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FOPO — Fear of Other People’s Opinion

| May 14, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Ever have the fear that someone is always watching you, just waiting for you to foul-up?
Michael Gervais, psychologist and co-founder of Compete to Create, a high performance mindset training course, wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review essay “How to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think of You,”that our “fear of other people’s opinions” — FOPO — has become an irrational and unproductive obsession in the modern world, and its negative effects reach far beyond performance. If you start paying less attention to what makes you you — your talents, beliefs, and values — and start conforming to what others may or may not say, you’ll harm your potential.”
Gervais also believes that having FOPO results, in part, from the way the human brain developed. For example, when humans lived in small tribes with many dependencies between individuals, if you had responsibility for the day’s hunt and returned empty-handed, more-than-likely, your status in the tribe decreased. And, if you failed too many times you might face physical danger. Much of our modern brain is layered on these ancient underpinnings. So, it’s not a surprise that we have a desire to fit in, to be seen as being successful, and have a real fear of being disliked.
In Gervais’ view, this “underscores why we need to train and condition our mind — so the tail is not wagging the dog,” so that what others think is not driving what we do.
I suspect that most of the readers of this essay have bouts of FOPO. I know I do. I remember, for example, that I didn’t volunteer to answer questions in class, even when I was pretty sure that I knew the correct answer for fear that I really didn’t. I didn’t want to risk being embarrassed in case I was wrong.  For me, even today, FOPO often shows up when I’m called on unexpectedly in a meeting and when I’m at a loss as to what to say or do next.
So, what is one to do? Gervais recommends that if you really want to conquer FOPO you first have to become more self- aware. In the Tuesday Reading, How Self-Aware Are You?,2  I suggested that you have to look really hard within yourself and discover what makes you tick so that you can have a user’s manual on you. Gervais suggests that the first step in this process might be to develop a statement of your personal philosophy, a word or phrase that expresses your basic beliefs and values. He gives two examples:“Always compete,” the personal philosophy of Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, and “walk worthy,” the philosophy of a senior executive whose parents were immigrants who had persevered through challenging circumstances to ensure he had better opportunities. Every day, he tries to be worthy of their hard work and be a great role model for the next generation.
In his essay, Gervais argues that what makes high performers great is the clear sense of the principles that guide them. Because they know the “why” of their lives, they are willing to push themselves to excel in what they do with more purpose and meaning.
Earlier, I noted that FOPO is part of how our brains developed and gave an example of someone years ago returning empty-handed after a hunt and the danger that likely placed him in. Today, we don’t face that danger. We’ve replaced it by the fears of being embarrassed and being thought less of. Raj Raghunathan,professor of marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, has written “Embarrassment, and the related emotion of shame, arises when we violate a moral code or an expected standard.” Embarrassment and shame “arise when we wonder how poorly others must think of us.”
The good news, according to Raghunathan and others,is that we worry far too much about what others think of us. We consistently overestimate how much and how badly others think of us and our failings. The bad news is that, as a result of our over-worrying, we are far more inhibited and less joyful than we could be. Raghunathan suggests three principles that might help each of us stop being as bothered by what we think others may be thinking of us:

  1. Operate from other-centeredness. Humans are a social species. As many as 80% of the processes going on in the background of our brain are about relationships with others. We are that focused on others because our personal happiness and our acceptance depend on the quality of our relationships. So, there’s good reason why we care about what others think of us. This concern is a result of fear that they might no longer “like,” respect, or have confidence in us. This fear can be a positive motivator if it results in behavior that is more appropriate or considerate and pushes you to excel in what you do.  
  2. Recognize that hurt people hurt people.  Even if you do your very best, you may be judged negatively by some others, reflecting where they are coming from. Being critical, for example, could be the only way that individual knows how to behave. If you believe someone is behaving this way towards you, first be brutally honest with yourself, evaluating your behavior, say “thank you,” and worry less about what they think.
  3. Develop attentional control. Sometimes, others’ judgments of you may be justified: you simply fouled up. While you do have to “make right” what you got wrong, you do not have to wallow in embarrassment and shame forever. To do this, you need to practice what researchers call attentional control. Raghunathan defined attentional control as ”being able to control what you pay attention to.” You “direct your attention to those things on which you want to focus and away from those things on which you do not wish to focus.” Practicing mindfulness can be a helpful way to still your mind and help you better control where you focus your mind.  

Fear of other people’s opinions of you and your actions can have a debilitating impact on all parts of your life.  I hope that you will take time in the near future to find a quiet place and reflect on how this fear works in your life and make a plan to engage and take greater control over it.
Make it a great week for you and your team. .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Michael Gervais, How to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think of You, Harvard Business Review, May 2019.
  2. James Bruce, How Self-Aware Are You?, MOR Associates, Inc., Tuesday Reading February 2, 2019.
  3. Raj Raghunathan, How Not to Worry About What Others Think of You, Psychology Today,  March 2016.
  4. K. Savitsky, N. Epley, and T Gilovich, Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishapsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 44-56, 2001.