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How to Stop Worrying What Other People Think

You’ve likely heard of the acronym FOMO — fear of missing out. Psychologist and author Michael Gervais coined a spin-off term, FOPO, and explains what it means in his new book, The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You.

FOPO: Fear of People’s Opinions

“FOPO shows up almost everywhere in our lives and the consequences are great. When we let FOPO take control, we play it safe and small because we’re afraid of what will happen on the other side of critique. When challenged, we surrender our view point, we trade in authenticity for approval, we please rather than provoke, we chase the dreams of others rather than our own,” Gervais writes.

FOPO is a hidden epidemic that Gervais is trying to bring to the surface, and believes it is the single greatest constrictor of human potential. He says, “Our concern with what other people think about us has become an irrational, unproductive, and unhealthy obsession in the modern world.”

If we’re not careful of our thoughts, FOPO can infiltrate the narrative in our minds, leading to obsession about the opinions of others. Social media and the intense pressure on how we curate ourselves has only made FOPO even more rampant than ever before.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 and is the longest research that has ever been done on happiness, relationships, and the human experience. The study found that one of the biggest regrets of the dying, especially in women, is: I wish I didn’t spend so much time caring what other people thought.

Should We Care What People Think About Us?

There is a distinct difference from using the word worrying vs. caring. People who don’t care are typically sociopaths, narcissists, or maybe even the enlightened. On the other hand, excessive worry — that’s proverbial poison. This can lead to depression, addiction, and extreme fatigue as it takes a tremendous amount of energy to chronically worry about something you have absolutely no control over.

If left unchecked, FOPO is simply an imagination loop.

According to Gervais, there are three phases of FOPO.

  1. Anticipation: A good analogy is when you’re in your closet, assessing what you want to wear to an event, and the lens in which you look through is wondering what other people will think of your outfit and how they’ll perceive you. You’re anticipating other’s opinions, and there is an underlying anxiousness to these thoughts.

  2. Acceptance: You’re at the event now, and you’re hyper aware of other’s opinions such as — if no one is talking to you then you scroll on your phone to make it look like you’re busy, or worrying if you’ll miss someone’s movie reference because you never watched it. These are very subtle instances, but can be the most taxing part of the FOPO experience.

  3. Response: This phase is if you conform or contort your response based on how you think you’ll be most accepted. For example, you decide to hold a cocktail in your hand even though you don’t really feel like drinking, simply because you think it’s expected of you.

Something called the “spotlight effect” is when we believe that we are under a spotlight, but the reality is that other people are more than likely thinking about themselves and not critiquing you under a spotlight.

How to Inoculate Yourself From FOPO

In order to course correct, the first step is to become more aware of your thoughts. Meditation is a tried and true practice which allows our minds to soften, calm down, and tune into our true selves. When you set time aside for mindfulness, you will become more aware of how much you’re mentally checking what others might be thinking about you, as well as how you’re responding.

Once you’re more self-aware, you give yourself a chance to make adjustments in your choices and behavior.

In addition to meditation, Gervais recommends journaling to reflect on your experiences, as well as having conversations with people who you consider to be wise.

Using the closet scenario, ideally, focus on working from the inside-out to determine what you feel like wearing vs. concerning yourself with what others might like best.

If you’re using social media, set the intention that you’re not going to consume the information passively. Better yet, try replacing some of that scroll-hole time with a more nurturing activity such as bird watching or gardening.

Fundamentally, at a visceral level, many of us simply want to know if we’re being accepted or rejected…which can feel like a death sentence.

If FOPO is something you grapple with, try memorizing this mantra:

What other people think of me is none of my business.

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