On experience with the “fear of missing out” & the problems of staying in touch:
Something I hear my peers frequently discuss is “the fear of missing out.” Apparently, someone out there in the ether decided that the term for this was now “FOMO.” Like “YOLO,” but not as fun.
What with the ubiquity of social media, we are constantly bombarded with images of the lives of others–their trips, their jobs, their love lives, their breakfast, lunch and dinner. You don’t have to be incredibly insightful to deduce that the incessant updates of other people’s lives might contribute to our feelings that we may be “missing out” on fun and excitement, or that we may not be “measuring up” to the successes of our peers.
I read Facebook too frequently. I mindlessly click on it every time I turn on my phone or open a new browser as though it is second nature. It’s like having an idle hand possessed by the spirit of Mark Zuckerberg. I laugh and groan at the humorous or melodramatic photos emblazoned with righteous slogans. I soak up the news stories and browse the trending topics. I wish people happy birthday and flip through their photos. It’s all very normal and natural and in good fun. However, sometimes after all that voyeurism, I am panicked and filled with self-doubt. I read about how people my age have landed spectacular careers in their fields of study, or have traveled and lived in Jerusalem to study, or have moved to Berlin to join the swaths of cool young artists who have flocked to this hipster mecca. I see people talking about their graduate school studies and experiences, their epic spiritual journeys through the wilderness, their adventures as a young, successful doctor/firefighter/superhuman who single-handedly saved an entire village from the destruction and chaos of a thousand powerful tornadoes by shielding the population with nothing but their body and revolutionary new tornado-proof material they patented…
Well…you get the idea. Sometimes I feel like I’m falling so far behind! It is impossible not to measure myself next to others and their carefully written posts and meticulously curated photos. At times I can come out of these Facebook cruises feeling on top. But sometimes, like after losing an entire week to binge-watching Friends, I have to think to myself, “Damn, wtf am I doing with my life and why is it not as awesome as this other person’s?”
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had made it incredibly easy to indulge in the worry that you’re missing out on all things awesome and important. I can tell you that I have had times in my life where my “FOMO” was out of control. It should come as no surprise that it was during times of extraordinary loneliness that it was exacerbated. I’d love to share some of my personal experiences with utter loneliness in the hopes that it will give someone, anyone, else perspective on their fear and seclusion. I hope that by sharing, someone will feel less lonely in their loneliness, or less ridiculous or crazy or alien. I’ve always found it relieving to know that I’m not the only person who harbors certain doubts and anxieties. When I am able to realize this, I know it’s normal to feel that way and I’m not doomed. It’s easier to come out of fear paralysis.
Anyway, I hope others find some comfort…
I transferred colleges after my freshman and sophomore year at a tiny, private liberal arts college that was characteristically cliquey. By “cliquey,” I don’t mean in the Mean Girls sense where every group fit an archetype. What I mean is that all freshman arrived 3 weeks before the start of the regular semester to participate in a language and thinking workshop and consequentially engaged in intimate socializing. By the time classes began, we had spent almost an entire month together, and friend groups were divided and established. As time went on, they tightened. Also, the college was so small that you knew almost everyone’s face if not their name.
For my junior and senior years, I left that tight-knit, insular environment to attend an enormous university located in the middle of a large, populous city where I had zero friends and knew almost no one except my brother and his then-girlfriend (now wife).
My move coincided with the extremely traumatic and devastating loss of one of my closest friends, Austin (I mentioned him in Monday’s post, “MISSED THE BOAT”). He died in the month of May, so it happened about two weeks before the end of my last semester when I was to move to this strange city several hours away from the comfort of the tiny community I had cultivated.
The loneliness was extraordinary, blinding, unbearable. When I transferred to Temple University, I vowed not to live in campus housing if I could help it because I was so sick of dorm living. Instead, I chose to live off campus in a one-bedroom apartment in an isolated neighborhood in Philadelphia. I spent my early days at Temple floating around campus alone, eating lunch out of the hot food section at 7-11, and quietly smoking by myself on benches. When I wasn’t haunting Temple’s campus with my sullenness, I had no friends to hang out with, so I boxed myself up in my empty apartment. The silence echoing off my apartment walls amplified my paralyzing depression. I barely left bed and missed a lot of classes. I couldn’t eat and I lost too much weight.
One of my best friends had died and every friend I had ever known was far, far away. I imagined them all merrily skipping around the beautiful, peaceful, tree-dabbed campus of my old school, holding hands and having the best time. And I was in Philadelphia where it is absolutely not always sunny and where it often reeks of piss and exhaust, and clamors with angry shouts and cat calls.
Filled with regret, I obsessively thought about these friends and the life I had left. I tried to remember how or why I had ended up so alone in that strange city, as though I had somehow kidnapped myself and dragged myself to that place. I poured over Facebook. I ravenously planned out every opportunity to leave, and I visited others constantly, and I constantly begged others to visit me. I was possessed by my desire to keep in touch and ravaged by the thought of all the good times and joy I was so obviously missing out on. I missed my old school and my friends so much, with their warm hugs, comforting words and tears of empathy. I needed their love more than ever.
Needless to say, wasting away mentally and physically in an empty apartment in Philadelphia was excruciating. I was haunted by thoughts of death, terrified of every phone call, angry and possessive over my left-behind friendships. After the permanent loss of a person I loved, I lived in a fog of paranoia that manifested as an irrational fear that I would be forgotten by and lose all of my friends.
This tale has a happy ending, though. Eventually, I was able to settle down and fall in love with Philadelphia. Friends from my old college moved there, too, so I connected with them. I had my brother and his wife. I met up with friends who I knew in high school, and they introduced me to new people, some of whom became my closest friends. Sticking it out through the misery and meeting new people was fucking difficult, but the payoff was fantastic.
I adopted a cat, which was one of the best things I have ever done for myself. Having a pet gave me a reason to get up in the morning and dulled the worst sting of solitude.
When my lease was up, I left my one-bedroom, got some amazing roommates, and moved into a less isolated and much more interesting part of the city near my new friends and other people my age.
As time went on and worked its powerful healing magic, I learned to stop living in fear of dejection. I came to realize that it was perfectly ok that people didn’t call or write or FaceTime as often as I had wanted and that it was unreasonable to expect them to do so. Letting go of this anxiety and easing away from my absurdly high expectations was life-changing. I tried not to linger in the past and, in turn, I found a place of comfort in the present. I nurtured and enjoyed the friendship and love surrounding me, which then took the mental strain off of my still very dear long distance relationships. Slowly but surely, I made my way towards becoming a happier person.
Maybe you haven’t experienced it through the magnifying lens of trauma and depression (or maybe you have), but in talking to other people I’ve met, it seems like the fear of losing touch or missing out exists all around. I think this becomes especially true after friends leave college and disperse for jobs or graduate schools or whatever else drives them.
Ironically, I now feel like I sometimes have the opposite problem. I crave solitude. I moved and left my close friends (again), but I was happy to leave and felt as though the decision was healthy and important. I often wonder if I’m doing enough to keep in touch with my long-distance friends. Am I disappearing from their worlds in Boston, New York, DC, Richmond, and on and on? How in the hell do I maintain a balance of “staying in touch” and being wrapped up in priorities like work and writing and generally planning for the future?
Is there even any reason to feel this anxious about it? Or is this totally natural and ok? I have no idea.
Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone have some more perspective?