I’ve known my friend David (not his real name) for over twenty years and we’ve always gotten along well. That’s probably, at least in part due to the fact that we share a lot of common interests and values.
Lately, though, David has developed a habit that has been driving me slightly crazy. Whenever I suggest that we do something together or offer him an invitation of any kind, his response almost always is to tell me that he’ll let me know later whether or not this will work for him.
Well, “later” almost always turned out to be the day before the deadline, and even then, it almost always seemed that I was the one who had to initiate contact to remind him that I was still waiting to hear from him. Inevitably, David would apologize and provide explanations as to why he hadn’t contacted me sooner. He would usually tell me that he would love to accept my invitation but “something came up and I won’t be able to join you”.
After a series of situations like this, I noticed that this was becoming a pattern, and the pattern was becoming a problem for me; not just because David was inconveniencing me by not informing me sooner of his plans, but also because I felt disrespected with what felt like inconsiderate treatment when despite his profuse apologies, his behavior didn’t change.
After expressing my feelings to David we had a good talk in which he told me that I’m not the first person to have had this problem with his desire to avoid making commitments and agreements in order to “keep my options open in case something better shows up.”
While I appreciated David’s honesty, I felt some resentment about being held as just another ‘option’ on David’s dance card. After all, we’ve been friends for a long time and I thought I deserved a to have a higher place on his list of priorities.
In the course of our conversation it became clear to me that David didn’t just want to keep his options open, he felt that he needed to; and that if he didn’t, he might risk losing out on an important, potentially life-changing experience.
As I had feared, David had a severe case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). FOMO is an increasingly common condition plaguing a growing portion of the population numbers of people, who either overcommit and fail to fulfill many of their commitments or choose to avoid agreements and commitments as much as possible.
In most cases, the basis for their actions (or inactions) is motivated by a fear that in making an agreement they are losing the chance to engage in other experiences that could potentially result in greater personal gratification or satisfaction. A commonly-felt sentiment of many people who have FOMO is, “I like to keep my options open.”
Those with a great fear of missing out can be very discerning in regard to the circumstances and situations in which they tend to break agreements. They are often less willing to break them with someone who holds a position of authority in their lives, such as a supervisor or superior at work, or someone representing the legal or criminal justice system, than to an acquaintance or subordinate at work. They often attempt to justify or excuse their behavior by explaining it as being driven by forces beyond their control, when it is often the case that they actually had priorities that they held as being more important than the commitment that they failed to keep.
FOMO frequently provokes feelings of anxiety and restlessness, often generated by competitive thoughts that others are experiencing more pleasure, success, or fulfillment in their lives than they are. It can also be a response to a conscious or unconscious fear of aging and/or dying. Unless the underlying concerns that drive this desire to compulsively accumulate as many experiences as possible is identified and addressed, FOMO behavior will continue to prevail and diminish the overall quality of well-being, and fulfillment in one’s relationships and life in general.
There is a saying that you can’t ever get enough of what you really don’t need. Accumulating experiences and being possessed by the feelings stress and tension that are amplified by the pursuit of more and the need to avoid missing out cannot relieve the existential anxiety that drives FOMO behavior. Checking electronic devices for text messages, voice mails, and emails continually throughout the day creates an obsessive preoccupation that doesn’t quench the thirst for the need for more, it amplifies it. Kind of like pouring gasoline on the fire to put it out. Doesn’t work so well.
Perhaps the biggest problem with FOMO is that a relentless preoccupation with activity and novelty makes it impossible for us to be fully present and deeply engaged in our relationships and our life in general. And true fulfillment requires both presence and engagement. Like the sign in the casino says: “You must be present to win!”
So if rushing from pillar to post trying to fill your life up with activities and novelty not only doesn’t enhance the quality of life but rather diminishes it, what’s the alternative? Good question.
Our next blog will answer that question and offer ten steps that you can take that can free you from the corrosive effects of FOMO once and for all.