they wanted me to be someone I wasn’t or care about something I don’t. The distress was about that subtle pressure to fit a condition that I didn’t want to fit.
Naming that dynamic to myself almost immediately relieved the distress.
In some cases, those realizations have led to new insight into who I am and what I care about. The friction was a sign that something didn’t fit.
Distress can become a cue to check in:
1. Tolan, Janet. Skills in Person-Centered Counselling and Psychotherapy. Sage, 2012.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.