The Introvert’s Guide to Surviving FOMO

I am writing this in Portugal.

I am here for a very interesting conference. Also attending the conference are several people I like a lot, many of whom live on different continents and whom I see quite rarely. I’ve never been to Lisbon before (or Portugal for that matter). Nonetheless, instead of going out on the town to see some of the sights with them, I am alone in my room. This choice goes against just about any advice you would likely read or hear about professional success, having it all, and networking. But I am not lazy, irrational, or misanthropic. I’m just an introvert.

No one believes me when I tell them I am an introvert. I am an “outgoing person.” You might even call me a “ham”: I grew up in the theater on stage, I like being the center of attention in a group, and I routinely speak publicly in front of rooms of hundreds of people. My whole career is based on being socially aware and savvy. I can talk to anyone about anything. But sure as sugar, I am an introvert.

We’ve got introversion all wrong

No one believes it because we’ve got the wrong idea about what introversion means. It has nothing to do with social skills, amicability, loquaciousness, or ability to wow individuals and groups through sparkling conversation. It doesn’t even have anything to do with how much time you spend with other people or how much you enjoy it. The introversion/extroversion dichotomy dictates one thing and one thing only: how you recharge your batteries.

A human being is a closed system with finite energy resources. Some activities deplete those resources. Some activities replenish them. Which activities do which for an individual is an innate preference. 100% nature, 0% nurture. And it’s binary. Either you’s an introvert or an extrovert and ain’t no in between.

Introverts get energy from the inside — alone. Extroverts get it from the outside — with others. That’s it. You can be as socially savvy as you want as an introvert, but you can never actually BE an extrovert. Nor an ambivert. (The whole ambiversion thing is a complete misunderstanding of what intro/extroversion means as it was conceived by its creator: Carl Jung).

If you are an introvert, being with others, especially in big groups, will deplete your energy resources. Even if you love it, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need to be alone again to recharge. Conversely, as an extrovert, being alone drains your battery. No matter how comfortable you are with solitude, it’s only a matter of time before you need to be with others again to recharge.

If you’re hearing this for the first time, as I did when I got my Myers Briggs certification, it is probably blowing your mind, as it did mine. I was 39 at the time, and I realized for the first time…Eureka!!! I AM AN INTROVERT!!!!! I grew up thinking I was an extrovert because of all the stuff I said above. But suddenly SOOOOOOOOO many things made sense.

Why am I all alone in Portugal?

I spent the whole day networking with new colleagues, catching up with friends, listening to highly stimulating panel discussions and workshops, and generally living in the outside-with-others world for much longer than I typically do in any given day. It was awesome. And now I am recharging my batteries so that I can do it again tomorrow.

I got room service. I got a massage. I took a bath. Anyone who has made peace with their introversion will read this and nod and sigh in shared appreciation for the beauty of an evening like this.

But I couldn’t always do that myself. I didn’t always have the courage and self-respect to make this choice. It has taken time, patience, and trial and error to find my own way in life (something each of us must do — introverts and extroverts alike).

Because, FOMO.

Fear of missing out is almost always fear of missing out with others. The others are up to something good, and if I don’t put on my big girl pants and join them, I am gonna regret it. This is the voice in my head on evenings like tonight.

Because I am still human. And there is nothing more human than wanting to feel included, wanting to be connected with others, wanting to belong. I want all those things too. But as an introvert, I’ve had to learn that I can’t and shouldn’t have them in every moment. Sometimes I have to be excluded and disconnected, belonging only to a club of only one.

Life as an introvert means connecting with others in the right doses with down time in between. That’s it.

Hopefully you are much better at caring for the precious animal that is you in the wild and wooly world than I have been. But just in case, here are the five hacks I’ve learned to maintain my sense of sanity and self-preservation in the face of the mighty FOMO.

1. Understand the difference between stimulated and energized

As an introvert, your energy comes from the inside. Stimulus comes from the outside. Caffeine may make you FEEL like you have a lot of energy, but that’s an illusion. Because you can’t cheat a closed system — every action has a directly proportionate reaction (hangover anyone?). If you coast on stimulus without ever truly recharging, you’re exhausting yourself and likely subjecting the people around you to unnecessary crankiness.

