Fear of People's Opinions: How to Overcome The Greatest Constrictor of Human Potential - An Interview With Dr. Michael Gervais

Fear of People's Opinions: How to Overcome The Greatest Constrictor of Human Potential - An Interview With Dr. Michael Gervais

What follows is a transcript for the podcast Mindsets - Dr. Michael Gervais - Psychology.

Topics within the interview include:

  • What exactly is FOPO and why does it matter?
  • Is worrying about people’s opinions something only those with low self esteem battle?
  • The difference between purpose-driven and performance driven identities.
  • Actionable tips we can start to use right now to become aware of and address FOPO in our everyday lives.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Welcome back to the Collective Insights podcast. I'm Dr. Dan Stickler. I'm the medical director here at Qualia. And today we have the honor of having Dr. Michael Gervais. He is a high performance psychologist, author of one of the world's... And one of the world's leading experts on the relationship between the mind and human performance. Over the course of a 20-year career working with world-class performers and organizations, Dr. Gervais has developed a framework for the mental skills and practices that allow organizations, teams, and individuals to thrive in pressure-packed environments. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Great to be here with you. Thank you for the kind introduction.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So you've got a new book out, don't you?

Dr. Michael Gervais: I do, yeah. It's called The First Rule of Mastery.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Awesome. Tell us, tell our readers a little bit about what they can experience in that book.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, so the narrative of the story, how it came to be was I wrote an article for HBR, Harvard Business Review, and they called 12 months later and they said, okay, you were the number one downloaded article for the last 12 months. Would love to write a book with you. And I said, oh my God, that's amazing. And then it was really bad timing. I was neck deep in wrestling alligators, and so it just wasn't going to happen. So they said, no problem, we'll come back around and this 12 months later, so now 24 months, they said, we re released it. And again, same thing, it was the number one downloaded and they said, we've got to do this. And I said, all right, very cool.

So I accidentally tripped on a bit of a live wire, and that live wire is specifically around this concept that we introduced called FOPO. It's just a fun name for, but it stands for fear of people's opinions. And we believe it to be one of the great constrictors of human potential. And our research around it has been quite compelling. So that is the idea behind the book is what are the on-ramps and off-ramps to this constrictor of one's potential and it's called FOPO.

Fear of People's Opinions (FOPO): How to Overcome The Greatest Constrictor of Human Potential 

Dr. Dan Stickler: Love that. So can you go into some detail on really some examples maybe of this fear of people's opinions?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, I think it's important just to pull apart, this is not of a value, not valuing other people's opinions. This is an excessive worry that is the problematic piece to it. So it's an exhaustive attempt to interpret what others are thinking in an effort to avoid negative evaluation, to try to gain favor from the other person. So it's not so much that the negative opinion, it's so problematic. It's the fear of that opinion that compels us to play it safe, to play it small, to avoid failure rather than going for it. And we attempt to preempt that negative opinion by presenting a certain way, by showing up in a perfect way, by interpreting clues in our environment and trying to be great investigators of what might they be thinking, what opinion could they be forming? And so we're these little mini investigators trying to sort it out and we're reading body language and micro expressions and trying to understand what they said and what they meant by what they said. And we're trying to understand what silence means and actions and non-actions, the whole thing.

And if it's run through this filter that I'm not sure I'm good enough and I'm not sure if I matter enough. And so I need to outsource that knowing to you that what ends up taking place is that we begin to fear other people's opinions. And in a world where, "we're having a human energy crisis," where people are exhausted and they're more fatigued than they've ever been, higher stress levels at least in our lifetimes, the dark ages were pretty dark. So let's just pull that out of the equation for now. But people are feeling highly charged in their lives. This is one of the very expensive mechanisms that's running below the surface. And so FOPO is something that I think we all can recognize, and certainly some of us are struggling with it, some are suffering from it, and very few people have squared up with it to do something effective while they're young.

