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I am quite prone to saying yes. Often. Just say yes, and worry about the details later – for a long time, this was my modus operandi (plus, Tina Fey said it –  so it must be a good idea). I wish I could tell you that it’s because I have boundless energy (hardly) or a fearless sense of adventure (ha). No and no. While many of my endeavours do stem from genuine interest, I’ve also been motivated by “if other people are able to pull it off, why shouldn’t I?” Looking back, this has applied to my career, parenting, travel, and meal preparation. While I have reaped undeniable benefits from aiming high and taking a lot on, I am also no stranger to burnout and distractedness. Saying yes is a package deal.

That’s why, a few years ago, I was delighted to stumble across the term “FoMO.” Fear of Missing Out. Already added into the Oxford English Dictionary (2013) and possibly coming soon to a DSM near you, FoMO has been touted as the modern malaise – a byproduct, likely, of seeing ourselves and others through the filtered lenses of social media. When FoMO governs our actions (as opposed to genuine motivation, intuition and pragmatism), we say yes out of a sense of anxiety that if we turn the other way, we’ll miss an opportunity.

No doubt, this is exacerbated by the fact that we have never been more aware of what other people are up to than we are now, albeit in a deliberately curated highlight reel. This, combined with a cultural ethos of “bring it on!” has made this moment in time a perfect storm for social comparison and taking too much on as a way of looking competent and worthy of admiration. But is FoMO distinct to this millenium?

I don’t believe it is. The psychotherapist and great thinker Dr. Irvin Yalom identifies that making choices has historically been one of the primary sources of our collective existential anxiety. The anxiety comes from two things. Firstly, knowing that we alone have the freedom and the power to take action that is true to ourselves provides us then with the responsibility to make those choices matter. Secondly – and importantly for understanding FoMO –  committing to something invariably means relinquishing the possibility of something else. Choosing one partner, one job, one home, one event, means missing out on the possibility of others. This is why Fear of Missing Out, and a general difficulty in making decisions, is part of the human condition.

All of this is complicated by the reality that it is sometimes hard to know the true motivation for our choices. As a therapist, I often find myself with people who are at a decision point of some sort, and the role I play is to create a safe space to not only look at the content of the decisions themselves, but to also examine the sometimes competing motivations that make the process itself difficult.  Here are some questions that you can ask yourself, when you feel torn or paralysed by choice, to help you act based on congruence, rather than FoMO:

Am I more internally or externally focused?

There are a lot of influences on our choices and actions. Being more externally focused means that we push our decision making process through the sieve of other people’s expectations and their (imagined) impressions of us. “How will this look to others?” we unconsciously wonder. “Who will I be impressing/disappointing? Internally focused people start with “what action makes the sense (given current realities)?” or “what do I need right now?” as their decision making metric. Ideally, as relational people living within a collaborative society, we need to be both internal and external in our focus. People who experience chronic FoMO skew towards a more external focus. Feeling right, by the way, does not mean the decision was easy or straightforward, and it doesn’t mean that there was no indecisiveness. If there was indecisiveness, all the more reason to examine how you were able to drill down through that to make this decision. And on that note:

In general, how much do I tend to trust myself?

Because trusting oneself makes it easier to say no to this and yes to that. A wavering sense of trust in oneself leads to a lot of second guessing and opinion asking.

Think of all the minor and major decisions you have made in the past few months, and take an inventory of your style and motivations for making these decisions.

This is a valuable way of identifying all of the aforementioned competing forces at play when you make decisions. Are you a ruminator? Prone to impulsivity, just to get the decision made already? Do you relentlessly seek guidance, or do you rely strongly on your own intuition and gut feelings. We might be confident decision makers in one area and more tentative in others. It’s important to also look at small decisions here, as they are microcosms for how we handle the bigger impasses in life. Remember, this is an inventory to help you understand your patterns, not an opportunity for self-judgment.

How does fear influence your decision making?

Fear works its way into how we live our lives and how we choose to spend our time. Fear factors prominently into our decision making. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of judgment, fear of uncertainty – and yes, you guessed it – fear of missing out! The question is always not IF we fear, but WHAT we fear, and HOW we manage it when it comes up

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.