“I feel so far behind!”
This was the third student that day who had burst into tears and made this confession. As a health professions advisor for college students, I saw this happen a lot and it always was heartbreaking. Here was this talented, driven student who had convinced herself that because she needed to postpone taking a specific prerequisite course for medical school, she was behind and therefore not as good as her peers. I saw this play out so many times that I gave it a name: the Fear of Being Behind (aka FOBB).
A lot has been written about the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), especially in the age where we are all constantly bombarded with images of spectacular trips people are taking, homes they are buying, food they are eating, and pretty much every other flawless element of their lives. FOBB is related to FOMO but is much worse. FOMO causes us to feel a little down when we compare the reality of our lives to the curated, perfect images of friends’ lives we see all over social media. In contrast, FOBB often evokes deep feelings of anxiety and depression because it makes us painfully aware that we aren’t where we think we should be in life and that we may never get there. Our feelings of panic cause us to overlook the fact that neither those perfect images nor the perception of being behind is an accurate representation of reality.
Here are some examples of the difference between FOMO and FOBB:
Your best friend gets engaged and posts a picture of her wearing her ring. You are single.
FOMO: “Wow, she is so lucky and that ring is so pretty. I wish that was me.”
FOBB: “Oh my god, we are the same age, she is engaged, and I am not even in a serious relationship! I am miles away from that ever being me.”
Two different people you went to college with post on LinkedIn that they just got amazing new jobs or got promoted.
FOMO: “That would be so nice to have a higher level job and salary.”
FOBB: “I’ve been in the same job for five years now and am not going anywhere. Everyone is moving forward and I am not. What’s wrong with me?”
When you start to see how many areas FOBB touches and how it surfaces in our lives, it is pretty jarring. At any given time, we might have Education FOBB, Job FOBB, Relationship FOBB, Financial FOBB, Body FOBB, and/or many others. It also seems to happen at any age. Picture a six-year-old who feels behind because she doesn’t have many friends compared with her classmates or a sixty-year-old who feels behind because he hasn’t created any kind of legacy compared with his friends.
Depending on your cultural background and/or religious beliefs, FOBB can be especially acute. For example, if you grow up in a faith community that emphasizes getting married and having children at a young age and that has not played out in your life, FOBB can feel emotionally devastating. Perhaps in your family, the expectation is that you follow a very specific career progression from college to professional school (medicine, law, etc.) to a high powered job and your path hasn’t lined up with that. I saw this happen many times with pre-med international students and I could feel the pain and distress this caused them. Their parents’ projection of their FOBB made these students experience terrible FOBB of their own.
The problem is, when we feel behind in life, we often make choices that hurt us rather than help us. We may try to numb ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, and/or other things that allow us to escape our emotional pain. We might become angry, lash out at those around us, and look for someone to blame for why we are behind. Another reaction to FOBB is cognitive paralysis, where we feel like we can’t make any decisions or even process our options. In the most tragic cases, FOBB can lead people to end their lives. FOBB is truly toxic for individuals and communities.
So, what do we do? How can we fight back against FOBB?
Try to catch yourself when you start to feel this way and understand that you don’t know the whole story.
When you compare yourself to someone else and feel behind relative to where they are in life, keep in mind that there is usually much more going on than a social media post conveys. Perhaps your friend with the big engagement ring has been fighting with her fiancé, or the friend with the shiny new job may be excited but also feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious about whether they can do parts of the job they have never done before.
Talk about it.
Often the act of naming something and bringing it out into the light reduces some of its power. Find a friend or someone else you really trust and tell them about what you’re experiencing. You may find that people who seem to have everything under control are also dealing with FOBB. Also, if you know anyone who has reached goals to which you aspire, ask them if they have faced FOBB about it and how they overcame it.
Separate FOBB into two categories: motivating and deflating.
Could the fear you are experiencing be turned into a motivator and catalyst for change in your life? If the fear is motivating, channel it into a plan to move forward in a way that will help you feel less behind. If the fear is deflating, you can push back against it by changing your internal narrative and challenging whether your feelings are actually based on fact, or you can take a step back and try to let your deflating feelings go.
Shift your focus outward.
When we let ourselves get trapped in our own heads and thought loops fueled by FOBB are our only company, we can spiral downwards very quickly. Observe the world around you, be curious, and create stories based on what you see. Let’s say you are walking down the street in a historic neighborhood. Who else might have walked there over the years? Why are the houses a certain style? Who lives here now? Or, let’s say you see a flock of birds. Where have they flown from? What have they seen? Where is home for them? Or, if creating these kinds of stories isn’t your thing, do something else to move beyond focusing inward. Maybe this is listening to music you love or being with people who make you laugh. Getting outside of yourself can often be very therapeutic.
Realize that we each have our own paths and timelines that are right for us and be open to new experiences.
When we rigidly cling to only one view of the life we “should” have and judge ourselves harshly for having not already achieved it, we exclude many big and small opportunities that may arise. A former advisee of mine is an inspiring example of this. When we first started meeting, she was dead set on going straight from college to medical school. As college progressed and different events played out, her timeline changed. She spent the year after college completing a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship abroad and then came back to the U.S. to study public health and apply to medical school. When she starts medical school this fall, she does so having had some amazing life experiences that will make her a better doctor. She would have missed all of these had she not embraced the opportunities that emerged and been willing to let go of her former timeline in favor of one that better aligned with the life she wants to live.
The Fear of Being Behind is powerful but we are stronger than it is. Let’s face down our FOBB, support each other in doing so, and relish every moment of our unique, beautifully imperfect lives.