My best friend is a fictional character.

Person holding up book with two hands to cover face, with comic book effects. Ashley sees people for therapy in Minneapolis.

You may have never heard the term Parasocial Relationships before, even though you’re likely engaging in them every day.  Parasocial relationships are the relationships we develop with fictional characters, celebrities, athletes, and other people who we do not have direct and personal interactions with, but who we engage with, nonetheless.

Many people, especially the un-geek-i-fied, are sometimes dismissive and judgmental about these types of relationships, especially if they’re not with the right type of fictional character or celebrity.  Even within these seemingly safe, one-sided relationships, there is important social context to consider, particularly around shame, sexism, and stigma.  For instance, people socialized as men generally have found safety and acceptance by engaging with athletes the same way people socialized as teen girls might engage with the singer of their favorite band.  However, while the raging sports fan is celebrated, the equally enthusiastic teen girl is looked down upon.  The same could be said for fans of anime, RPGers, and any other geek variety.  But, I digress.  Let’s dive more into the value of parasocial relationships.

So, what could anyone possibly get from caring deeply about a character from a TV show, escaping into the world of a book or video game, or watching their favorite YouTuber?  

Well, I’ll tell you what people can get:  A whole heck of a lot!  Studies have shown that parasocial relationships elicit the same roller coaster of emotions we experience in relationships IRL.  Other studies have shown that these types of relationships can help put people at ease, and help people be more goal-oriented, which can be great when there are self-esteem or anxiety issues that make us nervous to put ourselves out there as often as we might like.  We experience parasocial relationships as real, and they have real and tangible impacts on our lives.

For instance, watching a favorite TV show can relieve feelings of loneliness.  Engaging with a blog about your favorite boy band member can lower cortisol levels (depending on the drama level that day, am I right?!).  Reading fan fiction can release dopamine, and all kinds of feel good chemicals.  These are not shameful acts, but just another way to feel and be more connected to the world.  There is comfort in the stability some parasocial relationships can provide, and some relief that one doesn’t have to put on their public face and try in these one-sided relationships.  There is no risk of social rejection in parasocial relationships.

Of course, like with anything else, there can be downsides to parasocial relationships.  Balance is important.  If your only social connections are coming from parasocial relationships, you are missing out on the chance for others to delight in you.  And you have a lot of delight to give!  Parasocial relationships can also give us unrealistic expectations for our two-way relationships.  Sometimes parasocial relationships can become harmful or dangerous if we get so immersed in them that they take over our lives, and we start to have a hard time delineating fact from imagination.  In a different post I talk about parasocial breakups, which can be truly heartbreaking.

If you are feeling like you have plenty of parasocial relationships, but are struggling with two-way connections to others in your life, or are feeling lonely despite your fabulous parasocial crew, reach out to today to set up an appointment.

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