Why our milestone FOMO is worse than ever

Warum unser Meilenstein-FOMO schlimmer ist denn je

Nowadays, we have an infinite number of possible life paths to choose from. Of course, we know that age is just a number, and we know that there is no one “right” life that we “should” lead. Furthermore, success today looks very different from the youth of our parents. And yet, when we take a different path in life than those around us or don’t come as close to our own goals as others, it is difficult to shake off the feeling of “missing out.” Just think about how many weddings you have been invited to this year! And although we are happy for our loved ones for living the life they imagined, it is also completely understandable if it triggers various emotions in us. The professionals call this the “theory of social comparison” – but we are more familiar with this feeling as “milestone FOMO.” To better understand this phenomenon, we spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn and asked her why we feel this way and what can be done about it.

What is milestone FOMO?

According to Dr. Patel-Dunn, this term describes “the unrest and stress that people feel when they have the feeling of not achieving traditional milestones – such as marriage, having children, buying a house, career success, and so on,” she explains. “This is especially true when one’s parents or role models have already reached these milestones by a certain age or when friends have already had such experiences. It can make you feel left behind.”

Although we have all been shocked to hear how many children our parents had at our age, the corona pandemic has intensified the associated pressure. “Isolation and lack of social contact have affected the plans of many people in terms of how far they wanted to have progressed in their lives by then,” explains Dr. Patel-Dunn. The lockdown not only took the wind out of our sails, which we actually needed to work towards our goals, but also, due to all the time alone and for reflection, many of us now long to make major life decisions.

Milestone FOMO is not limited to a specific age. Whether you have just gone through a breakup with someone you thought you would be with forever or have the feeling that you have been waiting your whole life for the fulfillment of your dreams, this FOMO can affect us all in different ways. Those who like to daydream about their five-year plan and enjoy planning everything down to the smallest detail may be particularly susceptible. But even those of us who consciously and happily single may be surprised by a hint of FOMO when we see a photo on Instagram of married school friends with children in front of their first own house.

This was the case for 28-year-old Erin, who believed she was immune to the wedding hype – and then unexpectedly felt like she was “lagging behind.” “Suddenly, it just seems like everyone has been moving forward much faster with their lives since the pandemic. It feels like they have left me behind,” she says. “It’s not that I necessarily want to get married or anything like that. Compared to others who are now getting married, buying houses, and having children, my life seems very stagnant.”

„I know that I have many reasons to be grateful. I also know what I want. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I was just as lost as my friends. Now they are just going through their lives as if nothing happened, and I wonder what happened. Did I just imagine the lockdown?“

What can I do about milestone FOMO?

The problem with milestone FOMO is that it can lead to a vicious cycle where we worry so much about not achieving our goals that we hardly leave any space for the small successes that make life worth living.

“If you associate ‘success’ with reaching these milestones and you can’t do it yourself, it can be extremely difficult to cope with these emotions and feel fulfilled,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn. It becomes particularly stressful when you have the feeling that time is working against you – especially because we usually believe that these milestones would require a lot of time and effort. But if these goals are still far away, we often feel like we are falling further behind.

However, changes can happen suddenly. In just a month, your life could look completely different. You should open yourself up to this possibility instead of stressing yourself out about needing a little more time for everything.

As Dr. Patel-Dunn recommends, the best way to keep these feelings at bay is to be good to yourself and have a realistic outlook on where you are in your life right now. “Always prioritize your mental health over external pressure,” she says. It also shows tremendous strength to be vulnerable and openly talk about what you desire – even if it seems far away. “One of the advantages of the pandemic is that mental health is now much more respected than before. Many people find it much easier today to deal with what truly makes them happy and make changes accordingly.”

Although it’s easy to complain about social media and wish for a digital detox whenever your feed seems to be full of other people’s successes, it can also be life-changing to thoroughly reconsider your own plans. Sometimes these milestones seem unattainable simply because we have set big obstacles for ourselves.

For example, my personal goal was to adopt a dog for a very long time. However, I had imposed conditions on myself – I had to own a house first! Or have a partner with whom I could share the responsibility! So I waited forever to finally be in a position where all these conditions were met. But during that time, I somehow managed to create a life where having a dog made sense even without a house and partner. I just didn’t realize it.

29-year-old Anita had a similar experience when her plans to buy and renovate an old apartment with her partner fell through. But after the break-up, she realized that she could still do it – just with someone else. “During all those months when I was telling my mother about my plans and complaining that none of it would work out now, I wasn’t even aware that I was turning her into my perfect investor,” she says.

“The result was even better than I had imagined because I didn’t have to make as many compromises as I would have had to with my partner. And honestly, I loved every minute of the whole process. Having my mother by my side during this experience was fantastic. And I knew I could trust her.”

Wir wissen nie, was uns in ein paar Jahren oder auch am nächsten Tag erwarten könnte. Es lohnt sich also überhaupt nicht, irgendwelche Erwartungen daran zu haben, wann etwas passieren „sollte“. So oder so landen wir meist genau da, wo wir hin sollten. Auf dem Weg dorthin lernen wir ganz individuelle Lektionen, und haben alle mal Schwierigkeiten damit, uns mit dem Hier und Jetzt zufrieden zu geben. Wichtig ist, dich auf die Gegenwart zu konzentrieren – und dabei im Hinterkopf zu behalten, dass „Erfolg“ kein konkretes Ziel ist, sondern ein Gefühl, das du mal hast, mal verlierst, und dann auch mal wiederfindest. Und das für den Rest deines Lebens.

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