FOMO, which stands for the fear of missing out, is a common source of pain and anguish for people of all ages. And it’s a seemingly endless source of distress because of five truths:
There will always be choices.
We can always find a better and a worse option than the one chosen.
We are limited by the realities of our lives: less money, less time, and less fame.
We will be excluded at times. (It’s a part of life and doesn’t mean we don’t measure up.)
We have emotions that are sensitive to rejection and a brain that compares ourselves to others.
A new approach to dealing with FOMO
I have read many articles that suggest the best way to deal with FOMO is to limit exposure to social media and other triggers. While I have no objection to this advice, it is often impractical and insufficient as most of us are not willing to give up social media nor can we reliably protect ourselves from circumstances that lead to FOMO. The heart of the FOMO experience lies NOT in what is happening in the outside world of infinite options, but in the inside world of mysterious, complex, and difficult emotions.
It is not surprising that information is scarce on how to validate and move through the emotions of FOMO. Our dysfunctional society fails to provide us with any emotions education, nor teach us skills that help us get out of our heads and into our bodies where relief and healing happen. There is much we can learn that helps.
A painful cocktail of emotions
Right now, I am allowing myself to revisit a painful FOMO memory: Selected members of my family were invited to attend a “high profile” party. I was NOT invited. Right now, as I recall the memory in my mind, I feel the familiar yet subtle changes in my body: a tugging sensation in my heart, a tightening in my chest, and a sinking feeling. There’s a knot in my stomach. The memory makes me feel small. It’s quite unpleasant! My mind formulates familiar thoughts and questions: I should have been invited. Didn't they think about me? Is there something wrong with me? Am I boring, not important, or invisible? Many emotions arise: anxiety, jealousy, resentment, judgment, anger, shame, and sadness. FOMO conjures a painful cocktail of emotions.
Working the Change Triangle tool for emotional health
We don’t want to get stuck in our FOMO. The Change Triangle guides us to get beyond our ruminative thoughts (defenses) so that we may find and feel our core emotions. When we experience them, emotional energy is released, and we feel better.
When I was first taught to lean into my emotions, it felt scary and counter-intuitive. But it is true that we cannot think our way out of emotions, they have to be experienced. The way out of our FOMO torment entails connecting to core sadness.
Core sadness is what we feel when we experience loss. And FOMO is about loss. Whether we were forced to choose one out of many options or we weren’t invited to participate in something we wanted, we have missed out on some desired experience. The choice left behind is the loss we have to mourn.
When we make a choice or a choice is made for us, we experience loss and we must mourn.
The courage to find our sadness
When we experience a loss of any kind, it is easy to avoid it by moving into shame, self-judgment, blame, and other defenses. It takes energy and awareness to resist retreating into negative thoughts and behaviors. But that is exactly the task at hand. We are helped by shifting the focus from the thoughts in our head to the emotions in our body. Diving into the body, we can find and honor our sadness, mourning our loss so we can more quickly recover.
One way to do this is to literally ask the parts of us that collapse into shame and self-judgment to step back or move aside. Then with a stance of self-compassion and curiosity, we can scan our body from head to toe to find the sensations of sadness inside the body.
Allowing in sadness with radical compassion and curiosity
Allowing in the experience of sadness is a compassionate endeavor. Can you name it and say to yourself, I feel sad! Can you validate the sadness and say to yourself, it is ok to feel sad. Can you honor the sadness and say to yourself, my sadness matters! Then give yourself compassion. Try it now. We deserve compassion in such painful FOMO moments.
At the time my family was invited to this glamorous party (with celebrities!), I remember feeling sorry for myself. But I also knew logically that there was a reason I was excluded. I wasn’t nearly as close to the party's host as my other family members who had worked for this family for many years. All the chatter in my head muttering, why didn’t they want me? And, how could they do this to me? was just a way to avoid accepting my loss and experiencing my sadness.
Practicing the Change Triangle for many years now, I have learned how to stay with the sensations of sadness in my body so they can move through me - up and out. Dropping the negative storylines in my head, I start deep belly breathing which both calms my anxiety and allows core emotions to flow. (Holding one's breath stops the flow of emotions and is something many of us do without awareness.) Then I focus on the sensations of sadness in my body: the heaviness in my body, the pressure behind my eyes, the lump in my throat that tells me I might cry. I keep breathing as deeply as possible while I stay only on the physical sensations of sadness until the full wave is over, usually within a few minutes.
If the sadness feels stuck, it usually means I am shaming myself - telling myself there is something wrong with me or my life. We must become aware of our "shaming self-talk" and soothe our shame, asking it to step aside again ... and again, if need be. There is nothing shameful about missing out. It’s part of life and a universal experience.
Next time you feel that FOMO kind of feeling, use it as a cue to try something new. Strive to accept what has happened and mourn the loss. Feel the sadness in your body, cry, and stay with the sensations until they shift. Stay curious about your internal experience as you ride the waves of your sadness. It is also important to seek out soothing and comfort, be extra good to yourself, treat yourself to something special, and most importantly give yourself compassion. There’s nothing wrong with you. Whatever happened, it's just one of life’s many losses. Mourning the loss of the road not taken (or not invited to take) helps us move on to what is good enough.
More resources for working with your emotions in safe and gentle ways:
Try this guided emotion exercise to help you get in touch with sadness in your body and release it. In this video, you will think of the sadness for yourself in missing out and work to release it.
Try this guided emotion exercise to help you soothe parts of yourselves that hold shame.
Try this guided emotion exercise on Self-Parenting Your Emotions and Distress to help you soothe parts of yourselves that feel bad.