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  • Jeanel Carlson

Founder Confessions: I Suffer from FOPO!

Updated: Jun 28

My brain is to blame for my fear of other people's opinions (FOPO) as named by Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You

Designed for survival, our brains constantly scan the environment for danger. Thousands of years ago, it was useful to recognize the danger of predators and avoid getting eaten. FOPO stems from our programming of survival – fight, flight, and freeze responses – and ultimately in the modern world, it can keep us stuck and small. 

“FOPO is part of the human condition because we’re operating with an ancient brain. A craving for social approval made our ancestors cautious and savvy a thousand years ago,” says Gervais. “But today, with the proliferation of social media, the intense pressure to succeed, especially at an early age, and our overreliance on external rewards, metrics, and validation, FOPO is running rampant.”

Corporate environments can make workers feel like they’re back in that danger zone.

Interestingly, today, many corporate environments can feel like a lion’s den of ego, anger, and judgments. However, our biological fight, flight, freeze response doesn’t reap the same safety rewards. And, if we’re honest, we all know at least one leader who enjoys (consciously or unconsciously) the power to intimidate as they establish egoic superiority. Most of us sense energy — you know how it feels to walk into a room that holds emotional intensity. I feel it immensely. When I step into bad mojo, I’m knocked back by that wave of negative energy. My heart pounds, I sweat, I get flushed, my stomach sinks, and I feel shaky. I know I should pretend, act cool, and not care. However, the more I try to fake it, the more vulnerable I feel, there still exists that primitive unconscious drive to freeze or flee. 

Now add to the equation the corporate double bind women must navigate —maneuvering between being likable and also seen as confident and competent. Jennifer McCollum's article on explains it as:

One of the most difficult manifestations of externalized bias is the double bind for women. It's a constant tightrope we walk. We must balance the irreconcilable demands of meeting societal expectations for women—demonstrating female characteristics, like being compassionate, warm, communicative, and collaborative—with the expectations for leaders, which are dominated by male characteristics of being forceful, assertive, and dominant.

The dilemma is that when women display the male characteristics of "taking charge," they are seen as competent but aren't liked. Conversely, when we display the female characteristics of "taking care," we are viewed as less competent.

With the combination of FOPO and the double bind, it’s clear that women lack psychological safety in most corporate working environments. FOPO gets bolstered as the double bind does not allow us to express ourselves safely and authentically. It’s a vicious cycle that can only break when we champion others, build awareness, and create environments of belonging. 

Build safety and strength by focusing on what’s in your control.

It’s both frustrating and demoralizing and may make us feel like victims when we fully absorb and realize systemic and unconscious (and conscious) societal patterns that continue to put many at a disadvantage. 

FOPO causes me to crave appreciation and recognition for my work and results. My upbringing taught me humility — not “toot my own horn.” I learned that results should speak for themselves, and you will get recognized for hard work. Well, sorry to say in most cases, that’s a crock. 

During my career, I failed to give recognition to myself so I sought validation from others. Unfortunately, my career experiences left me dumbfounded. Despite fantastic results in my positions, I’d get an occasional “good work,” from my leadership. Driving significant results were brushed off by management. I was a cog in the wheel and felt used and unvalued. To step out of the cycle, I started investing more in myself with leadership coaching and development that helped me exercise self-empowerment muscles including celebrating my achievements. 

We must build positive strength and momentum for our own well-being. Mindfulness practice and focus on what’s in your control are two ways to help build strength on the inside and less reliance on external factors. Gervais’ example includes drawing two circles and outlining the inner circle with factors in your control such as your thoughts, words, actions, attitudes, and all the things out of your control.

Once you realize what’s in your control, it’s easier to nurture your energy and build yourself up.

I find that with daily practices of activities like affirmations, meditation, gratitude, journaling, and exercise, I feel more centered, aligned, and less impacted by FOPO or anxiety. I’m also learning self-compassion to see the pros of being highly sensitive. For example, it makes me a more caring, empathetic leader that people and teams feel safe in. It also makes me creative, inspiring, and courageous to become more vulnerable and share with others to help them on their journeys. Frankly, I am tired of worrying about what others think. I’ve hated that I’m wired with sensitivity but I’m not the problem  it’s the emotionally unsafe environments we’ve normalized in corporate culture. Luckily, the more I stop fighting it, the more confident I’ve become.

Suffer from FOPO? How do you navigate? Share your stories with our community!

Stay in touch with OakBloom Marketing. Subscribe to our blog or contact us here. #inspireinclusion #womenintech #femalefounders


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