Some people, it's not until they get old that they go, oh, honey, it's other people's opinions, who cares? But by then you've missed some really important windows in your life. So just trying to get there a little earlier, find a little bit more freedom. And that's essentially how the concept of FOPO, we understand it. And so I'm happy to keep going further on it, but I'll pause here.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, I'm glad you clarified that because I've read this stuff with Nasem Taleb who talks about how that feedback, the constant assessment of your performance is really important for developing mastery, whether it's a coach or when I was a surgeon, we got instant feedback essentially. So we would do a surgery and then we would see what that result was and see certain things that we did. So this is just more of that fear rather than actual getting the feedback.

The Difference Between High Performance Feedback and People’s Opinions

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, that's right. So feedback is different than an opinion when you're coming from a deficit, when you're worrying about, am I okay in the eyes of others? So high performance feedback is one of the great devices and mechanisms inside of cultures that are really pushing edges and trying to figure out how to unlock the potential that lives dormant in so many of us. So high performance feedback is both a skill and an art. And when people are overwhelmed by the opinions of others, it's very hard to be a member in a community that requires feedback or I'm sorry, be a member in a community that is trying to get better, where feedback for most of those communities is essential. And so there is feedback for athletes to just take it one step further that we need to listen to ourselves. That tuning fork of our body and our emotions is fundamentally important and there are blind spots and things we can't quite understand easily from that or our own internal mechanism. So that's why having video and, or high performing coaches are essential in many cases.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Now, can those opinions be positive as well as negative opinions and have that kind of an impact?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, so the opinion is basically, so are we staying in the lane of coaches to athletes or mentors to mentees, or are we talking about just the pervasive idea of opinions?

Dr. Dan Stickler: Are they different for each group?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, well, it's different for the person receiving them. Okay. So if I'm an athlete and you're the coach and we have a relationship that, Hey, I'm going to give you feedback and I'm going to do it in real-time, I'm going to do it within an hour, I'm going to do it within eight hours. And if I'm really off my game, I'll do it within 24 hours, but that'll be the last resort. After that, the feedback is, it loses its potency. But if you and I are in that relationship and then I know that your feedback matters to me, I'm looking for it. If I want to be my best, if I want to get up on the edge of my capabilities, I'm inviting it, I want it, and then it's up to you and I to figure out the right art and the approach for feedback. Sometimes it needs to be private, sometimes it needs to be public, sometimes it needs to be A, B and C.

And each relationship and each person has a preference for that type of feedback loop to take place. So that's different than this general feeling like, man, I don't know if I matter. I need to outsource that knowing to other people. In other words, I look to you to see if I'm okay, that's very different than I'm looking to you and we've agreed on this relationship to make sure that my toes are pointed in just the right way, or the angle of my body is just right to be able to meet that whatever condition. So it is fundamentally different in that approach.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So is this something that you tend to see in people with issues of low esteem or does it happen across the board?

Is Worrying About People’s Opinions Something Only Those With Low Self Esteem Deal With?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, esteem is... I'm glad you bring that up because we used to think that esteem was like a panacea for all things for people, but now we understand that esteem is actually part of the way we feel we fit in in social settings. Oddly enough, this is not solely determined by the way I speak to myself. So one's esteem is relational and people's opinions and the way they respond to you, either rejection or acceptance is an important part of that esteem mechanism. So this is not just for people with low self-esteem, this is after 20 plus years working with world's best across multiple disciplines. This is pervasive for them too. This is an excessive worry about am I okay? And that's not just for people with low self-esteem, it's pretty pervasive across skillsets.

Dr. Dan Stickler: What this is bringing up for me is I see these people who start some kind of a movement or they're leaders in a group of small group of people, and then that tends to grow and they change in that regard because they have all of these people that are basically devoting to this person, this guru or whoever it is, and they tend to lose the whole, they become that egoic above everything entity. Does this play into that at all, or is this something totally separate?

