I'm Pretty Sure The Internet Taught Me How To Feel

I've never been that good at feelings.
Publish date:
May 9, 2014
Dating, emotions, not being the worst

Whether it's expressing my own or reacting to others', I've never been that good at feelings.

This might sound odd, coming from someone who cries at the drop of a Super Bowl commercial and can't keep a poker face worth a damn. But underneath the quick temper and the big laugh, I've developed a thick layer between me and the rest of the world. Sometimes I think of it as being constructed of limestone: Like rainwater eventually forming underground caves, emotions can take months to slide their way through to me, by which point the earth above them has changed.

This is especially evident, I'm told, when it comes to my relationships, romantic or otherwise. When I'm bothered by a partner's behavior, I let the seed of discontent fester until it blooms into full-blown, seemingly unrelated rage. I am not one for processing. I dislike demonstrations of verbal affection; I prefer wrapping a hand around someone's wrist or nudging my face against their neck to saying "I love you." If a friend needs to talk to me about a problem she's having, I'm always willing to offer a hug and a listening ear; if it's a problem with me specifically, though, good luck trying to keep me from climbing out the window like a ferret.

In college, I became notorious for what my friends called the "deer fleeing into the underbrush" maneuver, wherein I physically tried to exit the premises whenever a conversation with a date turned unpleasant. (I would also occasionally "sleep-avoid," which involves forcibly willing unconsciousness upon oneself whenever pillow talk gets gushy.) I just often have trouble reconciling myself to the fact that sometimes, my dumbass behavior can have an effect -- whether positive or negative -- on someone else's life, and that they would like to discuss it with me.

So I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise to me when, a few weeks ago, one of my very good friends told me we needed to have a talk.

"It's going to make you uncomfortable," she said. "It's about my feelings."

"Oh," I said. "Well, that's OK."

"I," she started, then stopped. She squinted at me. "Um. Really?"

I shrugged. "Sure," I said. "I really don't mind, man." And the weird thing was, I genuinely didn't. Making matters even stranger, I had dated this friend in college, at which point I had been an absolute monster to her. This makes my stomach hurt to think about, but I would sometimes catch her scribbling in her journal, clearly upset with me, and I would deliberately walk away rather than ask her what was bothering her.

It doesn't sound like that big of a deal now, I guess, but at the time the idea of someone sharing that malaise with me made my skin crawl. I'd always thought that the willingness to show someone how their actions affected you was a pitiable trait, and I didn't want to pity someone I also wanted to bang.

"I'm going to cry," she warned me now, nearly three years later. "Like, big ugly tears."

"I'm going to get awkward and offer you food and/or hugs," I countered.

"Wow," she said. "Since when are you not a robot?"

It was a good question, and as far as I can tell, the answer is "Since I started making friends on the Internet."

Maybe it sounds flippant, but it's true. Up until a few years ago, I had never made a single friend online.

It wasn't for lack of trying, mind you. Every time I fell into a new, geeky fandom -- which has been a semi-annual affair since before puberty -- I'd trade messages with people who were just as obsessed with the same book about wizards/show about demons/movie about a ragtag group of slick criminals committing mind-heists as I was. And every time, we couldn't keep it up. I'd see my would-be friends tagging each other in Xanga posts or writing elaborate stories together and I'd wilt like the unpopular kid at a John Hughes movie-prom.

Sometime in the last few years, though, something changed. It may have been that the media I use to interact with others online makes it relatively easier to get casually acquainted with others. These days, "favestarring" or "hearting" a post feels like the relaxed brush of a hand along an elbow, a quiet acknowledgment that you've heard what they have to say and still like them. It's not as scary as message boards or Livejournal, where I remember spending hours attempting to craft missives to strangers that were simultaneously cool and charming, trying not to show them how much their opinion meant to me.

Now, the stakes feel much lower. If you reply to someone's Instagram post and they don't respond, so what? People are busy, and the world is awfully loud these days.

This, in turn, allows for a very gradual construction of many tiers of relationships. Even when it comes to media like Twitter, I find myself referring to the "friends" with whom I've traded maybe two messages and "friends" whom I let sleep in my bed for a weekend in the same breath. They mean very different things to me, obviously, but the ambiguity encourages a rapport with the latter group that's simultaneously casual and really intense.

It's no wonder that a study from Cornell recently found that "confessions made via one-on-one web chat were consistently considered more intimate than identical confessions made in person"; the kinds of things I'd normally be too scared to put into words become muffled beneath the hushed crackle of the Internet.

When you talk about feelings in real life, you're making yourself vulnerable to someone else. You have to acknowledge that their present-time reactions, no matter what they are, could have an enormous effect on you. But making friends on the Internet -- especially making the leap from Twitter or Tumblr to email or even text message -- is itself an act of vulnerability. You've already given that person so many easy exit opportunities that your deepest fears, biggest secrets, or (scariest of all) feelings of genuine fondness for them no longer seem to carry that much risk of frightening them off. And in turn, their feelings toward you aren't that big of a deal, either.

These people have stuck through your Tweets about cystic acne, for fuck's sake. How much grosser could your emotions possibly be?

And as I've gotten more accustomed to being open and honest with the friends I've met online, I'm starting to become the same way with my offline friends, too. I used to think that cracking yourself open for other people was a sign of weakness. You're showing people how exactly they could hurt you, after all, and they're often showing you the same thing. But you're also trusting each other not to take advantage of that knowledge. Now, I think that's a sign of being secure, and it's not something to take lightly on either end.

Don't get me wrong. I'm probably still going to be kind of a robot. But we can rebuild my weird, hard heart. We have the technology.

Kate is making friends and spilling guts at @katchatters.