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Shoulda, woulda, coulda: why FOMO won’t let go of us

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
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Twice a week, Julia enters the consulting room where I practise psychoanalysis. She has come from work, weary with deadlines, demands and rivalries. During the first few minutes of the session, Julia recounts the previous days’ events in an even tone. But notes of agitation soon creep in – her pitch rises, the rhythms of her speech grow jerky – which presage the mention of Eve. Eve is Julia’s best friend, but more than that, she represents a kind of counter-self showing how Julia’s life might have looked had she made different choices.

The two women, now in their early 30s, bonded instantly on their first day as teenagers at sixth-form college. They both went on to drama school and both landed leading roles. They aroused the envy and admiration of their peers and were marked out for future glory by their teachers. But as Julia discovered the harsh realities of the aspirant actor’s life, she began to doubt whether this was the career for her. She had neither the heart nor stomach for the supplication, the waiting, the perpetual rejection. While Eve plunged into a precarious life of headshots, showreels and auditions, Julia explored other parts of the industry, eventually getting a job in theatre management.


Julia now works for a large entertainment venue in Britain and recently married an editor at a big book publisher. They hope to have a baby. Her life seems to emanate accomplishment and serenity, but her emotional state rarely matches the appearance of fulfilment. From the moment she wakes up, she is plagued by doubts about her life choices. ‘“I never gave acting a fair crack of the whip, and it torments me,” she tells me, her eyebrows knitted in frustration. “Like last night, I’m watching Lewis scroll through Netflix, and all I can think of is, my life is so bloody predictable! Shouldn’t I be doing ‘As You Like It’?”

Stability became a life sentence to mediocrity and dullness. She yearned for thrilling unpredictability

This is a reference to Eve, who is currently playing Celia in a touring production of the play. By now I know that there’s no point reminding Julia that the prospect of having to travel to obscure corners of the country for weeks on end, performing night after night in shabby theatres to half-full auditoriums, was one of her clearest motives for leaving the profession. Yet she imagines Eve embarked on an impossibly glamorous adventure that is inexorably leading her to bigger and brighter things.

You might think Julia’s beautiful home, loving partner and successful career would offer some assurance, especially when set alongside Eve’s messy, precarious life. But this, she insists, is a superficial reading of their respective destinies. Eve is constantly on the move and at any moment there is the possibility that her career will take off. Julia’s life may be a little easier now, but that is all there is. Each evening, she returns to the same sofa to watch Netflix again. There are incremental developments – a new show once a series is finished – but her life has now found its groove and will remain stuck there for ever.

My heart tends to sink when FOMO, or fear of missing out, comes up in my consulting room. Sufferers beset by FOMO believe that out of all possible options available, one alone is right for them. Once they are trapped in this mindset, other people – friends, colleagues and the endless proliferation of digital acquaintances on social media – are liable to become avatars of the life they should or could have had.

FOMO can seem like a minor anxiety that will resolve itself, the fear of choosing the wrong party or restaurant or Tinder date. But what if it were closer to a mental structure, a fundamental aspect of one’s own life? After all, it is an ineliminable fact that we are all missing out, all the time, simply by virtue of the constraints of time and space, and of having just one, finite life. FOMO can never resolve itself, because it’s predicated on the unconscious assumption that the best life isn’t mine.

The fear of missing out is inherent in the human condition rather than a problem of a particular culture or society

The unconscious element is particularly insidious. We may consciously assure ourselves that we are working in our interests. But this only conceals our underlying tendency to believe that our choices will be the wrong ones. FOMO effectively excludes us from contentment. The best choices will always be someone else’s.

This was Julia’s predicament: she kept imagining Eve’s life as more desirable than her own. Whenever she analysed the situation objectively, she recognised that she preferred stability to volatility and a reliable income, partner and living arrangements to a provisional and peripatetic life. After all, these were her reasons for giving up acting.

That clarity of thought dissolved as soon as these abstractions were placed in the context of her own life. Stability became a life sentence to mediocrity and dullness. She yearned for the thrilling unpredictability of Eve’s life, the sense that fame and romance, even if not likely, were possible.

In its most debilitating form, FOMO is the expression of roiling discontent with yourself, a conviction that if my life was really that good, it wouldn’t be mine. It is the compulsion to locate value beyond one’s own experience. Seen through this filter, other lives are engines of perpetual momentum. Ours are stuck crawling in traffic.

