Why our Fear of Missing Out robs us of happiness-- and what to do about it
Lately I’ve discovered that I, and a number of folks in spiritual direction, have been struggling with existential FOMO. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is that unpleasant anxiety that comes with making a decision. We fear that by staying home, declining a job opportunity, passing on group activity, or generally saying no to option A— that we miss out on something extraordinary. How do I know I made the right decision? If I go with option B, how do I know option A wouldn’t have been better? (Or C, or K, or Z…) Most of the time, it results in that spinning sensation inside. Why do we do this to ourselves? And how do we stop the spin?
The linchpin that keeps the wheel of FOMO spinning in our heads is our desire to make the right decision. Is it best to prioritize my self-care and stay in tonight? Or do I need to push myself out the door to happy hour, and actually see people in person? Is that better self care?? Many of us get so concerned over what the “right” or “best” option is that we lose sight of the very, very good options right in front of us. We end up “shoulding” all over ourselves (a messy thing to do). So we chart out options, list pros and cons, and try to outsmart the life-or-death quiz the Universe has placed in front of us.
Many of us get so concerned over what the “right” or “best” option is that we lose sight of the very, very good options right in front of us.
When stuck in spin, the consequences feel enormous. If I miss this moment, I'll never get it back! Why do the stakes have to be so high?? Yet if we step back, we might see that we're not on the Bridge of Death.
If you're not familiar with the Monty Python movie, the knights must cross the Bridge of Death in order to continue their quest. The bridge keeper poses three questions to each character before they are allowed to pass. Answer it wrong, and you die. Thankfully, we are not mythic knights in pursuit of the holy grail. Our decisions are rarely life-or-death matters. But because we are afraid of missing out, we spin and stall and fret. And never get across that bridge.
Maximizers vs. Satisfizers
I have a secret to share. If you get stuck in spin regularly, it could change your life. Are you ready? You will never know what the “best” option is, or if such a thing even exists! Understanding this secret is what distinguishes Satisfizers from Maximizers. A Maximizer is someone who is trying to “maximize” their experience. They want to get the best possible result from their next purchase, their weekend, their life. Unfortunately, they are so hellbent on maximizing that they have a hard time hearing their intuition. Their death grip on the situation is so strong, that even if it wanted to wrangle free to speak to them, its throat would have collapsed. (I see myself in caricature, as a crazy-eyed, big-haired zombie, with a death grip on my restaurant menu: “Must… get… BEST… CHOICE!”) Those of us who can relate to this experience find that when we do finally make a choice (“I’ll take the pesto chicken”), we have a hard time being happy with it. Instead, we’re worrying over whether we’re missing out on something even better. (“Oh, but that steak looks so good…”) Even writing about it gives me tension in my chest.
Satisfizers know the truth: There is no right answer here.
Satisfizers, on the other hand, are able to choose an option that appeals to them and embrace it as good. They can actually enjoy the pesto chicken because they’re in the present, in their bodies, savoring that basil-garlic-olive oil drizzle. Satisfizers know the truth: there's no right answer here. The Maximizer at the next table is stuck second guessing his choice, eyeing everyone else's food. He's lost in a flurry of missed possibilities. Satisfizers nod at those other possibilities... and enjoy their meal.
Why we so crazy?
What is the source of all of this mayhem? It often stems from our warped images of God and the universe. Do you have a scarcity mindset, or one of abundance? Are you a hoarder of plastic bags, Costco bulk buys, and your favorite pair of jeans? Need to keep extra on hand “just in case” you run out? If you say no to a camping trip with friends, do you worry that you might miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime? At its core, this behavior believes there is a scarce, limited amount of good, and you're passing on your allocated portion. Can we trust that the divine - that the Universe - wants our good? That, even if I might have had fun going out with my friends, a quiet weekend at home is good too. I can be merciful with myself, and enjoy the decisions I've made.
What is the source of all of this mayhem? Often it stems from our warped images of God and the universe. As if there is a scarce, limited amount of good, and you're passing on your allocated portion.
The God that I believe in does not sit in heaven with a divine plan that functions as a checklist. “Kelly went to the correct university— check. She applied to the correct volunteer programs afterwards. Check. She took a job at… wait— WHERE? Oh, no. Well, I’ll have to smite her for this one. I’m sorry, my daughter.” Unconsciously, I used to believe this is how life discernment worked. It was something we had to figure out, and that we could get wrong. After a circuitous path of my own, I’ve come to realize that all we can do is the best we can to follow the desires God has placed on our hearts. If we falter from some majestic plan, we are not punished for it. Yes, there are consequences for actions. Choosing homicide over rationally discussing conflict would likely lead to time behind bars. But I firmly believe that God is delighted every time we make a decision according to our deepest knowing (what some call the Self, or your gut, or your conscience). When the way isn’t clear, and we have to make a decision with the information we have— we can do so in peace and freedom. I will not be smote (smitten?) for a misstep. Instead, God and I co-create a path forward. It is the path I have chosen. The infinite other possibilities are not real. My life, my weekend camping trip, my present job - is where I am, and where I am meant to be for the moment. If the divine wanted me elsewhere, I trust he will make that clear.
My role is to choose with my deepest self, with what information I have.
The next time you are stuck in existential FOMO, trying to “maximize” your options, I invite you to join with me: “The universe wants my good. There is an abundance of goodness. Saying ‘no’ to this means saying 'yes' to something that's also wonderful! My role is to choose with my deepest self, with what information I have. These decisions are much smaller than I make them out to be. Why don’t I experiment a little and see what happens?” You might be surprised at the freedom that opens up when we do.
Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.
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