How to cope with FOPO
Fear of other people’s opinions, or FOPO, has likely affected you somehow. It may manifest as indecisiveness, anxiety about what you wear or how much you eat, or even purposely avoiding people. But in the online world, it manifests into something much darker — an obsession with social approval, even if that means losing what makes you.
The online world offers an alternate reality where we can showcase the best parts of ourselves — from highly filtered selfies to inspirational travel pics, motivational quotes and seemingly “in-the-moment” shots that offer a carefully curated glimpse into a tiny portion of our life. We’ve become masters of our self-branding, treating ourselves as a sort of commodity that is only worth as much as it looks. But what for? Well, primarily, the fear of being judged by others and an innate need to belong.
According to holistic psychologist and director of Little Window Psychology, Thania Siauw, this phenomenon is in no way new. “We are deeply rooted and neurobiologically wired to seek a sense of belonging and social approval,” says Siauw. “From an evolutionary perspective, our clever and ancient brains are driven to seek acceptance in our social group, as much as we are driven to seek food, water and shelter — it links back to the absolute necessity to secure a safe place in your tribe in order to survive. Human evolution would not be possible if we were solitary creatures.”
Enter social media: a new world where personal branding and image are everything. Apps like Facetune allow you to analyse and edit every aspect of a photo, from the overall lighting down to your skin texture, body contours, nose size — the list goes on. Women have faced distorted beauty standards and unattainable perfection for decades, even before the glossy magazine era when stick-thin models with perfectly smooth skin graced the cover and celebrities who dared to have one ounce of body fat were slammed by the tabloids. But now we are immersed in an online world where even our friends and peers appear as perfect facades.
It’s a phenomenon that celebrities, influencers and in-app filters have curated, and there’s no denying the effects this has on self-esteem and perception. In fact, many experts have cited unrealistic beauty standards cultivated by social media as a leading contributor to the cosmetic surgery boom.
A 2019 International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery report found that 11.36 million cosmetic surgical procedures and 10.89 million cosmetic injectable procedures were performed worldwide. The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” is now used to describe the millions of people worldwide seeking out cosmetic surgery to enhance or “filter” their face in real life. And this doesn’t only have individual impacts; society’s perception and expectations of beauty and what is considered “natural” have shifted immensely.
On TikTok, the #MainCharacterChallenge emerged in mid-2020 as the COVID lockdown took over. This trend is all about “romanticizing your life” through dreamy 30-second videos of rom-com-esque moments in your life with a soundtrack that captures the aesthetic: think kissing in the rain, dancing under the moonlight, road tripping down coastal roads with friends and running along the beach at sunset. At the time of writing, #MainCharacter has 5.4 billion views on TikTok. And let’s face it — it’s nice to escape reality for a while and we all want to be the main character, at least sometimes.
But the problem arises when we realise we are unable to portray this perfectly moulded character and carefully curated life in reality. Siauw explains that this facade can become dangerous to our mental health as “these behaviours are not possible offline; IRL, we cannot delete or crop out the messy parts of ourselves and our lives.” Yet we attempt to. We are so driven by the need to be liked and validated that we often become preoccupied with perfection.
The validation we seek through social media gets lost in translation IRL, and we find ourselves falling into a toxic rabbit hole of standards that just aren’t possible to achieve in the real world. Social media offers us a detached reality in which we can filter, curate and mould every aspect of our lives. Siauw notes that this creates a never-ending cycle of social comparison to unrealistic standards, “which unconsciously and spontaneously occurs whenever we see other people’s posts about life updates and has been linked to poor emotional wellbeing, social anxiety, loneliness, low self-worth and low body dissatisfaction.” It’s like a line of dominos.
We see flawless images and glimpses of seemingly perfect lives, so we work hard to curate our own, then our followers feel the pressure to live up to this standard and so they do the same and so on. Each time we fall into the trap of social media FOPO, we exacerbate the problem and so it spreads.
Taking on trolls
So what happens when people offer an opinion that doesn’t make us feel good? Well, according to Siauw, we create a system of avoidance loops. “Our brains register rejection the same as physical injury,” she explains. “As a result, our behaviour can become focused on avoiding that pain and continuously using social media as a way to feel falsely connected and accepted, rather than having this need met IRL.”
The FOPO that comes from hate makes us seek more validation in the very platform that created this insecurity. The “Like” button itself is designed to validate us, and studies have shown that when we receive a “like” notification we experience the same dopamine hit that comes with getting high. When we do receive that validation — a like, story reaction, comment or direct message — we try harder to create this perfect facade and end up living life through the lens of our smartphones. This cycle can manifest as an addiction, and Siauw warns that we can end up becoming so obsessed with the positive feedback we receive online without getting real-life exposure, so we often lack the connectedness of fact-to-face contact.