Recent studies in academic psychology bear this out. FOMO is related to symptoms such as poor sleep, low life satisfaction, social-media addiction and even increased substance abuse. A study by three Turkish psychologists suggests that it induces an aversion to repeating an experience that could be inherently satisfying. “Mere awareness of the missed opportunities”, they write, “may lead one to perceive alternatives in a positive light, relatively leading to lower valuation of one’s current situation.” In other words, there is a kind of masochistic spiral between the perception that all the fun is being had elsewhere and the denigration of our own circumstances.

One of the intriguing consequences of the first lockdown in Britain during the pandemic was the widespread feeling, palpable in my consulting room, that FOMO was dissipating. Our lives had contracted drastically. Parties, restaurants, theatre trips and other reliable sources of FOMO were banned or closed, reducing to a minimum the potential for wistful or envious glances at social-media feeds.

Lockdown, in other words, appeared to reveal FOMO as a phenomenon of the present, where consumer culture, amplified by social media, assails us at every moment with an abundance of tempting images and scenarios, offering us everything from dating partners to financial investments in a few clicks.

The term first came into circulation in the marketing literature of the late 1990s and seems to have become common parlance after being used in the student newspaper of Harvard Business School. The location of its first usage is noteworthy. The very groups shaping and directing economic activity identified FOMO as an essential component of consumer psychology.

Extramarital affairs are a way of giving voice to a complaint that is more often religious or spiritual: surely there’s more to life than this?

There can be no doubt that advertising and social media have greatly exacerbated the human tendency to denigrate opportunities we have in favour of those we don’t. The itch of consumer desire is forever inflamed by the same forces that offer us so many different ways to scratch it.

But this doesn’t mean that we should be seduced by nostalgia for a once-contented humanity in a faded past – before the advent of the internet or mass production or capitalism. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the fear of missing out is inherent in the human condition rather than a problem of a particular culture or society.

FOMO begins at birth, from the moment that we are expelled out of a bounded environment that catered seamlessly to all our bodily needs and delivered into a strange, ominous place in which those needs afflict us almost constantly. Here we become subject to desires that cannot be quenched – not only for food and warmth, but also for the love and attention of the adults who provide them.

Infancy and childhood initiate us into a permanent state of dissatisfaction. Our cries for milk or a comforting hug habituate a reflex to demand things, which will become ever more elaborate and sophisticated. Infantile appeals for nourishment and affection graduate to pestering for Pokémon cards and video games. Desire and rivalry become a basic fact of daily life.

This desire is ultimately less for the possession of material objects in their own right than for the feeling of recognition and inclusion. Psychoanalysis can help us see how the family can become a hothouse for FOMO. Sigmund Freud wrote of the profound impact of what he called the “primal scene”. In less technical language, he was talking about the real or imagined witnessing of our parents having sex. This tends to cause much adolescent hilarity. But for a younger child, the suggestion that our parents have an intimate life that is exclusive and inaccessible to us is felt as a shock and a deep wound. Behind the closed door something exciting is happening without me.

When we fear missing out what we lack becomes more real to us than what we actually have

Sibling rivalry stirs up similar anxieties. The arrival of a new baby means the older child experiences the irrecoverable loss of their favoured status. And as the older sibling’s freedoms expand – later bedtimes, big school, parties – the younger one is reminded of what they cannot yet have.

To grow up in a family is to be destined to miss out. Fun, praise, affection and attention are always being directed to others. This perception establishes itself so early on that it is bound to recur after we have grown up. At university, in our social lives, at work and at play, we constantly find ourselves wanting to be in someone else’s place.

Confirmation of this basic human predicament is found throughout the history of literature – even if FOMO is rarely called out by name. Perhaps FOMO is a particular concern of fiction because the experience of reading a novel shares some of its characteristics: a sedentary individual learns about intriguing events happening elsewhere.

In 1759, when the English novel was relatively new, Samuel Johnson wrote a philosophical novella called “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia”. Its protagonist travels across different lands with his mentor and sister seeking to discover the best “choice of life”. He comes to realise (spoiler alert!) that every decision from childhood to old age is beset with frustrations and limitations.

