If you’ve ever had the sense that a certain celebrity is your best friend or found yourself grieving the death of a public figure you’ve never met, you’re part of a one-sided bond known as a parasocial relationship.
Coined in 1956, the term predates the early-2000s rise of celebrity culture and the subsequent age of social media influencers. It describes the “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.”
Parasocial relationships, or PSRs, have in a way become the lifeblood of the modern media landscape, from entertainment to sports to politics. Public figures, influencers, and other content creators literally profit from a combination of being both irresistibly accessible and oh-so-relatable.
When taken to extremes, parasocial relationships manifest in toxic celebrity stan culture or blind worship of a public figure. Figures with a cult of personality and a strong personal brand drive an almost unhealthy level of fixation.
But the overall outlook on PSRs shouldn’t be completely tainted. In a 2018 study, psychology researchers looked at whether PSRs could help people satisfy their need for belonging. They found that Twitter use could help those who “experience chronic ostracism” meet social needs.
Parasocial bonds affect us all, and how well we manage them has consequences for ourselves, our IRL relationships, and the world at large.
If you’re wondering how you can streamline your ties to public figures, here’s a licensed therapist-approved five-step guide to identifying PSRs and ending toxic ones.
Though it may sound daunting, KonMari-ing your PSRs might require you to do an audit of how you consume content.
Even emotions evoked by the deaths of notable figures like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are considered parasocial interactions — micro PSR interactions that might give you pause during this self-examination.
“We know it’s possible to grieve people that we didn’t even know,” says licensed therapist Barbara Shabazz. “We spend so much time following them, we feel like we know them. We get invested in their journeys and stories. The psychological effects can really be the same [as in our real-life relationships].”
Depending on who you are and how you spend your time, this process of accounting for your content consumption might look different.
Analysis of your content and social media consumption will likely start to reveal notable figures you gravitate toward. Shabazz recommends writing a list of qualities you can identify in them.
“Ask yourself, how do these people’s goals and values align with yours? Because so much of this is distraction,” she says. “We get lost in this rabbit hole that we go down. A lot of it involves comparison. When we’re being distracted we’re not focusing on working towards our values and our goals, which is huge in this.”
Her advice, however, hangs on the notion that you’ve already begun examining yourself with the initial, lifelong question “Who am I?” In her work with clients, Shabazz primarily helps them discern their specific goals and values. She has found that people’s unhealthy social media-driven obsessions with others can distract them from their own mental health and personal growth journeys.
Natalie Jeung, a licensed therapist with Skylight Counseling in Chicago, says one of the first questions to ask yourself is “What does this relationship mean to me?” Jeung’s clients, many of whom are avid gamers, find themselves invested to the point of devastation when video game streamers they idolize are outed as perpetrators of crimes.
As a follow-up, Jeung hypothetically asks, “What is this fulfilling? Are you infatuated with their life, or is this person a role model, or is there drama with this person? What is this relationship doing for you, and what is it about this person that you’re captivated by?”
To assess whether these parasocial bonds are healthy and beneficial, Jeung recommends further honest examination of how much time and emotional investment you’re putting into your PSRs. For example, she says, if your ability to do work is being impaired, that’s an obvious red flag.
“One of the most unhealthy things we might experience with parasocial relationships is that we believe they’re our friends and we know them on a deep level,” Jeung says. “On social media, it’s easy to think we know every aspect of someone’s life. How much are you grounded in reality in that aspect?”
Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, some obvious red flags might appear immediately, or it might take time for these realizations to come to light.
To successfully end a toxic PSR, Shabazz recommends first deciding how much you want to continue to engage with a figure and then building new boundaries. This could start with something as simple as setting screen time limits or deleting certain apps.
In general, she recommends reducing the overall amount of time spent focusing on other people’s lives — even when the urge to compare feels irresistible.
“With the comparison piece, of course we’re human and want to belong,” Shabazz says. “I always remind my clients when we do look to other people, we should look to them for inspiration and identification but not comparison.”
Jeung says the most tangible approach is to unfollow a person altogether, but not haphazardly.
“It’s a good thing to check in with yourself, especially emotionally, as you begin the breaking-up process,” she notes. “I think it’s easy for us to cut someone off and never think about it again, but we end up finding those relationships in other people.”
Explicitly acknowledging how you’re feeling without this type of relationship in your life might be helpful in the grieving and acceptance process. PSRs mirror patterns of behavior in IRL relationships, and a person’s unacknowledged patterns are likely to emerge without direct self-awareness.
After streamlining your PSRs, keep yourself accountable with regular check-ins, possibly on a biweekly or monthly basis.
“You have to decide how much of a balance you want,” says Shabazz. “You have to have enough information to understand what’s going on and be in reality, but you also don’t want to be consuming so much that it ends up being a point of angst, depression, and worry.”
“I like to say energy goes where intention flows. We have to be very mindful of what we’re focusing on. It’s easy to just get caught up. [By making something] bigger than we originally want it to be, we can kind of cheat ourselves out of our personal purpose.”