I saw this fantastic article posted on a friend’s Facebook. I read it thinking that it might relate to my own experiences, and I wasn’t wrong.
I’ve suffered from the “fear of missing out” (or in my case maybe more accurately the “fear of having already missed out”) for most of my adult life. But before I delve into that, here’s a bit of background. Not because I want to moan about how hard my life’s been or elicit sympathy, just because what I want to say will make a lot more sense with that background.
You see, in my case the “fear of missing out” wasn’t entirely groundless. I did miss out on a lot of stuff in my late teens and early 20s, a time of life when everyone’s supposed to be out exploring the world, bonding with their peers and having amazing experiences. For me it wasn’t like that at all, in fact it was the lowest point of my life so far. By the time I left school and went to university, years of bullying (plus some other more complicated stuff that I won’t go into in this post) had left me with anxiety and depression that was almost crippling.
Throughout my entire time at university I had no close friends, no love life, in fact hardly any social life at all (at least to begin with). I would go in for my classes but afterwards I would come straight home to my bedroom in my parents’ house, certain that there was something terribly wrong with me but with no idea how to fix it, or even what it really was.
Thankfully, things did start to get gradually better. As I got more used to being around people, my social anxiety subsided slightly. I still wasn’t really up to forming meaningful relationships, but at least I got better at dealing with everyday situations without wanting to run away and hide. The depression was alleviated slightly as well, helped a bit by therapy and a bit more by experiencing some major successes in my life (namely getting my first job and passing my driving test).
I started to socialise with my new colleagues and soon I was going for nights out reasonably often and coping with them a lot better than I used to. I tried out various social groups outside work as well, finding some that suited me quite well. Eventually I finally got to the point where I started to form meaningful relationships, and I was also living on my own by that time.
At that point you might think that my problems were nearly solved. After all, I had overcome the depression and anxiety to the extent that I was able to live independently, work, socialise and have relationships. I was more or less functional in every major area of life. But my stupid dysfunctional brain had other ideas.
It really started when my first relationship ended very badly. Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that; I think most people’s first relationships end quite badly. Relationships are actually quite hard work and not all as fun and glamourous as they’re made out to be. The problem was how I handled it. Instead of picking myself up, shrugging and moving on with my life, I became fixated on the idea that this had happened because I’d left it too late: I’d missed out on the experiences that most people had in their teens that taught them how to deal with relationships, and as a result I would never be able to have a proper, healthy relationship.
It wasn’t just in the field of relationships, either. I found myself obsessing over how I’d missed out on all the amazing social experiences most people have at high school and university, and I thoroughly convinced myself that nothing I could possibly do in the future would ever live up to that. Of course, even if that had actually been true, the rational response would have been to cut my losses, stop fixating on it, move on from it and get on with making the rest of my life as good as it could be, regardless of whether it was going to live up to what I’d previously missed out on or not. But I found myself unable to stop thinking about those lost years.
Thoughts like that are pretty debilitating. Although I continued to attempt to socialise in the present (after all, what else could I do?), constantly comparing it to an imagined past that I should have had was a pretty good way to kill any enjoyment I might otherwise have experienced, not to mention putting up a barrier that stopped me from really getting close to anyone. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about going out for drinks when all you can think about is all those amazing wild nights that everyone else was having as a student, and about how boring and tame your night is going to be compared to those. And it’s hard to feel a connection to anyone when you’ve written yourself off as damaged goods due to not having had the proper formative experiences that everyone else has.
I think a large part of the problem is that a lot of this stuff is so over-hyped in the media that the reality is almost certain to fall short. The ideas that (for example) teenagers and students are constantly bonding with each other and having wild parties, or that sex is unimaginably, mind-blowingly amazing are constantly rammed down our throats these days. So when various “firsts” for me (first time in a nightclub, first time having sex) left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed and thinking “is that it then?”, it was easy to assume that I must have somehow done them “wrong”. And instead of thinking that maybe those experiences just weren’t the be-all and end-all like I’d been led to believe, I convinced myself that they would have been if only I’d done them at the right age. They were only disappointing because I’d left them “too late”.
(Don’t get me wrong, I like going for nights out and I like having sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, and I’m not saying they aren’t enjoyable. It’s just that they’d both been built up to such ridiculous levels in my head that I was expecting them to be completely off the scale compared to everything else I’d experienced before. And they just weren’t).
As I became more and more frustrated with this feeling of having missed out, I started to go out of my way to try and have experiences more like the ones I was convinced I’d missed out on. I even contemplated a really major life change that I thought might help, though with hindsight I don’t think it would have and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t go through with it.
Looking back now, though, what interests me most is the complete lack of consideration I gave to whether I actually wanted those experiences for themselves or not… were they things that were important to me, things I thought I would get a lot of enjoyment from? Not really, no. They were really just things I wanted to tick off a list so that I wouldn’t have to feel as if I’d missed out on them anymore. To paraphrase Mark Manson’s article, I wasn’t motivated by the joy of experiencing something great. I was motivated by the fear of not experiencing something great.
If I’m brutally honest with myself, the idea of being a stereotypical young person who’s constantly out drinking and sleeping around didn’t really appeal to me when I actually was a teenager, which is probably why I didn’t make very much effort to live that lifestyle at the time. At that age I was actually happier working on my computing projects, going out for walks and having uneventful nights in with my handful of friends. Sure, I liked the idea of having a relationship at some point, but I wasn’t consumed by the idea and was happy enough on my own for the moment. It was only afterwards when I started to panic about having missed things that Everyone Else seemed to have done and bonded over that I started to obsess over it. And in fact, I started to feel much better as soon as I started to ask myself what I really wanted out of life, and realised that I wasn’t so far away from it after all.
Realistically, I doubt I’m the only one who didn’t do all that stuff at the “normal” age. In fact I know I’m not from various conversations over the years. More than that, everyone’s lives are different: there isn’t some gold standard Young Person Experience where you work your way through everything in some prescribed order, ticking off each life lesson at exactly the right stage in your development and moving cleanly onto the next one. That’s one of the reasons why it was so futile for me to fixate on trying to recapture this lost experience. I was chasing after something that simply doesn’t exist, something that never existed except in my own imagination.
If my life had panned out differently, maybe I would have ticked off some of those things at an earlier age, maybe closer to the average age. But I’d bet my bottom dollar that the main difference wouldn’t have been that they were materially better at that age; it would just have been that I would have learned sooner that those experiences rarely live up to the hype surrounding them.
Ultimately, if I missed out on anything, it wasn’t getting laid in Freshers Week and going out clubbing three times a week for the duration of my course. It was living in the moment and enjoying things as they come. And I’m starting to see that that can only be fixed by getting away from the whole mindset of having “missed out”.