You would think more choice would equal more freedom. That an abundance of yoga studies would mean you’d be going every day. Or more ways to stay in touch with your friends and relatives would lead to closer, more loving relationships.

But more choice often leads not to more freedom, but more restriction.

Take FOMO, the fear of missing out. Just in the past few hours, I’ve deliberated often more than a few things I’ve missed out on: the artisan coffee I could have had, the library I could have worked in, the jacket I could have bought, the place I could have gone to lunch.

I wanted them all. But at the same time, I wanted the cosy cafe, the nice pot of tea, to save money for the holidays, and to have a home-cooked meal.

In other words, I wasn’t able to choose and be happy with just one thing out of fear of what I would miss out on and that I would somehow regret that I’d made the “wrong” choice.

FOMO is nothing new. But it’s exacerbated by the seeming abundance of choice at our fingertips, thanks to smartphones and the web, and the ability to compare every moment of our lives with billions of others, thanks to social media.

We’ve long had a name for the fear we feel of missing out on something. But modern society is complex, and so now we have another, more specific term for the sense of overwhelm and anxiety that comes from having too many options: FOBO, or the “fear of better options”.

Whatever it is you’re doing, whether you’re in a cafe with your laptop, touring the Taj mahal, skiing in the alps, or lying in bed,  FOBO is the feeling in the back of your mind that there’s always something better you could or should be doing.

As you can see, it’s pretty similar to FOMO. But the difference is whereas FOMO is the common and lingering wondering about what you could have done or could be doing out of fear of choosing the wrong thing, FOBO is when you get caught up in and overcome by the feast of potentially better options. FOMO is the feeling of wanting to do everything and fearing that you’re missing out. FOBO is the feeling of not being able to settle on one thing because there’ll always be a better option just around the corner.

A FOBO-afflicted person can find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities of life — what’s often called analysis paralysis — and living through the lenses of “what ifs” and “what might be’s”. 

The typical characteristics are stress and paralysis, as someone may be always waiting and waiting for the best option which may never come. Taking no action instead of facing the possibility of losing out often becomes the default option of choice.

FOBO wouldn’t really be an issue if you only had one breakfast cereal or Tinder match to choose from. And so it’s very much a social phenomenon, which, thanks to the ubiquity of the information and people to compare yourself with, has grown to become a common state of internal dissonance that many people lose themselves in.

Letting go of what you don’t have

It’s a biological tendency to want the best. Waiting for the best, instead of going for the first option that comes your way, meant our ancestors were more likely to succeed and survive.

So it’s perfectly healthy to have a bit of conscious deliberation in your life. To take your time weighing up the options and holding out until that jumper goes on sale or the perfect time to ask her out comes around or that dream job offer lands in your inbox.

A little FOBO is good. You don’t want to get rid of it fully.

But letting your life be ruled by FOBO is another thing. This can happen due to not wanting to recognise the fact that in order to choose something, you must let go of another thing. In other words, to live a life in which you are truly free and are not weighed down and restricted by endless choice, you must be able to face the fear of letting go.

The fear of letting go is what we are inadvertently avoiding when we refrain from committing to something we may actually want. We are so good at avoiding it that we can easily convince ourselves that keeping all our options open allows us to be freer. But the fact is, by doing so, we’re actually losing out on the many rewards of commitment and giving in to a life that’s subtly but significantly restricted by fear.

To make any decision in life, you have to turn down, whether consciously or unconsciously, a billion other things. It’s a fact. And so despite the good intentions and efforts to do the opposite, when left to run riot, FOMO and FOBO in themselves can become the causes of missing out.

A core part of our experience is the absence of experience. We can live out whole lives in our heads, playing out the relationship with Pablo the lifeguard that could have been or the career as an astronaut we may have had. Everything is rosier when it’s projected in the mind, one reason simply being because it always excludes the very real feelings of fear and loss that would still be here if we were actually living out such “what if” scenarios.

Acknowledging there will always be roads not taken is essential in living a full life not controlled by fear. Not least because the alternative of only being able to do something and enjoy it unless it is the best option, perfect timing, or it makes complete sense, means you’ll be missing out on life while you’re sitting there waiting for it to happen.


Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, mindfulness, and everything in between.