By Jimmy Warden
It was a bit past 9pm on Saturday night, July 10th, when my heart rate started to accelerate. I wasn’t doing anything physically active, I was merely waiting for my moment. A moment that I had imagined in my head before, but now it was coming to fruition. Performing live poetry in front of a live, in-person audience. Not only was my heart racing, but my stomach was doing acrobatic somersaults, and I was thinking of ways to escape from where I was.
I was sitting in a dive bar with my girlfriend and we were getting ready to watch our friends’ band put on a terrific performance. There wasn’t anything extremely new about this experience other than the fact that I would be doing an introductory poem for the band, and I was scared to the point where I thought I was going to have a bowel movement (sorry for the graphic image, just trying to paint a picture here). Sure enough, right before they started at 9:30, they waved me up to the stage to kick the night off.
My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest, I felt a lump form in my throat as it also started to dry up, and I could see the crowd of people before me. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to actually do it, but I took a deep breath, and started speaking into the microphone in front of me.
What is FOPO?
Before I continue with the events that ensued from my fear, I’d like to talk a bit about where my fear was coming from. The fear that I had last night was a fear of other people’s opinions (I’ll be calling it FOPO for short). I first learned about FOPO from sport and performance psychologist Michael Gervais through his informative and insightful podcast, Finding Mastery.
He discussed how we have fears that are rooted in our self-esteem and when our self-esteem is put in jeopardy, we experience fear in the form of inadequacy. This might feel like not making a roster as an athlete, this might be buying the wrong item at the market for your partner, or in my case with the live performance, it might feel like getting no response or a negative response from the crowd. In each respective example, the person engaging in a task has an ideal outcome that is going to bring themselves and others value, but it is vital to their self-esteem that they deliver that outcome. There is a high potential that it doesn’t go completely as planned and this is when FOPO comes to the surface.
We fear that if we don’t deliver, we will no longer be needed, and that we will no longer matter in the world. This fear can be crippling because of what’s at stake: our sense of self-worth, our value that we believe we bring to the world, our ability to bond and connect with others, and the value that we want others to see in us.
Let’s imagine that that athlete didn’t make the roster. Fans of that sport could potentially label that athlete a bust, essentially stating that the athlete did not live up to their potential, and are therefore unneeded. Despite their high-level of talent, others are rendering them useless. Let’s now imagine you make a quick trip to the grocery store and buy 2% milk instead of 1% milk and your partner states you’re dumb and have no memory. With that, they are taking a big swing at your sense of self-worth. And with my own example, I was worried about the reponses, or lack thereof, of the crowd that was standing and sitting before me because I felt my poems were valuable, but wasn’t sure about what others thought of them.
Why does FOPO exist?
Weirdly enough, FOPO has been around much longer than we’re probably aware of. Considering it is rooted in self-esteem, that means that it is also rooted in value. If one has high self-esteem, they generally believe their life holds a lot of value. With that said, there is also a part of our brain; specifically the amygdala, that tracks our social status within a specific hierarchy. The main reason that we track where we are in a social hierarchy is to figure out where we fit into a group and what value we have within a group. Not only that, but we also try to predict relevant behaviors that are accepted by the group. This is why peer pressure exists and why people often succumb to it. We would rather be accepted than be cast out on an island, so we’re willing to sacrifice some of our sense of self to make sure we’re part of a social group.
There was also a study led by Mary Ann Noonan that showed macaques too have similar activity happening in their brains. They found that the more subordinate the macaque was, the stronger connections they had between brain regions that correlate to dominance. These findings suggest that while the animals are at rest, they can determine social status and that their sense of self, and even awareness, comes from introspection about social reasoning. They realized that they were not the highest in their dominance chain, but they still wanted a part in it, so they decided to be more subordinate.
In terms of how this relates FOPO, we fear other people’s opinions because we feel that we’ll be lowered in the pecking order of a group. We are social creatures that yearn for status to validate our value, even if that means that we’re not at the top of that order. Like the macaques, we’re willing to be complacent, just so that we have a spot on the team. Because if we were to challenge the dominance hierarchy and fail, there is a likelihood that we’d be ostracized from that group.
So now, let’s bring it back to those previous examples of people experiencing FOPO. For the athlete, they may or may not continue their career based on the fact that their social group (in this case a fan base) feels that their status is not what it should be. For the partner, that brought back the wrong milk, they may go back to the store and get the kind they should have in the first place. As for me, I may or may not have continued to read that night based on the crowd. All of us in an effort to preserve our position within the sacred social hierarchy.
How can I manage FOPO?
First, it’s important that you acknowledge FOPO exists. Unless you’re a complete narcissist and truly don’t care about others, this is something you’ll have to live with everyday. If you’re constantly in denial of it, it will creep up, and possibly take you out at the time you least need it to. Therefore, step one is to acknowledge the fact that it’s there and it has to be dealt with appropriately.
Second, it’s crucial to understand that other people’s opinions are just that. Sure, opinions may hold some clout in regards to the social hierarchy, but they are not definitive. Just because someone says “you suck” today, doesn’t mean they won’t be praising you next week for a job well done. It is all about taking the opinions in stride, determining whether their opinion holds value, and acting on it appropriately. In sum, if their opinion holds some truth, you can make a change to improve yourself. If their opinion is coming from a place of envy, jealousy, or meanness, it may be time to find another social group.
The same could be said for our opinions about ourselves. The reason I say this is because we often judge our past and future selves quite critically. Essentially, we’re fearing our own inadequacies. This correlates with the idea of FOPO because of its orientation with the future. We are often afraid of what we think we won’t be able to do in our future, and that can lead us into spirals of anxiety. The challenge is that these fears seem so vivid in our minds, but they have yet to manifest into anything physical. When we perpetually worry that we won’t become who we want to become, it will be too difficult to take any action, and we’ll never fulfill the outcome that we desire.
Lastly, it’s up to us whether or not we agree with what others think or say about us, or whether we agree with our own anxieties. Often times we get caught up in, “so and so made me feel ___ because they…”, when in reality we are responsible for our own emotional well-being. The same can be said for when we engage in that spiral thought pattern. We can continue to think that the universe is conspiring against us or that the actions that we have to take are too daunting or we can choose to approach those thoughts differently. We have the choice whether or not to take opinions or personal thoughts to heart. We have the choice to agree with what was said or disagree with what was said. We have the choice to agree with our fearful thoughts or merely acknowledge the fact that they’re just thoughts. Each time do, we are casting a positive or negative vote on our self-esteem.
So, the choice is yours.
Links to resources used in this article