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Culture  Learning
12 February, 2024

How to get past your fear of other people’s opinions.

A young founder, who I mentor, was struggling with conflicting advice from his various investors. One of them was pushing to cut costs dramatically to improve profitability. The other was encouraging him to invest more in marketing. Another was asking him to change his channel strategy. The founder was feeling confused, doubting himself and getting anxious about the prospects of his next fund raise.

This founder’s situation is not unusual. Many of us tend to second guess ourselves when bombarded by opinions of others. For instance, management teams lament about the pressures of negative ratings from financial analysts and sometimes focus on short-term quarterly results, at the expense of long-term investments.

And the proliferation of social media has made so many fearful of the judgments cast 24-7 by an increasingly polarized audience.

Are we living our lives on other people’s terms and not our own? Are we getting too fixated on the opinions of others or societal pressures? Are we getting scared to follow our own path?

You know FOMO — but have you heard of FOPO – Fear of Other People’s Opinions. The term “FOPO” was coined by Michael Gervais, a renowned psychologist who works with high performers ranging from Fortune 500 leaders to world-famous athletes and who has recently written a great book, The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying What People Think of You”.

Based on Gervais’s thinking, my message this week focuses on how FOPO holds us back. Why are we so worried about what other people think of us? And how can we overcome this obstacle?

In his Harvard Business Review article, Gervais talks about how the FOPO mindset manifests in everyday life:

Think about a time when you were extremely anxious — say, before standing up to publicly speak, raising your hand in a big meeting, or even walking through a room of strangers. The reason you felt small and scared and tense is you were worried about social disapproval.

The craving for society’s blessing is hardwired into our brains. In ancient times, fitting in was (quite literally) a matter of life or death. If you decided to veer off course and suddenly did things “differently”, your tribe could starve, lose their way, or get killed.

The world has definitely changed since then, but FOPO remains. And instead of serving our needs, it is now an obstacle.

Being able to understand and appreciate other people’s views is an important skill; but when your need for external validation takes the driver’s seat, you’ve got a problem.

The fallout of FOPO

The repercussions of FOPO go far and wide, including at the workplace. As Gervais explains:

If you start paying less and less attention to what makes you you — your talents, beliefs and values — and start conforming to what others may or may not think, you’ll harm your potential. You’ll start playing it safe. You’ll fear being ridiculed or rejected. When challenged, you’ll surrender your viewpoint. You won’t raise your hand when you can’t control the outcome. You won’t go for that promotion because you won’t think you’re qualified.

The fear of judgment has a shrinking and limiting effect on our lives. It inhibits us from forming authentic connections with people, as we self-edit our thoughts and preferences. It makes us wary of trying new things and going off the beaten bath. To put it simply, FOPO can hold us back from living life on our own terms — because other people’s opinions take priority.

An outsized desire for social approval makes you highly insecure. It puts you in a state of non-stop anxiety, wherein you fear rejection, ridicule, or dislike. Gervais notes:

FOPO is characterized by a hypervigilant social readiness and a relentless scanning of the environment in search of approval…. It is an exhaustive attempt to interpret what others are thinking in an effort to preempt a negative evaluation by them.

When you’re caught in the above mental loop, it’s hard to be fully present in any social experience. You find yourself constantly thinking “What will they think if I…?” or “Would they praise/criticize me if I?”, instead of being in the moment and being yourself.

Interestingly, success doesn’t inoculate you from FOPO. In fact, it can intensify it. The better you do and the higher you climb, the more scrutiny you face. It’s no surprise that so many star performers struggle with anxiety fixated on other people’s opinions.

How to conquer your FOPO

You cannot run away or ignore FOPO. Try to discover what’s underneath what you are feeling. Use it as a learning opportunity. These seven steps can help:

1. Dial down the stress.

Disarm high-intensity FOPO the moment that it kicks in. Take several deep breaths to let your brain know there’s no need to panic because you’re not in a life-and-death situation. You will instantly feel yourself getting calmer. Whether you’re getting set for a big presentation or asking a question in a public forum, this simple technique centers you.

2. Appreciate your strengths.

Once you’re feeling less panicky, refocus on your skills and competencies. Remind yourself how good you are at what you do, how well you’ve prepared for this moment, how much value you can add. Self-confidence is one of the biggest antidotes to FOPO!

3. Nurture self-awareness.

The first two tips are about tackling FOPO when it strikes. But to really get over the craving for social validation, you’ll need to develop a strong sense of self. This is the foundation for creating a more authentic life for yourself, be it in the personal or professional sphere.

4. Craft a personal philosophy.

Articulating your principles strengthens your sense of self. These questions from Gervais offer a good jumping-off point:

  • When I’m at my best, what beliefs lie just beneath the surface of my thoughts and actions?
  • Who are people that demonstrate characteristics and qualities that are in alignment with mine?
  • What are those qualities?
  • What are you favourite quotes? Your favourite words?

Use your answers to frame a statement of who you are and how you want to live your life. It can be in the form of a phrase, sentence, or short paragraph.

Creating a personal philosophy can be powerfully freeing. It brings a new clarity to the mind and dissipates the fog of other people’s opinions. It gives you the courage to take risks that align with your values and your dreams. Whenever you feel FOPO creeping up on you, bring your statement front and center.

5. Hack your self-story.

What kind of story do you tell yourself? Does your inner voice constantly dwell in negativity? Does it say that you lack talent, that you won’t make it, that other people dislike you? The story you tell yourself can actually shape your reality. One way to break free of FOPO is to consciously change that negative narrative.

Start by paying attention to your inner voice. Is it placing arbitrary limits on you? Is it keeping you inside a box? The next step is to consciously “rewrite” your self-story, based on a clear understanding of your own abilities. Build trust in yourself by taking small, purposeful risks. Put your victories at the center of your new narrative. As your self-belief grows, try taking bigger leaps of faith.

6. Shift from performance to purpose.

A performance-linked identity makes you more susceptible to FOPO. When you understand yourself primarily through performance, other people’s opinions inevitably come into play. You need their praise to reinforce your sense of self.

A purpose-linked identity offers a better, healthier alternative. Your purpose is born from your inner compass. So, instead of bolstering identity through external validation, you look at it through the lens of your self-defined purpose.

There are various ways to make the move from performance to purpose. You could try mindfulness, coaching, workshops, books or even formulate a self-guided journey with elements from all of these. A good place to start could be Gervais’ book.

7. Recall the spotlight effect.

As you battle FOPO, it’s worth remembering the spotlight effect — a cognitive bias that makes us overestimate how much others notice and observe us.

The amount we think about ourselves is very different from the amount other people think about us. When you realize you’re not at the center of everyone’s thoughts, the pressure automatically lifts. You feel less self-conscious and find it easier to do your own thing.

FOPO can keep us from expressing our true selves and growing to our full potential. Overcoming the need for social approval can be transformative.  It helps you shut out the noise. It allows you to focus on being the best you can be.

In the end, let me leave you with this excellent advice from Gervais:

Start at home. Tell that person you love them. Dance at a wedding. Take risks. Be respectfully weird. (That probably means, be you.) Then try it at work. Give a presentation. Go for that promotion. Do things that will engender the opinions of others. When you feel the power of FOPO holding you back, simply acknowledge it and reconnect to your philosophy.

 * What will people say?


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