FOMO, or the “Fear Of Missing Out,” describes the feelings of loss caused by the realization of one not being a part of an experience that others have had. It assumes that the missed opportunity was a positive one – nobody feels FOMO at another’s misfortunes - and is felt by one and all, a natural outcome from being human with endless desires and limited opportunities to satisfy them.
These feelings are caused not from real loss but from an imagined one that nevertheless appears so real that it is a very powerful motivator of many decisions in life: career choices, travel destinations, books, movies, and so much more, all because one wants to avoid feeling less than by missing out on a positive experience. It does not matter that you may not have wanted it in the first place, but once awakened to its absence, the imagination takes over.
In Economics it is known as “Opportunity Cost” or “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen”. While in economics one can usually assign a finite value to such a cost, in the inner world such a cost is entirely subjective. The imagination could magnify the missed experience making the loss out to be much higher than it really is.
Some people, I have noticed, are more vulnerable to FOMO than others. The more attached one is to the human side of our identity, the more one feels it - which is why it is more severe in youth. I have met youngsters who have shared their feelings when they learn of events and outings of which they were not a part, particularly in these days of Facebook and social media. FOMO, combined with the insecurity natural to that stage in life, triggers off a deep sense of rejection making it excruciatingly painful.
The net of FOMO is wide; I sometimes recognize it in unexpected places. For example, in the books I obtained years ago that I have not yet read and in all likelihood will not. Yet, I continue to hoard them since the thought of giving them away triggers a big attack of FOMO.
It is also a different strand of FOMO that has me holding on to old friendships. With Facebook and Whatsapp, I am now in touch with many friends from school and from places we have lived in. I don’t know if we even have anything in common anymore. But staying in touch seems to keep away the Fear of Missing Out on the past that we shared. FOMO of experiences we never had continues to live in us - as sadness and regret. People are known to have carried them all the way to their deathbed. There is a natural presumption in each case that the unlived life might have been a positive experience, maybe even better than the life one did live.
I recently suffered a severe attack of FOMO when a bunch of my friends went out for lunch without including me. I heard about it later and right away felt an old familiar pang that dampened my spirits. Unhappy at the thought of being excluded and missing the conversations and laughter my imagination conjured up, I struggled. What was intriguing was that, even knowing I had been with my book group at that time, having a most stimulating and fulfilling discussion, did not keep the FOMO at bay. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
The truth is that being human means constantly balancing our endless spirit on the one hand and earthly limitations on the other. It is coming to terms with the fact that we cannot physically be everywhere, do everything, enjoy every career, or pursue every relationship the heart desires. Not everyone will include us in every invitation or love us as deeply. There is a limit to what we can give or receive. Accepting this limitation and deepening our experiences in lieu of expanding them is the only way out.
There are a few ways to do this. One uncomplicated way, which I was raised with, relies on the belief in reincarnation. I remember family elders saying we all come to earth with a set amount of pain and pleasure that we enjoy or suffer and nobody gets anything more or anything less. No matter what experiences you choose, you will ultimately be just as happy or sad as you were meant to in a lifetime. This view therefore encourages you to enjoy whatever you have now and make a list to take with you for the next time around.
While this advice is simple and works for many, it is fatalistic; besides, it addresses the symptoms of FOMO but not the disease that lies at the root of our insatiable appetite for belonging, pleasure, and validation.
Our attachment to these experiences is born out of the fact that we choose them not so much to enjoy them for what they are, but rather, to enjoy “our-selves” through them. Early in life we define ourselves by the things we have, the things we do, and the things we know, creating a false identity and feeding it endlessly. Our Fear of Missing Out then is really our fear of missing out on parts of our self that are attached to these external goals.
When we understand that our real hunger is for our own Self and turn inward, claiming our Presence within, we are set free from this attachment. Finding our Self, we see things for just what they are and realize that our interactions with the world neither enhances nor takes away from our indivisible Self.
Anchored in our spirit, we will make choices that feed our spirit, accepting that some degree of FOMO is unavoidable - it is simply the Opportunity Cost the ego must pay to keep alive the spirit within. In the words of Carl Jung, “Every defeat of the ego is a victory for the Spirit”.
And therein lies the true gift from FOMO. Once we make peace with it, it allows us to claim our authentic self and our authentic life which were waiting for us all along. Someone once gave me a card that said,” Be Yourself, everyone else is taken.” So also, FOMO says : Live completely the life that is yours. All others are taken.
So the next time you experience a pang of the Fear of Missing Out, as you surely will, don’t let it take you down. Take a deep breath of faith instead and connect the dots of the situation another way, as an opportunity to lean into the life that you have and transform your FOMOs into LILOs (Lean Into Life Opportunities)!