Nobody wants to admit they’re lonely. I mean, really—how or who would a lonely person even admit that to? Seems like a quick way to earn loser status. But recently and without warning, it hit me, and I didn’t like what I saw. I had a lot of friends—497 to be exact—but very few real friends. Social media had only given me the illusion of many friendships, but no real, close friendships.

Sure, I could walk through church and exchange friendly hellos, how-are-yous, and cheap smiles, but very few people actually knew me. I couldn’t even think of anyone I really wanted to invite for a night out!

I didn’t like this realization at all; it made me more than a little depressed. It wasn’t that I chose to intentionally dissolve friendships, but that I wasn’t putting in the effort. Social media had become a convenient replacement for authentic friendships. It allowed me to be friends with everyone at the same time, with very little effort on my part.

Fast Food Friendship

It wasn’t too long ago I was in the years of diapers, sippy cups and building blocks. I remember sitting in the living room full of loud toddlers, brightly colored toys and a floor covered in crumbs. Playdates were the social hour—and necessary sanity hour—for the stay-at-home-moms.

We talked teething, potty training and sleep deprivation all in our sweatpants and messy hair. Little did I know, these messy mornings were a display of beautifully authentic friendships. Once we were out of the toddler world, I didn’t notice the shift, but time was quickly filled with homework, sports, and a new busyness. I spent most of it in survival mode, with little time for friendships.

Blinded by the isolation of busyness, social media became my playdates a few minutes at a time between errands, homework, cooking and bedtime kisses. I would share funny things the kids said, post pictures of them in cute outfits, and brag about their awards. The comments would roll in, and I would feel special and loved. The likes notification going off was almost instant approval for the ordinary parts of life, the parts that I used to share with others in person.

But all most people knew about me was the highlight reel projected on social media. I didn’t have any friends who knew what I didn’t post: the struggles, the joys, the dreams, the projects.

As I pondered this epiphany, I realized I needed to make some changes—pronto! While social media was filling a void, the hole was much larger than even my 497 Facebook friends could fill. This reality is painful; though it sounds wonderful to know you have that many friends, it’s just an illusion. Even my own profile can be an illusion. I find myself intentionally censoring what I say, editing my emotions and carefully sharing only advantageous or well-perceived posts. And by doing so, I create a public figure persona. Sure, this is wise online etiquette and necessary because of the large audience. But often—and this isn’t easy to admit—I traded the spontaneous authenticity of real friendships for the ease and safety of digital ones. These surface friendships are fast and easy to attain. But like fast food, they satisfy only temporarily and often aren’t a healthy substitute for the real deal.

More Than A Status Update

I need real friends, not just a list of friends I might talk to once a year to wish them a happy birthday and catch up with two or three sentences. No, I need friends who I can be messy with and wear sweatpants around. I need friends who can share the little, mundane details with me. Friends I can tell about that fantastic book, or exciting game. I want people to see beyond the statuses and profile pictures. God created a desire in each of us to be known—quirky habits, funky styles, goofy laughs and all. We want and need people who will see beyond the three-sentence posts, we need people who can offer more than typing a few empathetic words. We need friends who will lend a listening ear over coffee, try out that new restaurant, or look us in the eye and challenge us spiritually.

I miss having friends like that in my  life. And I miss being a friend like that.

But Such Friendships Come Only With Intentionality

I hate this feeling of loneliness, but I knew it didn’t just happen to me. I chose it. I sat waiting for my kids at dance, ball practice or church playing on my phone in the hallways, completely oblivious to all the other moms around me doing the same thing. I want to slap myself when I think of the many missed opportunities for engaging and enjoying the journey together. And what about the missed opportunities for growing in my faith, witnessing and encouraging each other? Gone, and I can’t get them back.

I’m realizing I’m not the only one who feels this way. Collectively, albeit slowly, we are seeing the serious lack of deep satisfaction in the illusion of online friendships, and we genuinely miss the real deal. We have to choose differently and intentionally engage in life, instead of hitting autopilot or survival mode. Loneliness and isolation don’t have to be permanent; we just have to see the people around us and listen to their stories. I’m finding that they’re more interesting—and definitely more real—than what’s on my newsfeed.