Dr. Michael Gervais: I did not go after this in the book, the relationship between narcissism and FOPO. So let's see if we can play with this a little bit. If narcissists, a true NPD, NPDs are rare, but narcissistic tendencies and, oh, I don't know, the characteristics of it, but not the full-blown disorder are rampant, they're pretty prevalent in modern society, certainly in high performing cultures. You have to have some sort of irrational unreasonable belief that you're the one in eight billion people to be able to do this thing at the highest level. So there there's some sort of bombastic thing that is socially approved and praised in those environments, but when it becomes toxic, it's problematic. So that's not narcissistic personality disorder, that's just the narcissist way of engaging in high performing environments. What you're talking about is the person that is onto something organic, and then there's a lot of eyeballs that are watching what they're doing and have found interest in it.

That person now either contorts or changes their psychology based on their social setting. That's a bit different. I would say that those people probably had that seed germinating and then as soon as it was watered by the eyeballs and attention in favor of other people, that it sprouted that narcissistic approach to life. Yeah. And then if we just play it one more dimension, I guess, sitting in the seat of that person who has lots of eyeballs on him or her, that there would be the likelihood that they become, their identity becomes involved with their status. So in the research for the book, we went after performance-based identity versus purpose-based identity. And in our world where we value performance and we value high performance, and we value straining and striving and getting after it, and all of the zeitgeist around performance, we have found subpopulations of people that their identity revolves solely around how well they do relative in comparison to other people's performance.

And so stripped that way down in a very simple way is that my identity is intact when I'm performing better than you. And so I'm looking at scoreboards to see if I'm okay, I'm looking at bank accounts to see if I'm okay, I'm looking at social media approvals to see if I'm okay, because it's relative to other people, relative to the imaginary standard is actually maybe even more dangerous. That's very different. Purpose-driven identity or purpose-based identity is... I'm sorry, performance-based identity is very different than purpose-based. And purpose-based is just like what it sounds like. I just want to be part of something in a meaningful way that's bigger than me, I could never solve on my own. And my life work and my life passion is hums around being part of this purpose. And sometimes I'm at the front and sometimes at the back, sometimes I'm right in the middle and I just want to be part of this purpose to make a dent in something that I think matters.

And my identity therefore is about something larger than me and not me alone. So likely that person, to go back full circle to your analogy or your description, if that person falls into a performance-based identity, watch out. If they stay true to a purpose-driven identity and they'll probably be able to weather the toxicity of, or the drug of people at scale favoring them. And so that would be one of the clear anchors, or as I talked about earlier on off-ramp to the football condition.

Purpose-Driven Versus Performance Driven Identities

Dr. Dan Stickler: So you work with a lot of celebrities and professional athletes. What percentage of those would you say are purpose-driven versus performance driven?

Dr. Michael Gervais: I don't know the research there. So this is me look at my finger and putting it up in the air. And this is intuitive rather than, and experiential rather than research-based. But I think most people find, I'm sorry, at some stage toward the end of their career, they realize that the performance-based identity isn't what it was cracked up to be. And if they can be part of start at that point before they retire, they've got a chance in retirement. And so unfortunately, as I say that we know from some NFL studies and NBA studies that somewhere between 87% and 90 plus percent of professionals in those two leagues that retire are broke, divorced, a bit of a disaster on the other side of their professional career.

And that's likely because their identity was so wrapped up in their performance that when you pull that performance, the rug from underneath of them, they're in free fall and they don't really know who they are because they've been practicing knowing who they are based on their performance. So most people start to get a hint of it towards the end of their career, but unfortunately, if the number is in the 90% of folks that retire are a bit of a mess post, then that does not point well to the balance between performance and purpose-based identity in professional ranks.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Do you have a good example of a professional athlete that you would say epitomizes the purpose-based?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, absolutely. One of them that just comes to mind, I haven't been asked that question, so it's fun. Thank you. Is Carrie Walsh Jennings. She was one of the best in the world in volleyball to ever play the game, the most winningest female athlete in volleyball ever. And the first three games that she went to, she "sacrificed it all." She's given me permission to talk about this part of her journey, and she was the best. She was great. The gap between her and the next level was, it was... There's a gap there. And she had a phenomenal partner, Misty May, which the two of them together were like dynamos.

