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FOMO and the College Student: Tap Your Inner Wisdom

Fight FOMO with 3 wise tactics

It is a typical Friday for Darcie,* a sophomore in college. She has one class in the morning, and then she goes to her room to study. But instead of schoolwork, she stares into space, twirls her hair in a finger, and tries to decide what she is going to do that evening.

“There’s a party tonight,” she tells me later, “and I think I should go. I should definitely go.” But there is a hesitation in her voice, and I ask her to tell me about it.

“It’s a couple of things. I’m not feeling very good about how I’m looking – I’ve gained a couple of pounds, and I’m afraid I’ll feel self-conscious and not pretty. And I’m trying to watch my calories right now, which is impossible at a party.”

Darcie is not unusual in this regard. Self-consciousness about appearance keeps many young men and women from social activities; but there was more to her conflict.

“I also have a lot of school work to do, and if I go to the party I’ll drink a lot. It’s just what you do at these things. It makes it more fun…but then the next day is pretty much done for. I’ll sleep late, and won’t be able to think much tomorrow. And I do need to get this work done.”

“But” – and here was the clincher – “if I don’t go, I probably won’t get any work done anyway. I’ll just sit in my room and worry about what I’m missing.”

FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, is a scourge of modern life. College students aren’t alone in struggling with it – just take a look at what Martha Beck, a mom with grown children, wrote about her own FOMO recently on HuffPost. But FOMO can intensify some of the normal struggles of college.

College is a time when we are programmed to develop on two parallel tracks: On the one hand, we are making new kinds of connections with our peers, developing more adult friendships and more intense romantic relationships than in the past; and on the other, we are making inroads into our future professional goals. Brains and emotions are in flux and growing with almost the same rapidity that they did when we were small – yet we are expected to manage them as adults.

So FOMO makes a lot of sense – what if I don’t go to the party and I miss out on meeting the man of my dreams? Or my best friend finds a new best buddy? But, if I go to the party and don’t do my coursework, I might not do well on my paper, and then I might not be able to get that perfect job for the summer, that will lead to the perfect job when I graduate…

In other words, the fear is that no matter what you do, you will miss out on something – and that something will be the most important thing, the very thing you should not have missed.

The good news – you’re not alone. FOMO is so common that it has now been put into the Oxford Dictionary. Adults suffer from it as well. So you're not only not alone, you're also not a failure, bad or inadequate because you have these feelings!

The bad news – the fact that you’re not alone makes it feel that much more real. Maybe you really are missing out on the most important experience of your life!!!

The worse news – parents and older, supposedly wiser friends may also be caught up in the syndrome, either on their own behalf or yours, and therefore may not be able to help you manage the feelings in a healthy, wise manner.

The best news – your own inner wisdom. Although it is not always accessible, the same intelligence that has gotten you into college and has made you into the person you are can help you battle FOMO.

Here are three tactics that make use of that inner wisdom.


1 – Know that what you see is not necessarily real. Martha Beck nails the problem when she writes,

“When you feel FOMO coming on, remind yourself that practically every image you see on practically any screen is likely misleading. Whether the images were created by individuals (Facebook posts, vlogs, e-mailed snapshots) or by professionals (commercials, reality shows, Web sites), they tend to capture moments of artificial jollity. Think about it: When someone whips out a camera and yells, "Say cheese!" you force a smile no matter how ghastly you feel. Do not mistake the onscreen gallery of glee for a wonderful real life that is somehow passing you by. The human experience depicted by the media is never the whole truth -- and often an outright lie.”

Use your inner wisdom to help you realistically assess what you see on your friends’ (and enemies’) Facebook pages, and what people tell you about what a wonderful time they had when you weren’t there. Use it again to let you know how much fun you’re really having when you’re out – and to suss out how great a time your fellow party-ers are really having. Remember: if you’re faking it, people around you might be doing the same thing!

2 – Try to find other people who have tapped into their inner wisdom.

According to evolutionary psychologists, we humans are social animals. We need companionship, but we need more than other warm bodies. One of the interesting findings of neuropsychiatry and psychoanalysis in recent years is that we have specific connection needs. For one thing, we all want to know that other people see who we are and like and respect what they see. Peter Fonagy, a major force in attachment theory, says that a child learns to know herself through seeing her reflection on the faces of her parents and caregivers. Heinz Kohut, the founder of a theory called “self psychology,” says that “mirroring” is a prerequisite not only to healthy development, but to emotional well being from birth to death.

But here’s an interesting part of the need to be seen by others. We want to be known, understood, and admired; but we also want all of these responses to be real, not fake! Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin calls it “recognition.” This is not about showing off (although it can certainly take that form) but it’s about a need to know that someone who we respect, admire, or simply feel close to really knows who we are, and cares about us even with our less than lovable flaws. That kind of reflection is hard to find at a party where everyone is binge drinking and focused on looking happy!

3 – Give back

Find activities that make you genuinely feel good about yourself. This can include exercise, spending time talking with good friends, and even getting a mani-pedi! But one sure-fire way to manage FOMO is to do something that makes someone else feel good, too. Volunteer to tutor school children, walk dogs at your local SPCA, or support a political candidate. As you get more involved in activities that have a meaningful impact on others, you will find yourself getting the positive reinforcement that you long for. You might even meet another wise person or two or three – and FOMO will loosen its hold on your psyche.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Good Huffington Post article on FOMO:

Fighting FOMO: 3 Strategies To Beat Your Fear Of Missing Out by Martha Beck

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