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The Fear of Missing Out – FOMO

The fear of missing out, otherwise known as FOMO, was officially added to the Oxford dictionary in 2013. A useless piece of trivia perhaps, or else an indication that whilst the ‘grass is always greener’ phenomena has always existed, recent years has seen the explosion of fear and anxiety related to not doing, having or being as much as others. FOMO relates to the fear and apprehension that others are having more exciting, rewarding and interesting experiences than you are, or are in possession of something more or better. This fear and apprehension compels us to check what’s going on elsewhere, easily achieved by scrolling through Instagram, Facebook or other social media sites. Needless to say, such checking behaviours only confirm one’s worst fears, that someone out there is better off than us and we are indeed missing out.

Have you ever observed people sitting in a café or restaurant with friends or family? If you have, you probably noticed many people looking at their phones despite sitting directly opposite another person. And, if not engaged with their phone, they have it perched on the table in front of them just in case an important message or notification comes in. You may also be aware of your own habits in terms of phone and social media use, such as the inclination to check your phone as soon as you wake up in the morning and last thing before you fall asleep, not to mention multiple times throughout the day. This may even bother you, yet you feel unable to resist the urge to check for messages, updates etc.

Social media is an amazing tool for keeping in touch with friends and family all around the world and enables us to have access to endless streams of information. However, social media sites work in such a way that you compare your everyday life to other people’s highlights, causing us to wrongly assume that our lives are quite average and boring at best. The fear is that other people are attending more exciting social events, meeting more interesting people and having more opportunities than you are, leading to feelings of sadness, anxiety and regret. To mitigate this, you may turn to Facebook or Instagram in the hope that your fears will be abated, only to find yourself feeling worse as a result. You may then be inclined to share what you’re doing, eating or have recently acquired to show that you also lead an interesting life, unwittingly feeding into the FOMO felt by others.

A study of university students at Carlton and McGill universities (Milyavskaya et al, 2018) found that students reported higher feelings of FOMO when tired, stressed or feeling unwell. Needless to say, we’re more likely to feel fear and anxiety when already feeling emotionally and psychologically fragile, with low self-esteem and general life dissatisfaction fuelling FOMO. The reality is that if we accept ourselves and feel satisfied with our lives, we would be less likely to look externally for signs that we’re doing well. We would also be more likely to enjoy and appreciate what we have rather than feeling we’re in constant competition with others.

These obsessive checking behaviours and over-use of our phones often results in us interrupting face-to-face interactions to check if something more important or interesting is happening elsewhere. Not only is this sending a silent message to whoever you’re with that they’re not as important as the messages or feeds being received, but it reduces the quality of your face-to-face interactions. The mistake being made here is that an interruption, in the form of a message, is seen as a connection, one which is possibly more exciting or important. In actual fact, it is a connection, but in order to attend to this new message, you’re diminishing the quality of the connection you’re currently engaged in. The new connection isn’t necessarily better, it’s just different. Such behaviour leads to less satisfying, nourishing relationships which can then lead to feelings of sadness, isolation and loneliness.

So, with all that said, what can we do to reduce our fear of missing out and feel more satisfied with our lives as they are? See below for some ideas:

Accept that you’re experiencing FOMO

Acknowledging that you feel anxious about what you may be missing out on, and possibly insecure about yourself and your life, is the first step in making positive changes. You’ll then be in a position to start managing your fears and anxieties before they worsen.

Limit phone activity

We live in a society where many of us feel we need to be available 24/7. The compulsion to check our emails, messages and social media sites is incredibly strong. Using our phones actually triggers a release in dopamine, making us feel good and making it harder for us to stop scrolling as we crave more of this feel-good hormone. However, excessive phone use has a negative impact on our psychological well-being, making it important to try to set limits for phone use. Some ideas include:

  • Put your phone away when at the dinner table
  • Don’t sleep with your phone in the bedroom
  • When out meeting a friend, keep your phone in your bag
  • Put your phone on silent at certain points during the day, even if just for an hour

Accept your life as it is right now

Life dissatisfaction fuels FOMO. You may want more or not be fully satisfied with what you’ve achieved. You may need a more satisfying job, a different relationship, more friends or more stability. However, try to acknowledge that we all achieve things at different stages. It’s not a race or a competition as to who’s invited to the most parties, who travels the most, or who has the most friends. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best. In the meantime, list a few goals and start to work towards achieving these.