And then she realized that the relationships that she had with her loved ones and her family were being compromised. So she went at the next Olympic Games on a parallel path. So it was two goals, be her very best with her partner and to be deeply connected with her loved ones. That was not done up until that point and she did it. So it is full on a success story, and that is more of a purpose-based than performance in that respect. And we could expound on a couple others if you give me a little bit of time, but that was one that sticks out for me.

Is FOPO a Deficiency Mindset?

Dr. Dan Stickler: That's great. Is this what you would consider a deficiency mindset that people have when they're in this FOPO?

Dr. Michael Gervais: FOPO. Yeah. No, I don't think it's a deficiency mindset. I think that it is our brain million years old that it is millions of years old, was designed for survival, and part of that mechanism is to scan the world and find danger. And it's certainly as evolutionary psychology goes, which is hard to find grounded proof for what I'm about to say, but it holds up in many of our circles, is that if we were rejected by our tribe, survival was a question mark. It's really difficult to hunt, gather, forge, build safety. It's just a bit too much to do on your own, or if you got kicked out with your spouse and your cousin, it's still too much. So making sure that you're part of the pack, making sure that you are being accepted, and when you do risk rejection, it's for a good reason. So it's thoughtful, not sloppy.

And so that mechanism is in our brain still today, but we don't have that same need for being part of the pact for survival and modern time. So we've got an ancient brain trying to solve a modern dilemma, and then we've flamed social media and performance-based identities. And I think we've got this unique moment where there's this pervasive fear of people's opinions. I think the deficit, it's not a deficit mindset, it's the brain is winning. The brain's dictum is so strong that it's saying scan and find the threat. Oh shit, the threat is what this person thinks of me. Did they just roll their eyes? Did they just give me a blank stare? Did they laugh? Did they say, come over here? What are they doing relative to my status, relative to my position in the group? Because if I'm on the fringe, that could get real dangerous.

And so we find the problem is not a deficit mindset, it's a brain that is overriding, the hardware, if you will, is overriding the mind, the software. But that's where psychological skills training pays dividends, is to invest in one's software, which is how do we... The software is obviously what runs the hardware. And so that's where the intersection for biology and neuroscience and psychology interface with me, is that there's a real opportunity to increase awareness, upgrade that program, downregulate a bit of the brain's primal dictum to figure out if I need to fit in or not.

Dr. Dan Stickler: That brings up something for me of people with this FOPO, does it matter if it's from within group versus from outside groups to them?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, that's a really good question. People with FOPO are generally outsourcing their sense of being, okay, to other people. So it shows up in both. But the ingroup, outgroup, if the outgroup is othered and it's the other team and it's like F them, who cares? Forget about them. I'm better anyways. We're better than you, then their opinion becomes marginalized and what they have to say becomes contentious as opposed to a source of, am I okay in your eyes? So it's more ingroup when it comes from that tone. But if you don't feel connected to an ingroup, it's everybody. Everybody is the potential threat. And I think we all need to make a fundamental decision in our life. Are we organizing our life to approach success or to avoid failure?

And I would imagine that you and your family members, if we're in a room, everyone would raise their hand. Yeah, yeah. Approach success. And then when given the opportunity to do something challenging in front of other people where it has to do with your mind or your emotional skills or a technical skill that you've identified as being pretty good at like surgery or grounded research in longevity, whatever it might be for you, that given the opportunity to step into the center of the circle and demonstrate some acumen becomes overwhelming. It is a very difficult, it's like, of course, that somebody is passionate about something, would love the opportunity to do a keynote address or to talk about that passion or some findings. Why is that one of the most dangerous and fearful responses for most humans? Is because that first decision about approaching success versus avoiding failure has not been squared. And given that opportunity to feel failure, it becomes a bit overwhelming for people.

