What Is FOPO? This Harmful Mental Cycle Could Be Holding You Back

Outline of a face with a lonely man sitting inside it

Getty Images

A psychologist explains the bad habit you might not notice you’re guilty of.

You’ve heard of FOMO, the much-discussed “fear of missing out” that causes us to attend parties and trips we might not really enjoy, just to make sure we’re present for any possibly exciting moment. But what about FOPO? Author and high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais says it’s a phenomenon that’s running rampant in our society, and it could be plaguing you right now: Fear of people’s opinions.

In his new book, The First Rule of Mastery, Gervais calls FOPO “a hidden epidemic” that “may be the single greatest constrictor of human potential.” As Gervais explains, “Our concern with what other people think about us has become an irrational, unproductive, and unhealthy obsession in the modern world. And its negative effects reach into all aspects of our lives.”

Here, in an excerpt from The First Rule of Mastery, Gervais explains why FOPO is so common — and how to spot it in your own psyche.

FOPO is an anticipatory mechanism that involves psychological, physiological, and physical activation to avoiding rejection and fostering interpersonal connection. It’s a preemptive process to increase relational acceptance and avoid rejection. Instead of Oh, I’d better course-correct based on real feedback about an event and my own internal perspective, FOPO attempts to look around corners: Oh, I’d better course-correct before I receive any confirming data based on what I imagine could happen

FOPO is also characterized by a hypervigilant social readiness, relentlessly checking and scanning in search of approval. Overvaluing what others might be thinking, we become highly attuned to signals of potential rejection. 

FOPO is an exhaustive attempt to interpret what others are thinking in an effort to avoid negative evaluation by them. It’s not the actual negative opinion that is so problematic; it’s a fear of that opinion. We attempt to preempt a negative opinion by persistently interpreting clues in our environment. We visually read body language, microexpressions, words, silence, actions, and inactions. 

FOPO is interpersonal dependent, but it’s an intrapersonal experience. It’s a thought, feeling, or perception that takes place within an individual, but the experience is driven by the individual’s concerns about how they’re perceived by others, or how their actions or choices will be received by others. 

FOPO is a latent filter for decision-making, informing how we think, speak, and act. It can lead people to make choices or take actions that they believe will be more socially acceptable or less likely to be criticized by others, rather than making choices based on their own personal values or preferences. 

FOPO is a nonclinical pattern to avoid unfavorable opinions of others. Though FOPO does not meet the criteria of clinical diagnosis, it creates significant distress. 

Like applications that quietly run in the background of a computer and consume memory, processing power, and battery life — and ultimately slow down the performance — FOPO burns a lot of our internal resources. Controlling the narrative, managing the perception of others, suppressing our own opinions, being overly apologetic, agreeing with others to avoid appearing disagreeable, going to great lengths to please, the self-deprecating humor to play down our strengths and positive traits, contorting and conforming, overcompensating for perceived shortcomings, seeking validation, the increased heart rate, the muscle tension, the nervousness: FOPO exhausts our System. 

The FOPO Loop 

Imagine you’re in a one-on-one with your boss or pitching an important client or on a first date. If you catch a bad case of FOPO — and we’ve all been there — you probably won’t be able to listen intently and live in the flow of the conversation. Why? Because FOPO evokes a circular psychological and behavioral cycle that is categorized by a set of conditions that occur before, during, and after an interpersonal engagement. 

In the anticipation phase, individuals experiencing FOPO become preoccupied with playing out scenarios to gauge the likelihood of acceptance or rejection from others. They frequently ask themselves questions such as Will I be accepted if . . . ? or What will they think of me if . . . ? People use their imagination to entertain how they are going to be perceived and accepted by others. They’re less focused on the experience and instead perseverate on how the other person may or may not feel about them. In that interaction, the problem they’re trying to solve is approval or rejection as opposed to the shared social experience. 

While it’s natural for people to want to be valued and accepted by others — the approval of our supervisors is impactful to our careers — the preoccupation with the perceived opinions of others can undermine meaningful interactions. As a consequence, our excitement, curiosity, and openness to new ideas are squashed. 

In a business meeting, we can be so focused on our own acceptance or rejection that we lose our ability to fully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of the ideas being presented and how they align with the team’s overall mission. In a romantic relationship, we may be so preoccupied with whether our partner will accept or reject us that we fail to fully appreciate and enjoy the shared experiences and connection we have with that person. 

Understanding and valuing other people’s opinions is a component of social intelligence, but it’s problematic when the perceived opinions of others become the prime driver of our thoughts and actions. Rather than using our imagination for creative, productive, or fulfilling ends, it’s directed toward something 100 percent outside our control. 

The attentional cost of the anticipatory phase of FOPO is significant. To be great at anything in life, we need to drive attention to the present moment. 

The persistent rumination of FOPO pulls resources away from being able to sustain deep focus on the task at hand (required for growth and improvement), inhibits our ability to take in new information and ideas, and creates a tax on human energy, which in return necessitates even greater recovery. 

So, now that we understand the pitfalls of FOPO, what do we actually do about it? The answers can be found in The First Rule of Mastery, which includes the advice Gervais has given to MVP athletes, world-renowned artists and musicians, and leaders of Fortune 100 companies.