"I was in a deep state of trance because I was in slog mode; I didn’t have time to sleep, let alone see people face to face or even online,” says Mallika, 24, about the last month of her (hectic) architecture studies at college. “The Wednesday I finished, I went home straight and slept for two days solid. I woke up on Friday at about 9 pm and really wanted a big, fat, night-out, but my calls to my three close friends went unanswered. They weren’t reading my WhatsApps either. Their last online activity in my feeds had been at 6 pm. My imagination went into overdrive. I’d been a terrible friend. I obsessed and stalked until I hit meltdown. I couldn’t be sure they were together without having invited me, but I was convinced they’d all blocked me deliberately. I felt shunned. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Mallika didn’t know it at the time but what she was going through is MOMO (Mystery of Missing Out), which hits when you become paranoid about friends’ sudden silence, thinking they’re upto something unimaginably fantastic without you. It’s not that hard to see why it can hurt. Psychological literature shows rejection and exclusion hurt us so deeply, their effects mirror those of full-blown grief. Purdue University psychologist Kipling Williams calls ostracism a slippery, invisible form of abuse. It can make people feel hopeless, depressed and even homicidal. He says it’s far more damaging to be silently shunned than it is to be overtly bullied. The fear of being excluded from the clique often starts in childhood as a result of ‘silent treatment’, psychologist Terri Apter told The Telegraph. The scars from such incidents cut deep and lurk as a lingering mortar fear.
But let’s be perfectly clear: although MOMO is a fear that others are having fun doing God-knows-what without you, and has effects that mimic those of actual social excommunication, it’s an entirely different monster. Real-life kindergarten dynamics do not mirror what goes down in the virtual playground. The kid who’s the only one barred from the clubhouse might be wondering what’s going on inside, but she’s in no doubt that her peers have ganged up on her. However, the grown woman manifesting the same feelings as a result of a hiatus in online peer activity is another beast. There’s nothing tangible in her reality on which to base her assumptions—and even if she weren’t being paranoid and her ‘friends’ were deliberately leaving her out, she’s not seven.
“Your mom and grandma might be used to not knowing what’s going on, but you’re not,” Apter told The Telegraph. “It’s recognised that one of our biggest necessities is not just having what we need in order to survive or even be comfortable; we need things that allow us to feel that we’re part of a peer culture. That includes information.”
But the way we use social media is changing that. Fortunately, the novelty of documenting every blow-by-blow occurrence has worn off. As Apter explains, ‘look at how much fun I was having yesterday’ has replaced ‘look at me right now’. And if your friends haven’t called you in a while, you’re certainly not a social leper. Looking back, Mallika isn’t so kind as to call her reaction ‘childish’. “I worked myself up into such a state that I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I spent five hours on a group e-mail. But later I realised I’d been a total A-hole.”
One of her friends had suddenly returned to Mumbai because her grandmother had died, another was far more concerned about her final exam the coming Monday than about Twitter or Instagram. The third’s phone had been stolen the previous night. Nothing at all to justify the high-and-mighty wounded e-mail tantrum. Most times, when we try to solve the mystery that’s at the heart of MOMO
feelings, we’re not really seeing the larger picture. And lonely moments of disconnection are universal. The only way to power through them is not to take them personally. Eventually, they always pass. And so much more quickly once you grow up, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and deal with it.
When MOMO Gets Real
The worst-case scenario in any situation is the moment when the evidence is so overwhelming that you know beyond doubt: your darkest fears have been realised. You’ve become persona non grata. It hurts like hell. “But once you accept it, the hard part is over,” says Ashini Malhotra, a 29-year-old brand manager from Delhi. Word of advice: the MOMO thing feels sh*tty—but you’re in control of how long that feeling lasts. You have to know that you aren’t the problem. The friendship was.
This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Cosmopolitan India.