During the first few weeks of enforced social distancing, I felt quite popular. People from all parts of my life were insisting that I hop on video calls with them. Coworkers, friends, family. It was a scary and thrilling time — our lives were exploding! What was going to happen next? Wait, am I on mute?
But after weeks of back-to-back video calls and group chats, I grew tired of the near-constant contact, and decided to take a step back. And that’s when I discovered the truly insidious thing about Zoom. (And FaceTime, and Google Hangouts, and Marco Polo.) When I’m not participating, I am prone to FOMO, the strength of which I haven’t experienced since I was in high school and I was sure that every time I said no to a hang out I was guaranteeing my own social demise.
Luckily, I’m an adult now, and I didn’t let my fear stop me from continuing to turn down invites to virtual get-togethers that I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, attend. But I did take a close look at why the FOMO kept coming, and I was able to tease out some possible explanations.
1. My reasons for saying no felt flimsier. I want to hang out with my husband (with whom I currently spend more time than ever before). I’m tired after work(ing from home). I want to read or watch TV (since the five hours I spent doing it yesterday wasn’t enough). These “conflicts” all felt like things I could easily get out of, if I wanted to.
2. There is no barrier to joining a Zoom call. In real life, by the time an event I rolls around, I have other stuff going on that precludes me from being able to attend. There’s not much space for second-guessing. But it’s so easy to join a Zoom call. I’ve seen people log in while on other calls, while driving, while running — video on! I often find myself second-guessing my decision to not join right up until the call is over.
3. I feel guilty for saying no. For a generation that’s made a million memes about being socially anxious, I was shocked by how immediately and intensely my peers and I feared the loss of social contact once coronavirus really started spreading. And thank goodness, we found a workaround! I feel ungrateful when I opt out of something that’s saving us from total seclusion.
4. I don’t trust my motives. We keep hearing about how critical social interaction is for our wellbeing. Now when I say turn down a virtual invite, part of me worries: Am I taking time for myself (good), or am I isolating in a way that will irreparably harm my mental health (bad)?
5. I am sure I’m guaranteeing my social demise. Just like in high school! I feel certain that each Zoom call I skip will be the one that spawns a thousand inside jokes. Whenever a friend casually mentions that they’d been talking to so-and-so every day, my heart races. What, are they going to be, like, best friends after the pandemic? I make a mental note to call that person myself.
6. I hate being left out of those screenshots of Zoom call screens that everyone is posting to their Instagram stories. Self-explanatory.
I asked an expert to tell me that I was normal. She did, kind of.
“That fear that others are bonding without you is tied to the fear that you will ultimately lose your place in the group, which as social creatures, threatens your survival. While it might seem silly to feel left out of a virtual hangout, it touches on the primal fear of losing your place in the herd, which strikes a nerve with our survival instincts as a species that is generally interdependent,” explains Sage Grazer, the co-founder of digital mental health company Frame and a licensed therapist in Los Angeles, CA.
That tracks. Fear of missing out is less “fear of missing fun” than it is “fear of missing an essential bonding experience.” In that context, of course my reasons for saying no never feel good enough.
Ironically, when I’m in what Glazer calls a “FOMO state of mind,” I can’t really enjoy the hang outs I actually say yes to, “because you have one foot in the door and the other foot guilt tripping yourself,” she says.
The way out of this conundrum is to be a little more intentional with my RSVPs. Right now, when I say yes to a call it’s because I’m afraid. When I say no, it’s because I’m burned out and defiantly overcorrecting. Going forward, I should pause before making a snap decision, Glazer (gently) suggests.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I making this decision because it’s something I genuinely want to do, or is it because I’m afraid of missing out?’” Glazer advises. As someone who tends toward unhealthy amounts of isolation, I’ve also started asking myself, “Am I saying no because I truly need the time to myself, or am I avoiding social contact?”
“If you can feel secure in yourself and take ownership of your decisions, you will likely not experience that same level of FOMO,” Glazer promises. That’s true even if you’re left out of a Zoom-selfie.