Why It Feels Like Everyone Is Hanging Out Online Without You

Social media has made it easier for us to compare ourselves to others — especially when many of us are forced to stay home.

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Picture it: You’re mindlessly scrolling through any given social media app — out of habit, out of boredom — and then you come across a photo or video that piques your interest. Prior to the pandemic, you might have felt a twinge of jealousy when observing photos of friends of friends having drinks without you, a popular pastime that’s now been replaced by virtual cocktail hours. That super-happy couple that once made you wonder if you’d ever find true love are now inundating your social feeds with their various quarantine activities, like making bread from scratch together. And even though there’s no place to physically go, there are still events, such as DJ D-Nice’s must-see Instagram live dance parties that may leave you with that unsettling feeling of FOMO when you wake up the following morning and see everyone talking about the event that you had no idea was even happening in the first place.

After handing out an indiscriminate number of likes, you close the app and are met with that old, familiar, and deeply uncomfortable feeling of missing out.

“A lot of times, people are feeling bad about not accomplishing a lot, because they are comparing themselves to what they perceive other people are doing,” said Michael Brustein, a clinical psychologist based in New York and New Jersey, told me in a phone interview. “Well, other people are really catching up on the best shows, other people are reading these awesome books, other people are working out like they're in prison.” Brustein said oftentimes, there’s an “imaginary concept” we cling to of what other people are doing, “and that could cause paralysis because you could be overwhelmed with what's the best thing to do and then end up doing nothing.”

In order to break out of this cycle, he suggested following your own specific interests and finding a place online to cultivate it with others, as well as being present and mindful with what you’re doing.

For Sarah, a 35-year-old woman self-isolating with her partner and child in Ohio, lockdown was supposed to offer a reprieve from the icky fear of missing out. “I have considered that one ‘upside’ of social distancing is lack of FOMO,” she said in response to a BuzzFeed News callout, adding that the feeling has been dialed down a bit since she figured “everyone is at home hunkered down.” But the feeling has reared its ugly head in unexpected ways for Sarah, who said, “However, my FOMO did reignite when I saw other friends posting virtual hangouts on social media. It’s great for people to hang out, but I don’t see why people need to post about it.”

"Am I not having enough fun during this global pandemic?”

Though she said this has made her feel “left out,” Sarah said for the most part, she has liked not having to be in groups such as work meetings or her son’s homeschooling co-op because she doesn’t have to “interact with a large variety of people where I may have to put on some sort of mask.” But her concern about big gatherings isn’t solely wrapped up in concern about health and safety. “Even though I’m friends with people individually, these friendships often get buried in a group dynamic. Groups often form into subgroups, and I soon learn which subgroups I’m left out of,” she said. “This may not be a malicious thing. I cannot be a part of everything and don’t expect to be. But this logic goes out the window when I hear that the group has formed into a smaller group, or that a few people of this group who I’m especially close to are hanging out together,” she continued, adding, “All of the sudden I get FOMO, even if they were doing something I may not have gone to. Still, I would want to be invited.” But now, because of nearly 300 million Americans being under stay at home orders, Sarah said this feeling “is mostly alleviated.”

Court, a 39-year-old woman wrote, “I’m envious of some of [my] friends who have decided to quarantine on vacation-like homes rented away from their state, getting beach homes, or cabins in mountains.” She said she and her husband still have to work right now and are trying to make ends meet after her partner “got a pretty big pay cut.” Court added that the extra time and worry of money “has been a little hard,” which is likely why it’s a bit easier for her mind to wander and think about “being envious of people renting homes, vacation places to isolate in.”

Julia Pugachevsky, a former BuzzFeed employee, recently wrote for Medium about how our current shared reality may force us to reckon with our true personalities. “Now that social distancing has prohibited IRL hangouts, plenty of extroverts can connect with their friends through a Zoom happy hour. But I suspect there’s a broader collective problem of people not knowing what they like to do or who they are when the Instagram-heightened pressure to go out is removed,” she writes. Brustein, the psychologist, pointed to this phenomenon as well. “There are those individuals who don't know what to do with their time,” he said, adding that for many people,there is still an existence of, you know, how am I taking this incubation period? How am I using it?”

Online there’s been a deluge of posts about how people should be spending their time in isolation, especially from Rise and Grind Twitter™: People should come out of quarantine having learned a new skill, for example, because apparently we must be productive and optimize every aspect of our lives — even amid a pandemic.

