These days, we have more life paths than we could possibly fathom. We know there's no one way to go about our lives, and that success looks so different from what it looked like for our parents. But as much as we know that age is just a number and there is no singular 'right' trajectory for us, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're missing out when we take a different route or aren't nearing our goals when it seems like everyone else is. Just think of all the weddings you've been to recently! And while we can be happy for those living their best lives, it's understandable that seeing it could trigger a slew of emotions. The professionals call it Social Comparison Bias but we know it better as Milestone FOMO. To break the phenomenon down, we chatted to Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health, about what causes us to feel this way and what we can do about it.
What is milestone FOMO?
According to Dr. Patel-Dunn, the term refers to "the anxiety and stress people may experience when they feel they’re not hitting traditional milestones like getting married, having children, buying a house, achieving career goals, etc," she tells Refinery29. "This is particularly true if parents or role models have hit those milestones by a certain age, or friends and peers have already had those experiences and you can be left feeling behind."
While we've all felt the confronting pang of hearing how many children our parents had popped out by our age, the pandemic has played a significant role in amping up the pressure. "Isolation and the lack of socialisation have impacted many people’s plans for where they thought they would be in life right now," explains Dr Patel-Dunn. And not only did lockdowns take valuable momentum from us to work towards what we want, but with all that time alone and to reconsider what's important, many are navigating the urge to make big life decisions.
Milestone FOMO can hit anyone at any time. Whether you're fresh from a breakup with someone you thought was your 'forever person', or you feel like you've been waiting a lifetime to get the things you want, it can impact us all in different ways. For those that enjoy daydreaming about their five year plan or mapping everything out, you may be extra susceptible to the negative impacts of milestone FOMO, since it can feel like something is being taken from you. But alas, even the most consciously uncoupled of people can fall prey to the FOMO when hit with photos of families smiling in front of 'SOLD' signs.
For Erin, 28, who thought she was immune to the lures of wedding spam, the feelings of "lagging behind" were unexpected. "It just suddenly seems like everyone's doing more than they were pre-pandemic and I feel like I'm getting left behind," she tells us. "It's not that I'm dying to get married or anything right now, but seeing everyone else [getting married], buying houses and having kids, it makes my life seem static in comparison."
"I know I have a lot to be grateful for, and at least I know what I want, but at the beginning of the pandemic, I was at the same lost space as my friends. Now, they're all moving on while I'm here wondering what happened and seriously questioning if I've hallucinated these lockdowns."
So, what can we do about our milestone FOMO?
The problem with milestone FOMO is that it can lead to a Catch-22 where we're so caught up in the panic of not meeting goals, that we ultimately leave no room for the little successes that actually make up a happy life.
"If you associate success with hitting these milestones and are having trouble doing so, it can be extremely challenging to move through those emotions and feel fulfilled," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. It can feel particularly stressful to feel like time isn't on our side, especially since we tend to believe that these milestones require a lot of time and investment. So when we're nowhere near these goals, we feel like we're falling further and further behind.
The truth is, change really can take us off-guard. Your life could look completely different in a month and that's just something you might need to be open to, instead of stressing about taking your time to just do your own thing.
As Dr. Patel-Dunn suggests, the key to keeping those feelings at bay is always in being kind to yourself and realistic about where you're at in life. "Always prioritise your mental wellbeing over external pressures," she says, adding that there's a strength in being vulnerable and open about what you want, even if you're nowhere near it. "One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that mental wellbeing is becoming more of a priority than it ever has been. People feel more comfortable internally exploring what makes them happy and brings them true joy and making changes that reflect that."
While it's easy to blame social media and endeavour a digital detox whenever you encounter some success bombing on your feed, revisiting your plans can also be pretty life-changing. Milestones, as we've come to know them, can feel impenetrable when we're still figuring ourselves out. But sometimes these plans only feel impossible because of the barriers we put in front of them ourselves.
For a long time, adopting a dog was a goal for me — one caveated by made-up requirements like owning a home or having a partner to share the responsibility with first. But at some point, while I was busy waiting to be in a position where it made sense, I had actually just managed to create a life on my own where it did — I just couldn't quite see it.
For Anita, 29, when her plans of buying and repairing an old apartment with her long-term boyfriend fell through, the idea of starting over was overwhelming. But once she was on the other side of the breakup, she figured she could still do what she wanted with someone close to her. "Throughout all the months of ranting about my plans, I didn't know that I was actually converting my mum into a home investor," she tells me.
"It actually turned out way better than I imagined because I didn't have to compromise as much as I would've with a partner, honestly, and I loved every minute of the process... Having my mum with me to share my first home ownership experience was always how it should've been, and she definitely didn't need to be vetted first."
We can never know what's coming our way down the track or just around the corner. So when it comes to having expectations about when things are supposed to happen, there's no winning — and we will most likely end up where we're supposed to be, regardless. Everyone's going to learn different lessons and experience our own undulations with feeling good about where we are. It's just about focusing on what's in front of you, and remembering that success isn't a destination but a feeling that you'll have, lose and have again for all of your life.