The narcissism of FOMO

Studio 54, Robin Platzer, Twin Images / The LIFE Images Collection Getty

Last summer I was standing in a crowded room, silk shirt stuck to my back and my face burning so hot, I could feel the skin melt away with my makeup. The invitation said rooftop, yet I found myself on the top floor of a hotel, surrounded only by a tiny balcony, filled with people gasping for air like passengers on the Titanic. I had a pounding headache and irregular heart beating. The ice cubes in my vodka had turned to water and my feet hurt up on 6-inch heels. Facebook promised this would be the coolest party in Bucharest, making invitations virtually impossible to get. I was convinced I absolutely had to be there that night and thus spent hours messaging friends who might have been in the possession of valuable party bracelets.

But two hours after dusk descended upon my hometown, most people were too annoyed and sweaty to at least try and have fun. Queues for drinks seemed to never end, the music sucked, leaving the dance floor empty and the lack of air turned party into a form of punishment. As I caught my reflexion in a steamy mirror, I saw a miserable girl clutching an iPhone, her outfit and makeup ruined and her face twisted in a tortured grimace. I wasn’t having fun and by that point, it had become clear the night wasn’t going to be a great one at all. Yet despite being hot, bored and tired, I stayed.

Fear was stronger than reason. Against all the evidence that proved the party was a fiasco, I was afraid I would be missing out on something thrilling if I gave up and went home. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a millennial coined concept that refers to anxiety around an exciting event that might be happening in your absence. If not born with social media, FOMO was surely worsen by it, nothing aggravating its symptoms like virtual spaces that constantly display images of happy people doing a myriad of interesting things while you sit at home in your pyjamas. FOMO is mostly about being excluded, about not taking part in a great event or belonging to a certain group of people. FOMO is about having too much choice and losing the ability to choose. FOMO is the way my online world has become woven through my real life, making me feel that if I look away, I will miss something important. Yet no matter how much I scroll, tap and share, the feeling of being left behind doesn’t go away. There’s too much to follow, too much to read and look at. Nearly every waking minute is filled with living online, but I feel that soon it won’t be enough. I will have to scroll in my sleep in order to keep up.

The way people share news or simply mundane excerpts of their ordinary lives makes it seem like there’s an abundance of information to soak in. Basked in the ornate light of filters, even the most boring picture of a bowl of pasta can give me anxiety and mixed feelings. Looking at it, I feel obliged to follow whoever took the picture, just in case they turn out to be a trendsetter. I instantly feel that my aesthetic and artistic flair don’t match theirs and therefore sulk in, ruminating over my limitations. To perpetuate the existential tantrum, I scroll past all the accounts the pasta photographing person is following which in turn ignites an even more inconsolable mood. My realisation that there are too many interesting people out there triggers a downward spiral of distress — my taste is mediocre at best, I don’t know enough about art, hell, I don’t know anything about the world, I am not smart enough to grasp it all, my life is small and insignificant, and so on. What was initially a question about the world, turns into a question about me because above all, FOMO is deeply narcissistic.

Missing out on the interesting events happening in the world is a kind of fear within another fear. I am not so much afraid of not being able to be part of it all, but of what it says about me if I’m not au courant with everything that happens around me. FOMO appears to be a fear of missing out on life’s abundance of opportunities to have a good time, yet to me, it is mostly about missing out on who I could be. On the certain version of myself I need to impersonate despite never having dreamt of being that person. That night at the party, although absurd, the decision to stay wasn’t strange to me. Borrowed from my online behaviour, I was now — in the real world — faced with the inability to tear myself away from something I didn’t enjoy. Going home meant more than admitting the party sucked — something outside my control. It was also a bitter resignation of my own shortcomings, defeat before those things I could control, like my patience, my capacity to have fun, the free, young and wild spirit I wished to preserve forever.

In the virtual space, everyone has perfect lives. Following suit, I got used to portraying a certain image, not an entirely different persona, but an upgraded version of myself, benchmarked against the standards created by others. If I stayed at the party, I could live up to that made up identity. I could prove myself I could still have amazing fun, or better yet, make the fun happen. Most importantly, staying meant sticking to the plan I had made when I put on those beautiful clothes and makeup. Having fun wasn’t a wish, but an expectation. Perhaps naivete, delusion or merely the shiny ideals induced by a life spent looking at Instagram pictures fueled my belief that life was filled with extraordinary things. My own trajectory had to be amazing in order to matter, and thus I pressured myself to live up to that expectation, only to end up shattered each time life turned out to be less than golden.

For most of my adolescence and early twenties I had no idea who I was because I wanted to do what everyone else did. Whether in real life or on social media, I never fell short of finding something enticing to try and emulate. Glamorous people, successful people, intellectuals, hipsters, boho philosophers, geniuses, I wanted to be each of them, hoping I could thus give my life meaning. But each identity I tried on left me more clueless and empty, in the same way looking at Facebook posts left me jealous and depressed. I lost count on the number of times I tried to get off Facebook. In the spur of the moment, I would close my account and promise myself would detox from social media for at least a week. But FOMO makes me paranoid, so inevitably, I re-activate it three hours later. Those people I have invested with the power to make me feel like a loser when looking at their much more compelling existence, can also — ever so slightly and momentarily — put me out of my misery by stroking my ego with a virtual nod of appreciation.

When I finally left the party, my friends wanted to get something to eat, but my feet hurt too much to make it another 50 steps. I waited for them on a street corner, with my shoes off and the warm, dirty cement under my feet. The minutes passed and I couldn’t deny my disappointment. I let it envelop me like the much needed after a torrid day. My phone was dead and around me it was quiet, the silence throbbing in my chest as the reminder of a natural loneliness turned strange. There was also a good side to the lack of noise — my mind had stopped chasing action, it was still and for the first time that night I could think. And I was afraid. But this kind of fear was different, visceral and all consuming, making images flicker in front of my eyes as if I had pressed fast forward on my memories. I could see that the most perfect moments of my life were accidents. Serendipitous encounters made possible by following gut feelings and burning desires instead of chasing dreams that did not belong to me.

Flashes of clarity have the power to jerk us from the self-induced automatism and repetition of our lives. Yet to say I learned how to let go of FOMO would be disingenuous. What I try to do when it sneaks up on me — pointing at all that I could be — is remember there’s another kind of fear to cultivate: the fear of missing out on real life. The fear of losing those moments when nothing seems to happen or move in any direction. For it is precisely within that stillness where I can briefly return to an identity stripped off embellishment. There, in murkiness and uncertainty, I find a self who needs so much less than all the other ones I have created. She doesn’t ask to be liked, she doesn’t need to belong, she doesn’t even have to prove she can be anything more than she already is. She wants to be happy. No filter, no smart caption, no approval needed.