Embrace reality

Sit down for this one. Unless you have the time and money to dedicate your life completely to having fun, exciting adventures on a daily basis, you can be quite certain that there will always be someone out there doing something more exciting and interesting than you, there will always be someone with more money, achieving more, and possibly more attractive. You can’t be everywhere at all times and you won’t feel and look good all the time. And, it’s absolutely okay.

Choose wisely what you pay attention to

Until you get to a point where you’re happier with yourself and more accepting of the life you have, filter out any posts, or people whose posts make you feel sad, angry or inferior. This is not a denial of reality, it’s focusing your precious time and attention on things which give you energy and make you feel positive rather than the opposite. In the meantime, try to understand what any unpleasant emotion is trying to tell you. Is there something you could change to make you feel more satisfied? For instance, is it time to look for a new job, or study something new? Could taking up a sport or new hobby help you make new friends or help you feel fitter and healthier?

Seek out real connections

Instead of sitting at home messaging people and scrolling through Instagram, see if a friend is available to meet for a coffee, a walk or a meal. Really be present with this person and not focused on anything that may be happening elsewhere. It’s the quality of the contact which is important and not the number of connections you have.

Avoid the temptation to over-post

There’s nothing wrong with sharing aspects of your life with people online. However, rather than relying on public validation of your experiences and achievements, try to practice privately appreciating yourself and your life achievements. I can assure you that patting yourself on the back or sharing your good news with a close friend is just as rewarding, if not more, than hundreds of online likes. I’m not sure the Kardashians would agree with my sentiments but I think I’ll be okay.

Slow down

The desire to have it all or not miss out results in people feeling they need to constantly race from one task or event to another. Having too much on has become the norm. Most of us are stressed, anxious and incredibly over-stretched. See if there’s anything in your daily routine you can let go of or reduce, allowing you more time to actually enjoy what you’re doing. You can’t do everything. If you can accept that, you’ll be much less inclined to care that others are doing more or achieving more.

Enjoy the moment

It’s quite ironic that our fear of missing out causes us not to be fully present in the moment, whilst not realising that this very fear stops us enjoying the experience we’re currently engaged in. In other words, we’re not aware that what we’re missing out on is that moment we’re actually in. That coffee with a friend, the shopping trip with your sister, the belly laugh with your mum or that evening watching films with your partner – they’re the moments we need to appreciate and cherish.

Practice gratitude

Make a list of the things in your life that make you happy – it could be your dog, your colleagues, a job you enjoy, your partner, friends, the fact you can afford to travel a couple of times a year, and so on. Some people are not so fortunate so acknowledge what you do have rather than pining for what you don’t. A useful exercise is to make a list at the end of each day of 2 or 3 things that happened which you’re grateful for (e.g. your supportive colleague, the coffee shop across the road from work which has amazing croissants, your dog racing to greet you after a long day at work etc). Write these things down and really allow yourself to appreciate them.

So, maybe the fear of missing out could be replaced with an acceptance of the fact that there are so many possibilities that we will inevitably miss out on something. In fact, it’s impossible not to. However, we need to remain aware that trying to be connected to more than one place, thing or person at a time also involves missing out since we reduce the quality of the experience we’re in. And maybe we need to really question what’s more important – missing out on what our peers and online ‘friends’ say shouldn’t be missed, or the meaningful experiences we stumble across daily yet pay little attention to.

Danjela Falzon - Malta therapy clinic

About Danjela Falzon

Danjela has been practising as a Psychotherapist since 2011, having read for a BSc in Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, followed by a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at GPTIM. She works therapeutically with individuals, adopting an approach which is warm and empathic, yet direct and challenging when necessary. She also works with groups, teaching mindfulness and providing support and guidance to reduce stress and anxiety.

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