Do You Have 'FOPO'? Here's How To Spot The Damaging Habit.

Pretending you've seen a movie you've never seen or scrolling your phone to appear busy are both signs of FOPO.
FOPO, or the fear of people's opinions, is likely holding you back from being your true self.
katleho Seisa via Getty Images
FOPO, or the fear of people's opinions, is likely holding you back from being your true self.

If you’re a human being, you’ve likely worried what your colleagues think of your outfit or if you said something dumb at a neighborhood barbecue. Our society centers other people’s opinions, making them hard to ignore ― but the fear of them is also holding you back from your full potential, experts say.

This occurrence is known as “FOPO,” or fear of people’s opinions, a concept named by psychologist Michael Gervais who also authored a book on the topic, “The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You.”

FOPO is “primarily an anticipatory mechanism that we use, and it’s a preemptive process to increase our acceptance in the eyes of others and for us to try to avoid rejection,” Gervais told HuffPost. “And it’s characterized mostly by a hypervigilance and social readiness — and what we end up doing is we scan our world for approval.”

For example, you may fall into the FOPO trap every time you panic about a text message that reads “OK,” or you might study your friend’s face for any negative reactions to a funny story.

“And the reason that we’re doing that is because, long ago, our brains paired safety with belonging. If we got kicked out of the tribe ... it was a near death sentence to try to survive in the wild by oneself or even with just a handful of people,” Gervais explained. Getting “rejected by another person now is not a near death sentence, but it still feels that way.”

While Gervais coined the term, Aparna Sagaram, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Space to Reflect in Philadelphia, said the concept is also evident in her work with clients. “This is just so familiar for a lot of ... immigrant families, where this concept of ‘what will people think?’ has just been ingrained in us for centuries.”

The rise of social media is part of this too, Sagaram said. Between likes, follow requests and comments, social media is quite literally a call for external validation. “And it’s not so much about what’s best for you anymore, it feels like what’s maybe best for how others will perceive you,” Sagaram said.

According to Gervais, there are three aspects of FOPO: First is the anticipatory phase, which is the feelings and thoughts that race through your mind as you get ready for a social situation.

“The second phase is checking,” Gervais said. “So, when you’re actually with somebody, you’re checking for the tone of their voice, the micro-expressions, their body language — and you’re checking to see if you’re OK as opposed to checking to really understand the content of what they’re saying or the emotions behind the content of what they’re saying.” (This is why, he said, we forget people’s names. We are more focused on our own survival than actually listening.)

“This anticipatory phase and this checking phase are exhausting. They’re very tiring. You become an expensive organism to run. This is why fatigue is such a real deal for so many of us,” he added.

The third phase is known as the responding phase. “If you’re sensing that you might be rejected or you might be looked at kind of sideways ... what people end up doing is they’ll shape-shift in a way to be included,” Gervais explained. This can look like laughing at jokes you don’t find funny or pretending you’ve seen a movie everyone else is talking about so you don’t seem like an outsider.

You may be dealing with FOPO if you find yourself shrinking to appease those around you.
izusek via Getty Images
You may be dealing with FOPO if you find yourself shrinking to appease those around you.

If you feel seen right now, you certainly aren’t alone. How many people can truly say they have no regard for other people’s opinions? Probably no one. And it wouldn’t be realistic to completely disregard others’ opinions either, Sagaram said.

“We live in relationships, we live in communities ... we’re always interacting with other people, so it’s hard to fully not care about what people think, but what’s important is recognizing how much you let someone’s opinion impact you,” Sagaram added.

So, how can you tell if you are letting another person’s opinion compromise your authenticity? According to Gervais, there are many signs that you’re dealing with FOPO, but here are some common examples:

  • Checking your phone to appear important or busy — “that’s a funny little social thing to not be totally vulnerable and socially awkward,” said Gervais.

  • Laughing at a joke you don’t find funny.

  • Drinking at a party even when you don’t want to.

  • Dealing with ordering anxiety at a cafe to make sure you get it right and don’t hold up the line behind you.

  • Staying at your job late because your boss is still there.

  • Lying about your age at work in an industry run by younger people.

  • Pretending you’ve seen a movie you’ve never seen.

All in all, FOPO is anything you do to avoid looking dumb in front of other people or anything you do to avoid potential rejection from a group. “Rather than focusing on our own thoughts and feelings and experience, we ruminate on what someone else may or may not be thinking about us,” Gervais said. “And then in doing that, we are looking outside of ourselves to see how we feel about ourselves.”

In reality, people aren’t paying attention to you nearly as much as you think. “This idea that we feel like we’re under a spotlight ... like others are looking at us, constantly judging and critiquing us, when actually, they’re not as critical and judging as we think ― because they think that they’re being judged and critiqued by you,” Gervais said.

Nonetheless, worrying too much about others’ opinions leads to following a path that isn’t yours. You may chase the dreams and approval of others rather than your own desires, Gervais explained, and may spend life “being who we think people want us to be, rather than who we actually are.”

How To Worry Less About Other People’s Opinions

Good news: If you want to worry about other people’s opinions less, the first step ― awareness ― is likely happening now.

“Just being aware of this concept, that there’s a name for it ... it starts to discharge the power of their opinions, and so awareness is always the starting point for change,” Gervais said.

It’s also important to hone the skills needed to deal with the tough emotions that can come up when dealing with FOPO, like anxiety or nervousness. Breath work and self-talk can help center you during the moments you’re feeling overwhelmed, Gervais said.

If you struggle with FOPO, you can consider what you identify with, too. Most people have a performance-based identity because we live in a performance-based culture. This kind of identity is rooted in how well you do, not in who you are.

“Moving from a performance-based identity to a purpose-based identity, which is being a small part of something much larger, and being connected to that tends to alleviate the intensity of FOPO,” Gervais said.

While you can certainly look online at lists of values and see which resonate with you, “it is easy for it to get tangled up into what you think others think versus what you actually think. Or ... how we want to come off rather than what do we feel authentically,” Sagaram said.

For this reason, Sagaram said, it can be helpful to do this values work with a mental health professional. They can help you sort through your own values and beliefs versus what society has told you.

You can also try to determine your own values and authentic goals by following a therapist-backed exercise.

“Let’s say you’re in your 30s, and you’re going to think back to your 20s and say, ‘Oh, man, I wish I didn’t really care what people thought’ ... what are the things that come up for you around that?” Sagaram gave as an example. (The same can be said for being in your 40s and looking back at your 30s or being in your 50s and looking back on your 40s and so on.) This can be a good way to recognize what you’re missing out on when you carry other people’s expectations and opinions, she said.

“It’s a good exercise to get yourself thinking ... it’s not necessarily regrets, but it’s just like, ‘I wish I cared less about what these people thought, maybe things could have looked different or maybe I could have enjoyed that experience more,’” said Sagaram.

An example of this is your body image, she added. Maybe you spent lots of time in your 20s worrying about how you looked, but when you look back at pictures, you’re totally happy with your looks. This may cause you to wonder why you spent so much time caring about your looks when you could have enjoyed experiences and events instead of searching for external validation, said Sagaram. “And now here I am, in my 30s, still fixated on how I look.”

Sagaram added that having self-confidence can be a way to understand your values and, in turn, care less about people’s opinions. This way, you’ll believe in yourself and know that you know what’s best for you, not someone else.

“The more authentic you are, the easier it is to show up in a competent way,” Sagaram said. “And if you show up more competently, you’re less likely to care about what others think because you feel so secure with yourself.”