It’s even worse because, as an introvert, really just about EVERYTHING in the outside world is a kind of stimulus. So I’ve learned to make some tough choices about what to chronically miss out on…

  • I haven’t had a TV for 15 years
  • My media diet consists primarily of Simpsons reruns (familiar territory so less stimulating than new shows) and the occasional Medium article
  • Movies are too much to handle more than once or twice a month
  • I almost never look at Facebook
  • I can only handle so much interesting dialogue in a given day

Because my system gets overloaded with stimulus fast. The inner world is infinite. And that’s where all roads lead the introvert. Each external stimulus — an article, a fact, a piece of data, a conversation, a work of art — gets sent into that vast internal abyss to dance and play with the rest of the landscape. My poor little brain hamster jumps into overdrive really easily because he has so much real estate to explore in there.

Stimulus feels really good, but it will ultimately crash the system if you don’t step away and actually reenergize. So be vigilant about choosing your stimuli. Tuning out Facebook is probably a great first step. This way, you can be sure to you have energy in the tank when you really want it (i.e. to spend time with the others you really care about.)

2. Love the ones you’re with

Love people. Love them all the time. But show it when you are with them. Don’t hold back. This will open up a whole wonderful new world of quality human interaction over quantity, an essential for the introvert.

I used to be a little bit afraid to fly. Which was a big problem because I fly 100,000 miles a year. I always imagined the crash. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid to leave behind so many loose ends with the people I love. Thank yous unsaid. Gratitude kept to myself. Love unexpressed. So I started stopping that. I told people I loved them. I forgave people for stuff I thought they did. I forgave myself for ever holding that against them. The fear went away.

Life is finite. That’s very real. And it invokes a powerful kind of FOMO to admit the fact that all of your relationships are going to end someday. Rather than appeasing that FOMO with more time, opt for more quality in the limited time you have. Make the moments you live with them count.

3. Pack your binky

The pacifier is the baby introvert’s rapid charge power cable. I don’t know that it has ever been studied, but I would bet money that the majority of thumb suckers are introverts. I sucked two fingers on my left hand until I was 12. It was like the monk’s prayer beads. It recentered me in no time.

Forced to abandon finger sucking because it was making me bucktoothed, as an adult, I’ve found new binkies. Things that repower me faster than simply sitting and thinking. Here are some:

  • Getting a massage
  • Meditating
  • Dancing (alone, living room dancing)
  • Showers or baths with really awesome smelling soaps and stuff
  • Certain yoga poses
  • Soup

If I am spending long days extroverting (as I do at conferences) I always make sure to get a massage one evening and do a little yoga. I pack my Sonic Death Monkey shower gel.

4. Give up on cool

I am not sure what cool is, but I think it has something to do with being seen as interesting in the eyes of others. And I wanted to be it for most of my youth. Since it’s a function of others’ opinions, that lends itself to wanting to be around others more so as to curry more favorable opinion.

Lots of FOMO is actually fear of not looking cool. Belonging is cool, not being included isn’t. But cool is a Sisyphus stone in the end. You have to keep rolling it while getting more and more exhausted and never really reaching the summit. And anyway, the opinions of others are like passing clouds. They don’t even really belong to them. And they’re none of your business anyway. So just let them go. You do you.

5. Trust in destiny

I’ve come to believe that you can never truly miss out on something or someone meant for you. Opportunity knocks not once, but all the freaking time. If you are an introvert, and you need to be alone from time to time, what crazy twisted universe would force you to miss something important at such a time?

No. We are who we are meant to be, and those who are meant for us will always find us. This is why more married couples start online now than in any other single way. It’s all working out for us. And picking the spa over the party from time to time won’t make a darn bit of difference. On the contrary, your destiny might be waiting for you by the hotel pool!!!

As tonight, mine was.

I couldn’t have written this precise article under any other circumstances. If I’d gone out, you’d be staring at a blank white screen right now. And that would be hella boring. Unless of course, you’re an introvert.