In the chapters on marriage, Rasselas’s sister Nekayah expounds on the difficulties with the various options. Early marriages are born of the pain of being apart. But once a young couple wed, their best selves quickly dissolve and, in their mutual disappointment, “they wear their life out with altercations”.

It’s no more advisable to marry late, “when opinions are fixed and habits are established”, leaving no room for compromise and accommodation. If the timing is always wrong, perhaps it’s better to remain single? Not so, says Nekayah. Those who live by themselves “dream away their time without friendship, without fondness…Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

Literary history is replete with yearning lovers and cynical adulterers – men and women who burn for something that they don’t have. From Chaucer and Boccaccio to Sally Rooney and Raven Leilani, the other man or woman embodies the false promise of fulfilling our desires for good.

When it comes to marital FOMO, the exemplary story is surely Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. Emma Bovary uses romantic novels as a guide to happiness. They set her expectations, so that when she marries the genial, dull-witted Charles, he comes to represent everything that her unexciting life lacks.

Emma wishes to play out the plots found in the fiction of Sir Walter Scott, with herself in the role of the chaste and beautiful maiden courted by the brooding, chivalrous hero: “Why was it not her fate”, she laments to herself, “to lean upon the balcony of a Swiss chalet or hide her melancholy in some Highland cottage, with a husband dressed in a black, long-skirted velvet coat, soft leather boots, a pointed hat and ruffles at his wrist?”

Julia’s life seems to emanate accomplishment and serenity. But her emotional state rarely matches the appearance of fulfilment

The problem, as the novel unsparingly reveals, is that reality always triumphs over romantic adventure. Initially Emma sees her lover Léon glow with otherworldly perfection, before hearing him utter the “lukewarm sentiments” that muddy everyday life. With merciless perspicacity, Flaubert shows us that Emma’s fantasies are above all a wish for transcendence: a longing to rise above the shabby motives and petty self-interest of the world around her.

Counter-intuitively, the novel shows extramarital affairs as a way of giving voice to a complaint that is more often religious or spiritual: surely there’s more to life than this? FOMO is the search for rapture, a miraculous dissolution of everything we dislike about our circumstances. Emma’s tragic fate reminds us to beware of its seductions: FOMO will only ever send us back to that hated reality, with invigorated feelings of loss and resentment.

In my consulting room, single men often find that love and FOMO go hand in hand. They get caught in the malign fantasy that, in settling for a woman, they are depriving themselves of the perfect partner.

“That expression, ‘wandering eye’,” Scott, a doctor in his 40s, told me, “It’s literally true for me. I bring a woman to a party and pretty quickly my eye is darting around, alighting on a different woman, then another. Should I be talking to her? What about her?”

Far from finding this behaviour pleasurable, it feels to him more like a torturous, involuntary tic. His gaze functions much like his desire, unable to rest and find satisfaction with a specific person. “When I’m able to reflect on it later, it’s obvious that I’m all over the place. I’m just devaluing everyone I see. I don’t feel like a player, believe me. I feel like an old fool and a creep.”

We are all missing out, all the time, simply by virtue of the constraints of time and space, and having just one, finite life

The predicament of Rowena, another patient, was both different and strikingly similar. Being with a man didn’t trigger the urge to look compulsively at other men, but as soon as she felt a relationship establish itself, she lost the ability to tell whether she really desired him. Only when he withdrew, physically or emotionally, did the wish to be with him emerge.

Recently a man she was seeing went abroad for two weeks. She pined for him, missing his conversation and body in equal measure. “While he was away,” she said, “he felt so real to me somehow, the sound of his voice, the smell of his skin. And then when he came back, it was like he was less real, almost two-dimensional. But he was the same guy. It was me who’d changed! I felt weirdly empty, almost kind of blank around him.”

This experience seems to get to the core of FOMO. When we fear missing out, what we lack becomes more real to us than what we actually have. Rowena’s story recalls a startling remark made by a female patient to a British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, which he published in 1971. The woman told Winnicott that though she recognised he had been better for her than her former analyst, the old analyst would always feel more important. Or, as she put it, “The negative of him is more real than the positive of you.”

This is a brilliantly concentrated description of FOMO. FOMO drains all the vividness and intensity out of the life we have and spatters it over the one we have lost or have never possessed. Vulnerability to this deep-seated fear of missing out probably can’t be correlated to any strict pattern of childhood experience. But it strikes me that in these examples, including Winnicott’s patient, absence loomed large in their early lives.

