If you’ve ever gone along with the crowd to fit in or played it safe to avoid the risk of judgement, you were likely worried about what other people think. It’s natural, and the sooner you change your relationship with other people’s thoughts, the sooner you are free to be yourself, says Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worry about What People Think of You.
The fear of other people’s opinions—or FOPO, as Gervais calls it—is pervasive. It keeps us stuck and small, but there are biological and social reasons why.
“Our brain is designed for survival, and it is constantly scanning its environment to find all the things that are potentially dangerous,” he says. “We recognize that saber-toothed tigers were dangerous. One of the less recognizable things is that if we were kicked out of the tribe thousands of years ago, it was nearly a death sentence.”
To survive, the brain became attuned to acceptance and created a psychology in which it’s constantly trying to fit. Social experiences also trigger the brain’s ancient fight-flight-freeze mechanism. For example, social media has made our lives more public than ever before, which provides more opportunities for the brain to brace itself for feedback.
Who Should You Care About?
Worrying is one thing, but caring is different, says Gervais. We should care about some people’s opinions. Two groups that fall into this category: people who genuinely know you and care about your growth, and people who have done extremely hard things in their life, says Gervais.
“If you’re going to pay attention to people’s opinions, the opinions that matter to you are those who have made a fundamental commitment to care about you and the people who have something that’s hard in their life and have been in the amphitheater of risk.”
Letting Go of the Others
The opinions of anyone who falls outside of these two groups shouldn’t hold any weight. Letting go of their power means recognizing the on- and off-ramps to FOPO, says Gervais. First, become aware that opportunities for FOPO surround you. He equates it to the line in the movie The Sixth Sense: “I see ghosts everywhere.”
“Once you become aware that it is part of your internal psychology, you can build a set of psychological skills to help you navigate it when you feel it or when you’re aware,” he says.
Another on-ramp into a FOPO experience a relentless scanning for the possibility of rejection. When you’re checking for acceptance, you’re missing the focus you need to perform well on the task.
When you feel FOPO kicking in, replace the thoughts with breathing and self-talk exercises that lead to mindfulness. Long exhales, for example, can be centering. Also pay attention to the narrative in your head. Gervais recommends saying to yourself, “I want to bring my honest self forward. I’m not going to be beholden to what they might think of me.”
“In those moments, we become our best coaches,” he says. “You’ve made a commitment that you’re not trying to just be liked. You’re no longer going to be at the wit’s end of somebody’s opinion. Then you have a direction.”
You can also find an off-ramp from FOPO by striving to have more conversations with people of wisdom. “Those are people that have a deep understanding about how things work,” says Gervais. “It could be a psychologist, a coach, or a grandmother down the street. It’s somebody who’s who works from a place of wisdom. They tend to ask open-ended questions as opposed to transactional questions.”
Finally, move from a performance-based identity, which is a comparison model, to a purpose-driven identity, says Gervais. Performance-based identity is meant to be an expression and not a definition of who you are.
“People [who] focus on purpose and not performance alone find freedom from other people’s opinions, because the purpose is so big and important, it matters so much to them,” he says. “Other people’s opinions pale in comparison to the intensity of a purpose that matters.”
Why It’s Important
While FOPO is a mechanism that keeps you safe, it’s also a mechanism that keeps you small, says Gervais. “It’s an exhaustive attempt to try to interpret what others are thinking to avoid negative evaluation by them,” he says.
If you’re only attuned to what others think, you live your life on someone else’s terms and not your own. “FOPO is an anticipatory mechanism, meaning it happens before the interaction with another person even takes place,” says Gervais. “It’s excessive worry about not what they are thinking but what they might think of you. It’s one of the greatest constrictors of human potential. It holds you back from being honest and authentic and bringing your best self forward.”