Dr. Dan Stickler: It reminds me of the Frederich Neitzche in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he was talking about the Ubermensch and the last man and the Ubermensch was willing to take all the risks in order to achieve all the successes. And the last man was the one that would choose the path of the least discomfort. Is that-

Dr. Michael Gervais: Exactly right. Yeah. That's that consequence of going for it. That's the consequence of getting up on your edge. It's messy, capabilities are not clean and ironed out literally on the edge. And so we need them. We need Magellan to see if the world is flat around, he didn't come back alive, he died. And so we need those great intrepid explorers of modern time, both on the emotional frontier, the physical frontier, to remind us of what we're capable of, but to also show that the risks are real when you really go for it in life. And for most of us, we don't go on those physical edges, we go to the emotional edges.

And unfortunately, I think most of us don't get to the edge enough to know what we're truly capable of. And I think it's true that most people I know, know that they have more to give, they have more to go, more to grow, and they just feel trapped, a bit locked up, and they can't quite get free in the environments that they would like to be free in. And that could be a cocktail party, that could be a boardroom setting, it could be an intimacy with a loved one, or it could be a sport or a performance like surgery or something. So I think most of us know we have more to give and to go. And FOPO is not the only one. There's a whole set of psychological practices, but I think FOPO is it's at ground zero in some respects.

The Neuroscience of FOPO: What’s Happening in the Brain When We Worry About the Opinions of Others

Dr. Dan Stickler: You started to go into what's actually happening in the brain. And I like how you framed it as the neuroscience and the psychology, because there's been a lot of stuff lately coming out about how psychology, psychiatry needs to step away from the medical model of the way things are run. And I think there's valid points in that, but can you go into some detail about what's actually occurring from a psychology and neuroscience standpoint when people were experiencing this.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. All right. And I agree with your position about psychology reexamining its approach from what was handed, the tradition that was handed, which is the medical model. So just for an aside, when I first got out of college, I was like, what am I going to do now? I liked psychology, I did it undergraduate, but I wasn't sure exactly what the next step was. And so I said, well, I got to keep going to see if there's something there. So I went to graduate school for two semesters, traditional psychology, and I dropped out. I was like, I didn't have the patience. I didn't have the makeup to study the deep pain of the human experience. I wasn't ready for that. So I found sports psychology through the sports science route, and then it was too mechanical. It was literally the biomechanics and physiology of performance with a little bit of a bend on mental skills practices and how you can grow those just like you could grow strength or agility or quickness or speed, but it wasn't enough.

So I went back to traditional psychology to get my PhD in that with a specialization in sport. And what they did, which is now I think emblematic of where I hope the field is moving towards, is that that sub-discipline is the study of excellence. It's the study of thriving. It's the study of what human buoyancy, what we're capable of, and we need both, but not like a 90/10 approach to the science of psychology. So that's just some framing for my appreciation of your setup there. But if we drop down into what's actually happening is that there's two, if we are in a human energy crisis, one of the reasons we're in that global crisis is because we haven't done a terrible job, terrible job of teaching psychological skills to people. And we've had, for the first time, we've had this pretty radical uptick in global stress.

We had a collision of three radical global stressors. And it's a little bit like, I'll use my surfing analogy, it's a little bit like the tide rolled out. And we now realize that most of us have been swimming naked and the swimming naked, the clothing of the psychological skills to be able to be fine, whether the tide is out or it's in. And when the tide went out, we realized that a lot of people were deficit on psychological skills. That's why we're using this, Oh gosh, this in-proficient, unproficient is the right word, unproficient mechanism of psychology to deal with modern stressors. That's why we're exhausted. So the first order business is to do two things, onboard psychological skills from a young age. And if you're an adult listening, no problem, it's never too late. But onboarding basic psychological skills, there's five that we can talk about at a young age so that we can push to our edges a bit more regularly. And when we do that, we end up building capacity to handle more stress. That's very cool. And then at the same time, increase our recovery protocols.