With most of the country practicing self-distancing, naturally there’s a lot more time for self-reflection. And according to Rachael, 28, who lives in New York, the FOMO is definitely “REAL, but more in an existential way that has never hit home the way it is now.”

“When I look at social media and see people who are quarantining together, the heaviness that I am alone sets in,” Rachael wrote. “The video of one of my friends being showered with birthday gifts from 6 feet away by her other friends evokes a sense of fomo that isn’t easily forgettable. It opens Pandora’s box, would anyone do that for me? Will anyone even remember my birthday without me telling them? Am I a bad friend for not thinking about doing something like that?” Rachael wrote that her FOMO also spikes when she sees friends with their children, playing, yelling, and napping, which causes her to question if she will ever have a family of her own and if she’s “wasted” her “young years on dysfunctional relationships.”

As a way of combating the FOMO and easing loneliness, she goes on walks with her dog and sets up “daily agility and puzzle activities” for her dog to get out “excess energy and strengthen our bond.” In addition to spending time with her pet, she’s been getting back into running, doing daily yoga or barre, and reading with her windows open when the weather is nice. “Keeping busy, and having some flexible structure allows me the ability to control what I can and let go of the things I can’t,” she said. “Also, get a worry eater! You write down your worries and feed them to an adorable plush monster, it’s insanely therapeutic!”

“When I look at social media and see people who are quarantining together, the heaviness that I am alone sets in.”

But people aren’t just feeling left out from virtual events happening right now. They’re also grieving the plans they have that have been postponed indefinitely. Kendall, 21, who lives in Texas, said her FOMO stems from things she could be doing. “I had several weekends lined up with events for the rest of my college semester, including recruiting events for my future job,” she said. There’s a real sense of loss for Kendall because important events in her life will no longer come to fruition, at least not how she envisioned. “All in all, I would say my FOMO stems from grief from losing all of these special events and coping with my new ‘normal.’”

Some people grapple with the feeling that they should be making more productive use of their time at home. “I'm really lucky to have kept my job and to be able to work from home, but that means that I really don't have all that much more spare time,” said Annalise, 27, who lives in Toronto.“Lots of friends are posting about all of the activities they're doing while in isolation, all the new hobbies they've taken up and all of the things they're accomplishing, and I feel like I need to keep up,” Annalise said. She’s thought about making TikTok videos instead of crashing on her couch for hours after her work shift is complete. “Am I not having enough fun during this global pandemic?”

The idea of object constancy — which essentially means that “out of sight” doesn’t necessarily mean “gone forever” — could be applied to examples of FOMO like the ones mentioned here, according to Brustein. Just because you’re not able to do something right now, doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to do it later. “These things we're missing out on will return,” Brustein said.

“We do have that fear that if we don't have it now, or if we don't do it now, that it will never happen,” he said, referring to events and activities in life that have been suspended for the time being “It just doesn't exist now.”

Though he said he isn’t experiencing FOMO, Elliot, a 30-year-old man self-isolating along with his girlfriend, said he’s come to the realization that he doesn’t have many close friends. “I have lots of acquaintances and stuff but no one who I would get in touch with to just have a chat on Zoom and no one has gotten in touch with me either,” he said, adding that one of his resolutions at the top of the year was to “make more friends but that's obviously even more difficult now we’re not allowed to leave the house!” Elliot, who went out a couple of times a week before lockdown, said that he’s “incredibly lucky” to have his girlfriend, so he can’t complain too much. “But this whole situation has shown me I need to make some new friends or strengthen friendships with current friends,” he said.

Life has been placed on pause indefinitely for the majority of people right now, which can actually be comforting since we’re all quite literally in this together. “We're all mourning things that we're not going to be able to do. We're all in the same boat,” Brustein said.

Beyond general FOMO, being isolated and not being in regular physical (or virtual) contact with other people will likely exacerbate feelings of loneliness, which is already a growing epidemic. It’s key, Brustein said, to remember that this is simply a feeling and not something that should make you feel unworthy. “It doesn't mean we're terrible, it doesn't mean we're unlovable. It means we have no one to spend time with,” he said.

But in the meantime, while we’re alone, Brustein said, “the other thing that we have to do is build a relationship with ourselves. Because when we do come in contact with people, the stronger relationship you have with yourself, the more you'll have to offer.” ●

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