Am I Missing Out?
As sober addicts and alcoholics, we often convince ourselves that we’re missing out when we’re not. Luckily, there are ways to combat that.
Last year I went away for a long weekend with a big group of sober women to celebrate our friend Sara’s birthday. There must have been about 12 of us (it was only a teeny bit of a madhouse), and a conversation we had there has stayed on my mind ever since. We were discussing that weekend and how much fun we were having there. One woman, Jen, mentioned how grateful she felt to have been invited at all. “I figured, well, that it must have been a mistake,” she laughed.
She said she’d assumed that Sara’s—and everyone else’s—social calendars were spilling over with awesome parties, beach trips, hikes and movie dates that she just wasn’t cool enough to be privy to. But then, following Jen’s lead, more of the women there (including myself) confessed, one by one, that we were also somehow convinced our being invited was a mistake. Why? Because we never felt like we were part of the action; we assumed we were being left out of things and that everyone else was living a full, exciting life while ours were colorless and quiet and ho-hum.
I’ve been thinking about FOMO (fear of missing out), and its sister issue, comparison (aka “compare and despair”), ever since that weekend. I realize that when I feel the worst—saddest, loneliest, or most afraid—it's usually not about what's actually going on in my life but about what seems to be going on in others. I'm comparing my life to their lives and inevitably coming up short. This behavior is painful and crazy making but I can’t seem to stop myself from falling into it pretty regularly. And anything can trigger it, from a seemingly innocuous party photo on Facebook to a casual mention that a friend had dinner with someone else from our social circle.
Our thoughts are often dramatically disproportionate to the reality of the situation.
Rebecca, 30, goes through it, too. A recovering alcoholic from Brooklyn, Rebecca vividly remembers one of the first times she experienced FOMO: she was around 14 and knee-deep in her uncomfortable teen years. “My best friend invited a bunch of girls from our class to a sleepover at her house and I couldn’t go because I had a family thing,” she recalls. She battled crippling jealousy all night, speculating about all the incredible varieties of fun her friends were surely having without her. “That night kind of set the stage for my problem with the fear of missing out,” she remembers. “I didn’t know how to name it but I had issues with it all through high school and college. Even though getting sober helped me feel better about myself overall, I still get upset if I hear about social events I’m not invited to or if I have to miss out on something fun.”
Obviously, Rebecca and I aren’t alone. Even celebrities like Mindy Kaling cop to feeling the dreaded FOMO (in her memoir, the awesomely titled Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling writes that as a teenager she “always felt I was missing out because of the way the high school experience was dramatized in television and song”). And unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve read some of the recent media hype about how the Internet is ruining our lives. It’s scary but not especially surprising: Study after study reaffirms the idea that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are driving us batty from jealousy, comparison, and FOMO. In July, Australia’s Herald Sun reported that a whopping 62 percent of South Africans between ages 15 and 50 claimed to live in "constant fear" of missing out. And a study at Chicago University's Booth Business School actually indicated that it’s harder to resist tweeting or emailing than it is to resist drugs or alcohol.
But what about old school, non-Internet-fueled FOMO and comparison—those things that pop up in our everyday lives (like when you bump into a group of your friends at a restaurant and realize, with a jolt, that they mysteriously failed to invite you)? Does that obsessive drive to keep up with the Joneses still exist? And does it afflict everyone, or are addicts and alcoholics more prone to it because of their often-shakier sense of self-esteem?
According to Dr. Harris Stratyner, the vice president of New York Clinical Regional Services at Caron Treatment Centers, feelings of FOMO and “compare and despair” really are exaggerated for alcoholics and addicts. “Addicts are very impulse-oriented,” he explains. “They self-medicate because they want to change how they’re feeling.” He notes that studies have indicated alcoholics and addicts may be smarter (yay) and more intense than “normal” folks, which can lead them into unhelpful rumination and overthinking (urgh). “There is a real connection between addiction and intelligence, and [addicts] are constantly looking to get the most out of their lives in an intense way,” he says.
That longing for a rich, exciting life is healthy to a degree but it can also keep us stuck in a holding pattern of “never enough”—not allowing ourselves to be happy until things look a certain way or live up to our outsized expectations. And that perpetuates the cycle of comparing our lives to the lives of our friends and acquaintances for “proof” that we’re not doing enough professionally, having enough fun, or choosing the right romantic partners.
Frequent bouts of FOMO can do more than just make us feel down, though. According to Dr. Stratyner, those feelings of FOMO and comparison can actually be triggers to relapse. Dr. Meredith Grossman, a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, agrees. “As humans, we all want to belong,” she says, and addicts often fall prey to what Grossman describes as the “shoulds and musts”—the sense that, to have a happy, healthy life, they “should” be doing something(s) they aren’t, whether it’s as trivial a task as washing the dog or something bigger, like overcoming shyness or working harder professionally.
So what to do? Dr. Grossman has some ideas for ways to help fight FOMO before it completely derails you. “Small changes have profound effects on how we feel,” she says, before suggesting the cognitive behavioral strategy of “cognitive restructuring.” It’s a fancy-sounding term comprised of a few simple steps. The first, Grossman explains, is to identify your thoughts and ask yourself a few questions: “What does it say about me that I’m experiencing this fear of missing out? What’s the worst that can happen if I miss this [party or event]? Am I in the ‘thinking trap’—am I labeling myself [for missing out or not being invited]?”
The next step: Examine the validity of your thoughts. Grossman suggests asking yourself whether you’re “comparing [your] insides to others’ outsides.” She also advises challenging your thoughts. For instance, you could ask yourself, “Is everybody else who’s missing out on this party a [loser]?” Our thoughts are often dramatically disproportionate to the reality of the situation.
As for the third step, Grossman suggests trying to “generate a new, realistic thought.” For example, instead of automatically buying into your mind’s cruel babblings (i.e. “You’re a dork who nobody wants to hang out with”), come up with a new one that’s, well, true—like “I’m smart and funny and I have friends who like me.”
Another tool Grossman recommends is goal setting. Ask yourself, what’s your goal for today? What’s your goal for one month, one year or five years from now? Each time you compulsively check your Facebook feed or freak out about missing some questionably fun activity your friends are doing, ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer to my goal or closer to a drink?”
Mindfulness can also help. Grossman suggests you “find one quiet night at home per week where you focus on being present and in the moment.” She also suggests “testing out the validity of your fear of missing out. That is, if you’re highly focused on a particular event but can’t make it or decide to relax at home instead, ask yourself afterward, “Was missing out really all that bad?”
It’s human nature to seek inclusion and compare our lives to others. But armed with a few new strategies, it should—hopefully—be a lot harder to succumb to the painful FOMO beast. As Rebecca of Brooklyn notes, “I didn’t get sober to feel like crap all the time. I’m finally realizing that it’s usually just my own negative thinking and bad habits that keep me feeling separate from the people around me.”
Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and editor. She’s the author of the new book The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions from Pop Culture That You Should Know About...Before It’s Too Late and the editor of the anthology Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop. She also wrote about addiction to social networking and the perils of dating in sobriety for The Fix.