For instance, Rowena’s father left the family home when she was nine and moved to France. Her mother and her family would badmouth him, insisting that Rowena owed him neither love nor loyalty after he’d abandoned her. But this only deepened her yearning for him, cementing the essential link in her mind between love and absence. It isn’t hard to see how this meant every potential relationship would end up marred by FOMO. The right person is always someone else, somewhere else.

For all too many, the privations and delays imposed by lockdown were not transient dissatisfactions. The brake on normal life was devastating for single people unable to meet a potential partner and patients forced to pause treatment for serious illnesses. But for some of us it brought new energy to life, at least at first. We were compelled to find meaning and pleasure within the confines of our homes. And because everyone was in the same situation (or so we thought before Partygate), it was impossible to torture oneself imagining the infinitely better time someone else was having.

“It’s true that I’m stressed, maybe more than ever,” Sarah told me during a Zoom session in the early months of the pandemic, “but I’m much less anxious.” Sarah is the mother of two primary-school children with a demanding job as an in-house lawyer. “Home schooling is driving me crazy, as is the constant negotiation of child-care duties. But not going into the office feels so freeing. I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing or calibrate the right response to new rounds of malicious water-cooler gossip. I feel liberated from the burden of what other people might be thinking about me!”

Infancy and childhood initiate us into a permanent state of dissatisfaction

In shifting our focus away from the world, we were free to re-engage with our neglected interests, thoughts and desires. FOMO seemed to give way to JOMO – the joy of missing out. This coinage began being used regularly only in the late 2010s in an atmosphere of millennial weariness and over-stimulation. During lockdown, JOMO came into its own.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, FOMO has its source in the social dimension of our selfhood and our need for affirmation and approval. It expresses the wish to be seen in the right places, to have the most desirable experiences in the eyes of the world. Winnicott called this the “false self”. He didn’t mean this pejoratively. He insisted that we neither can nor should do without a false self – a public persona is necessary because it shields the private self. That “true self” would find unwanted exposure to the harsh light of the world’s gaze traumatic.

The true self wishes to reside in silence and cultivate solitude with only our own ideas for company. Here, away from social media, JOMO thrives and we can experience a life of contemplation and imagination.

If lockdown turned out to be such an unexpected source of relief and pleasure for many, it may be that our culture of conspicuous consumption and personal display had excessively weighted our experience towards our false self. The new restrictions forced us to rediscover the neglected true self.

Yet when a second lockdown was imposed in Britain after months of loosened restrictions, the reaction in my consulting room, and, it seemed, among the wider public, was different. The intimacy of being with oneself had turned into claustrophobia, which the company of partners or children or housemates only amplified. People longed for freedom and the wide world beyond their homes. The revelations of JOMO had morphed back into the more familiar experience of FOMO.

FOMO drains all the vividness and intensity out of the life we have and spatters it over the one we have lost or have never possessed

Perhaps this resurgence of FOMO can be ascribed in part to the loss of the collective narrative that had framed the first lockdown in Britain. Then, our sacrifices of leisure and social life were celebrated for their quiet heroism, making us feel that we were, in our small way, crucial to the fight against the virus. The return of lockdown was experienced as punitive denial rather than willing participation.

I felt the shift in mood in myself. Physically exhausted by the strain of making emotional contact through a laptop screen, I was increasingly alive to the need to recover boundaries. Ordinarily, the contrast between work and home enriches our psychic space. This variety started to feel more of a necessity than a luxury.

But now, having settled back into my consulting room for some time, my perspective on that first period of lockdown feels more clear-eyed. I am relieved to be back in the room with my patients and to have re-established a life outside my home. But I’ve also gained an appreciation for a less frenetic daily life, and an odd wistfulness for the enforced camaraderie and circumscribed horizons of those first weeks of lockdown.

There has been a rebalancing of the competing pulls of fomo and jomo, of expansion and contraction of oneself. We needed to break out of the home because our outward-facing self requires nurturing. But the pandemic helped us recall the existence of an inner life that had been much neglected. Perhaps this collective experience will serve as a reminder to us all that as much as missing out is our great fear, it is also a secret wish.■

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include “The Private Life”, “Not Working” and “How to Live. What to Do”. His previous pieces for 1843 magazine include essays on burnout and perfectionism

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting