12 Things to Keep in Mind About Online Friendships When You’re Chronically Ill
For many of us, myself included, chronic illness also means adjusting to various limitations and personal losses. It’s not easy.
Among the many things we may have to cope with can include the loss of friendships and a reliance on the internet to keep us in touch with the outside world.
The use of social media has certainly helped the plight of the chronically ill a great deal, but it also has opened up a new area of vulnerability and potential difficulties.
After going through the loss of many former friendships, we often have to piece together new ones with the resources we have at hand. Often that means we have to try to reach out to online support groups to form connections with those who may also be affected with similar challenges.
Many wonderful new friendships can be forged without ever having to leave our sick beds. However, we are also at our most vulnerable at this time, so it can make us invest ourselves very quickly in the search to make new friends and feel valued again. Sometimes we can forget that genuine friendships will still take time despite sharing some medical and health issues.
Real friendships still require mutual respect, acceptance, kindness, honesty, boundaries and patience. Even though it may be much more accessible to forge online friendships, it can have some challenges when you aren’t able to have a face-to-face meeting with someone. You can miss out on a lot of information, impressions and perceptions that you may need when you meet someone.
We can also forget that, similar to when meeting people in the flesh, we aren’t going to connect with everyone. Not everyone is meant to become our closest and dearest friends.
Even if we are eager to make new connections and fill some emotional gaps, there is no easy way to describe some of the challenges for those who have long-term health issues. It can affect every part of your life, including your social life.
The online friendship can be both highly rewarding and highly painful. You can feel very blessed by friendships with those who have an understanding of some of the difficulties you may face, but you can also feel deeply saddened when those people say (or write) things that hurt us — intentionally or not. We can often feel especially emotionally vulnerable and exposed by our diseases and conditions.
The new age of communications and interactions also requires realistic expectations and etiquette. Here are some points that I would like to suggest:
1. We can’t assume we know someone or their nature and character without the benefit of time and evidence. Assuming we know someone because we have talked online and in chat rooms is very naive and is not be in our best interests.
2. We can easily misunderstand something that is written or not written as we don’t have the benefit of voice inflections and connotations that face-to-face communication allows. (Emotions are still things that are difficult to express online even if we do have emojis.)
3. We may miss a lot of the emotion behind online interactions and communication because we can’t see those feelings for ourselves, and we can miss those subtle cues and appear insensitive. It’s best not to assume someone knows how you’re feeling at the time.
4. We can be distracted if we aren’t well enough to communicate and therefore miss some important events and points in the online communications, especially if we’re in pain or experiencing a flare.
5. We can be misled as to how much our online acquaintance is revealing. And we can ask too much of the online friend too early. Remember that you are essentially strangers until you know their friends/family, their history and boundaries.
6. We can overshare and compromise a newly forming friendship by imparting too much information too soon.
7. We need to respect that everyone has their own personalities and priorities even if we don’t know or see these things in the flesh. We’re all different and a good friendship respects those differences.
8. We should still observe the niceties and politeness you would exercise in a face-to-face situation. I believe they’re still important and indispensable, even in the digital era.
9. Don’t assume you know a person. Ever. It is far wiser to assume nothing. Even if we do truly want to get to know someone better. Trust still needs to be earned.
10. Don’t change who you are. Your personality and character are still who you are. You shouldn’t have to shed that because of the online circumstances or to forge new friends. The best friendships are still those who accept you for who you truly are.
11. Don’t feel you can’t end an online friendship because you don’t have your old friends anymore. The chronically ill have a resilience and a strength forged by our new lives, and we know only too well how precious life and time are. If you find you are not enjoying the interaction, don’t feel you have to sustain it. There are many experiences and people out there online. Some people/groups will resonate with you and others won’t.
12. Don’t ever participate or interact with cyberbullies. Ever. If someone offends, harasses, is rude, spams, threatens, tries to intimidate, berates or makes you feel picked on, the best thing is to not participate. And if it continues, you should report it. Find out your legal rights to redress the behavior. It is not only morally wrong, it’s illegal!
Many people enjoy the anonymity that the internet provides to protect them and allow them to do and say anything that they want, sometimes cowardly. It is one of the sadder aspects of the digital age, but it really does say more about them and who they are.
Try not to take these things personally. It’s not a reflection of you or your value. Even though we’re sick, ill, disabled or physically compromised, we still have a right to a happy life and enjoyable friendships.
We may have a little more learning and navigating to do, but I think we can find some truly rewarding and meaningful connections. They just take time and patience.
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