So we're dearth on both. People don't have psychological skills at mass and people don't have best practices in place for recovery. And what we've learned from elite athletes is that they have done the fundamental decision in their life that I want to figure out how good I can get at this thing. So they've fundamentally organized their life to pursue their potential, and most of us don't make that fundamental decision. Okay. So what they do every day is in front of their peers, in front of coaches, in front of the world, in front of the person who's paying their check, the owner of the team or the head coach, is that they are getting to the messy edge where it is not clean, it doesn't look good, and you can't fake that. You have to just be in that mess and be vulnerable to be coached, to risk the not knowing, the feeling of not knowing how this is going to go and go for it anyway.

And they are leading probably 10 to 15 years ahead of the rest of the world in this one dimension, which is because of that mix and their fundamental commitment to get to the stresses edge every day, they're like, yeah, I must have psychological skills in place. So they've been pulling for a long time, best practices for mindset and psychology. The rest of the world is now like, whoa, I got all the stress. Athletes have been designing their life for stress in practice every day. The rest of us like, oh my god, all the stress, what do we do? So we can borrow a best practice from elite sport, which is train your mind and the training of the mind and the five factors are arousal regulation. So being able to manage your internal activation, and that really, the skill there is breathing and self-talk and awareness. Those are the three foundational skills, awareness, breathing, and self-talk.

But arousal regulation is one, performance imagery or success imagery, or love imagery, whatever you want to use your imagination for to see the future in that way. Goal setting. I mentioned self-talk as one of the grounded, and I'm blanking, oh, pre-performance routines. So those are some of the big rocks that are good practices for all of us. And mindfulness is the one for awareness. Now, what the brain's doing, if you haven't trained the software, it's just trying to survive. So you scan the world, you see the danger, and then your amygdala, your limbic system, the fight, flight, freeze, submit mechanism turns on, and there we are choking up. There we are constricted and tight and not feeling that loose artistic vibe, but that survival mechanism. And all we need to do is say our name or say the idea that we're so passionate about, or throw a ball, whatever it might be. And that's primarily because we haven't done the deep work, the self-discovery work to rid ourselves from the performance identity and be more aligned with purpose-based approach.

And so when that cascade takes place and we feel our physiology, it's hard to find the right word or to move in the way that we know we can move. Our psychology does something very particular is that when we tighten up, we're searching for relief. And so in that relief, we do a handful of things, in that pursuit of relief we're doing a handful of things, we conform to try to fit in. We contort, we laugh at jokes when they're offensive, we confront to try to rid ourselves from that anxious need to find some relief. And so we confront somebody, say, wait, wait, whoa, what did that mean? Why'd you roll your eyes? What is that? As a way to poke the bear for them to respond and say, oh, no, no, we're okay. Sorry, I had something in my eye. I'm okay. We're okay.

We critique others. And sometimes we just flat out disconnect because it's too overwhelming. So that's the typical response when people are feeling that need for relief. And the reason they feel that need for relief is because they've had a response that is threatening to their identity as opposed to threatening to their life. And so I just gave you a bit of a ramble there, trying to intersect a bunch of complicated question for a less simple answer than maybe you were hoping for.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. One of the things that I'd like to ask is when you say tightening up, is this like a sympathetic response?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yes.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Okay.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yes. Yeah. That's in a nutshell that no athletes don't choke because they don't eat on the pitch, but they choke off access to their craft. Psychologists are not very funny. I don't try to be, but just it's choking off access to their craft. That's the tightening I'm talking about.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So, you can take the sensations that people would typically feel with anxiety versus the sensations they feel with excitement. And they're very similar in that regard. So do people misinterpret those? Does the brain misinterpret those sometimes or?

