An Excerpt from The First Rule of Mastery

Michael Gervais

November 09, 2023


Psychologist Michael Gervais presents a guide to overcoming fear of people's opinions and unlocking our full potential.

The power that the fear of people’s opinions (FOPO) holds over our lives can be detrimental if left unaddressed. It may lead us to play it safe, avoiding risks and constantly seeking others’ approval. However, there is hope. In The First Rule of Mastery, psychologist Michael Gervais offers tried-and-true mental skills to overcome FOPO and live authentically.

In this excerpt from Chapter 10, Gervais highlights how a culture of individualism has contributed to the prevalence of FOPO.


Culture of Self

We have put the self at the center of Western life in the twenty-first century and, in the process, we have untethered ourselves from the whole of who we are. The idolatry of the self has reached its apogee in human history. Never has the idea of a separate self occupied such a prominent place in society. The self has supplanted the group or community as the basic building block of society. Individual rights, needs, and wants are sacrosanct, and the individual is the filter through which we view economic, legal, and moral problems. The life of the self is an individual adventure. The goals of the self are individual happiness and self-realization. The question that’s always out in front of the self is, What do I need to do to find my happiness

On the surface, it looks like we may have fulfilled the observation that French philosopher and social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville made about America more than a century and a half ago when he wrote that most Americans “feel no longer bound to their fate by a common interest; each of them, standing aloof, thinks that he is reduced to care for himself alone.”

Uncoupling the self from a larger social context creates a host of conditions that fuel FOPO.

In the culture of self, both achievements and failures are perceived to depend entirely on one’s own efforts. While that idea can be a source of motivation (“you can change the world”), it can also work against mental health. When we identify as a separate self, we take authorship of what happens around us, including those things we don’t control. Life unfolds. Things happen. And then we layer on the subjective interpretation that they are happening to me. They are happening because of me, because of something I am doing or not doing. We give ourselves too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things don’t work out. We often feel like we are not good enough, like something inside of us is unlikable. We turn our experiences against ourselves and they become a referendum on our self. Consequently, we are continually in pursuit of our worth and evading the fear of our inadequacy. We are running to stay ahead of our self-judgments and the opinions and judgments of others.

Impostor syndrome is an outgrowth of our self-driven culture, an unintentional rebellion against the self’s instinct to point back at itself. People with impostor syndrome, often high achievers, tend to attribute success not to their own abilities but to luck or high effort. Unable to internalize the full body of their work, all their successes, mistakes, failures, and hard-earned insights, they fear the opinions of others will match the hidden opinion they hold of themselves.

The ever-present need to prove (or defend) our self distances us from others and undermines our relationships. As author Mark Manson puts it, “A person’s ability to engage in a genuine connection is inversely proportional to their need to prove themselves.” The focus is on meeting the needs of oneself, not the other person or the relationship. In the process we often put ourselves in competition, rather than collaboration, with the other person. Rather than being a part of the circle of people we trust, we push them away, often into the realm of people’s opinions we fear.

The self-help industry fuels our obsession with self. We focus on ourselves at the exclusion of everything and everyone around us. Surrounded by advice—books, articles, podcasts, blog posts, therapists, influencers—we insatiably search for that tip, trick, or hack that’s going to heal our childhood trauma, or at least improve our match rate on Bumble. Therapy sessions drag on for months and years with no finish line in sight. We dive down the rabbit hole of our childhood so we can get an honest handle on our history. We relentlessly search inside ourselves for the key that will unlock our wholeness.

Putting self at the center of our world separates us from the planet we inhabit. When we place ourselves above the earth rather than on it, we deplete our resources, degrade our planet’s habitats and put the globe in peril of overheating. Environmental journalist Richard Schiffman poetically describes our disconnection from the natural world: “At the core of our abuse of nature is the belief that we humans are essentially islands unto ourselves, alienated from the world beyond our skins. A little god locked within the gated community of his or her own skull won’t feel much responsibility for what goes on outside.”

In our self-driven culture, meaning and purpose are conscripted by the individual. Each person is responsible for figuring out their unique purpose, rather than it being interpreted through the relationships we have with others, the broader society, and the planet. The question to ponder is: Are we independent people in opportunistic association with one another or does meaning spring from being in service to the relationship of the collective?

Bigger Than You

Connecting to something bigger than we are makes us less susceptible to the opinions and negative thoughts that follow the separate self. We become more like the ocean than a small puddle of water that’s easily displaced.

It’s a little counterintuitive, because our natural reaction is to place our attention on ourselves when we are struggling. We look to fix what ails us. Paradoxically, though, when we look outward rather than focusing on our self, we connect with the deeper parts of who we are. The more we focus on contributing to the whole, the more connected we feel. The more we let go of our self, the more we access our true self. This can take the form of adopting goals that are focused on something bigger than ourselves—something that contributes to the well-being or support of others or the planet.

When we apply our unique strengths and virtues toward something greater than ourselves, we recognize we are part of a larger, interrelated ecosystem. No, not in that way where you just joined a fraternity or sorority and you feel connected to a larger group. Having a purpose larger than ourselves is a portal into an awareness of the profound connectedness of all things and that we don’t exist in isolation. Our attention gets drawn away from the narrow prism of our “self” to the recognition that our real nature can only be understood in context of our connection with others.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You by Michael Gervais, PhD with Kevin Lake. Copyright 2023 Michael Gervais. All rights reserved.


About the Author

Dr. Michael Gervais is one of the world's top high-performance psychologists and leading experts on the relationship between the mind and human performance.

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