Taking all this into account, it’s easy to see why it hurts when we are actively criticised or “trolled” by people we don’t even know online. Not even the perfectly curated life we portray on our socials is free from harm by others. We all have a desperate need to be liked and to fit in, and this is where internet trolls and keyboard warriors thrive. Psychologists have found that internet trolls thrive on atypical social rewards; that is, they are motivated by any opportunity to wreak social mayhem and disruption.
Just like bullying or an attack IRL, experiencing online hate activates the fight-or-flight response. This is why you may get defensive or upset and have the urge to jump into the comments section and fire back. Or perhaps you recoil back into the labyrinth of the online world, scrolling endlessly and nitpicking both your own and others’ posts. And so the vicious cycle continues and we fall further and further down the rabbit hole as we attempt to perfect our facade.
So how do we cope with people’s opinions, especially when they’re coming from anonymous sources? Siauw has a few practical tips for dealing with FOPO.
- Put your phone down and take some deep breaths to calm your nervous system and signal to your brain that you are not in danger.
- Practise self-reflection and self-awareness. The more you know and understand yourself, the more secure you can feel in yourself, and are less affected by other people’s opinions.
- Practise self-compassion to develop a healthy way of relating to yourself. Self-compassion supports us to face, rather than turn away from, our suffering and to build kindness, tenderness and love from within. When we reach this place of comfort and self-soothing, it is easier to deal with criticism from others.
- Get to know your core values: What is important to you? What kind of person do you aspire to be? What personal qualities do you want to embody? How do you wish to make other people feel? What kind of life do you want to live? What actions do you choose to take even when uncomfortable, because they align with who you want to be? When we have a strong relationship with our values, they can help guide us to a deeper knowing of who we are, creating internal security and stability.
Don’t substitute connecting with people IRL for connecting on social media — spend time with people offline who know you, cherish you, delight in you and also who challenge you and support you to grow. Remember, many followers online only see one dimension or facet of you, and don’t truly know who you are.
The Gen Z cure
A new wave has hit social media, where many of us, influencers included, are showcasing raw, unedited peeks of their everyday lives. Perhaps this is another side-effect of the pandemic, this realisation that it’s better to live in the present as our true authentic selves, rather than online apparitions of “perfection”.
It seems that Gen Z has found the ultimate remedy to the perfectionism instilled by generations before them via TikTok. Although the app does have its problematic elements, it seems that this platform is generally more about authenticity and relatable, often self-deprecating, humour. TikTok stars have turned away from the toxic influencer culture cultivated on Instagram and towards raw content that fosters community and acceptance.
According to a Nielson study, 60 per cent of TikTok users feel a sense of community within the app. The result? Less FOPO and more genuine and unfiltered uploads. For Gen Z, it’s less about the aesthetic, and more about the mood and lifestyle. Take the “photo dump” for instance, a series of miscellaneous photos of everyday moments pulled from your camera roll: a half-eaten snack, blurry landscapes, a meme, your new manicure. This trend is a natural progression of anti-aesthetic posts in the realm of “finstagrams” or fake Instagram accounts, where followers are a select few and the photos are less idealistic and more (often ironically) relatable.
Is this the antidote to FOPO? Perhaps. But there will always be a new troll, trend or platform that begs for your attention. So step out from behind the lens and let the world of social media be one of inspiration, a place to create and connect. Place some distance between your online persona and channel the energy spent stressing about other people’s opinions into the IRL you. Be courageous enough to recognise your FOPO but don’t let it take hold of you. Let your best self bloom.
How to build a healthy relationship with your social media persona
According to holistic psychologist Thania Siauw.
- Detox and unplug from your phone and socials: Give your mind a rest from scrolling and continual comparison with regular breaks. You may even want to delete some social media apps from your phone and sit with the discomfort of not having access on demand.
- Establish purpose in your phone use: Scrolling can be a mindless way to procrastinate, self-regulate, numb ourselves or cure boredom. Each time you pick up your phone, ask yourself how you’re feeling and whether there is something more helpful and meaningful you could be doing that might support you to feel safely connected to yourself and others IRL.
- Tune into your body while you are scrolling: Notice if there is anxiety, sadness, jealousy, loneliness or agitation present on particular apps or when you see a particular post. These cues are important and can help guide you to know what you need a break from.
- Do a spring clean of the accounts you follow: Unfollow those that bring up negative feelings and actively seek accounts that mirror your values and have a different perspective to teach you, inspire you and make you feel good.