Dr. Michael Gervais: The brain might not misinterpret them, but the psychology would. So the mind would, it's not fair to separate the brain from the mind completely in the way we're doing it in this conversation or I'm doing it, we are embedded in our cognition. But it does help to pull it apart a little bit to say the brain in my mind is the tissue, the chemistry, the electricity, the interface of the multiple facets of the brain and the networks. And then the mind is the consciousness of making sense of things. And we can train our mind to have some skills on board as well. It is the filter through which we're making sense of things. And so the brain feels, recognizes a threat. And sometimes that is based on the funnel or the software of the mind's training to say, if you learn from your mom that when people roll their eyes, it means something, or you learn from your dad that when people don't shake your hand or they do it a certain way or they won't make eye contact, it means something.

So that sometimes there's some shaping of ideas and beliefs that influences the brain's response. But nonetheless, the brain's job is to find all the dangers, that's part of it. And so whether it's biological base like rats or heights or snakes or something like that, or it's psychologically infused, which is something that we've learned. When we have that autonomic response of fight, flight, freeze, submit mechanism, it's really hard to think clearly and creatively, it's hard to move eloquently. And so that's why athletes practice getting to that fight, flight, freeze mechanism. And what they tend to do is they say, I'm here. I love this. And unlock is about to happen to your interpretation question as opposed to, Oh God, I hate this, this again, they don't last long enough to become great. If they do, they just are a bit masochistic and the interpretation of butterflies, yeah, that's not taught well.

And so that's where that one of those skills of arousal regulation, managing your internal activation is so paramount is when I feel butterflies, I know that my body's turning on, I know that my body is activating to get ready to do something important. Now what I need to do is decide is this the right amount of activation and is this the right time? So if I'm eating breakfast and I've got a thing to do at three o'clock in the afternoon and it's important and my mind is thinking about it, and I've created some sort of lifelike image that my body goes, shit, I can't tell if you're in it or not, let's get going, turn it on. And I'm just eating breakfast. It's too early. So then I need to use some psychological skills and practices to bring it down, to downregulate, if you will. And if it's 2:40, 2 o'clock, let's say, and I'm performing something at three o'clock and I kick up a little bit, I'm like, good, I'm glad I'm getting ready. I feel that stuff in my stomach just a little too much.

I don't need to do as much work to bring it down to a baseline. I just need to find a little bit more of a sweet spot. And so those are two maybe ideas around regulation is how much and at what time do I like these feelings of being "on?"

Manage Your Internal Activation With Breathwork

Dr. Dan Stickler: How about the breath? What kind of practices do you really get them doing to get into that ideal state?

Dr. Michael Gervais: So there's lots of breathing practices, and if we're in the throes of, let's call it, my activation is turned on 30 minutes before I'm about to go do something and I have too much of a heart rate or breathing, or I'm starting to sweat or whatever it might be, that breathing is very prescriptive, which is different than maybe what we do earlier in our training cycle. But that breathing is, you want your exhale to be twice the length of your inhale. So if you're in for four, it's out for eight, if you're in for five, the exhale is 10. And so you're just working to slow your exhales down. And the reason we think that that's so important is that when we ran from the saber-tooth tiger, when we were free and safe, what did we do? We had this long exhale.

And so our brain is paired the luxury of a long exhale with safety. And some of the research that I saw, and I don't know if this is maybe a decade ago, so I don't know if it's changed, I know there's a lot of research right now, but I haven't seen this one. Change is somewhere around 10 to 12 breaths with a long external cadence is when we begin to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is that rested digest system. So somewhere in that neighborhood, I experientially feel that I can start to feel a little bit more calm after 10 to 12 long exhales.

Dr. Dan Stickler: It's interesting. We do a lot of breath science with our clients and we measure all of those parameters during stressful events. We'll look at their skin conductance, skin temperature, respirations in the chest and belly, muscle tension and expired CO2. And interestingly, the expired CO2 has been a huge piece for people, because they'll be hypocapnic, meaning they're blowing off too much CO2, and it causes a vasoconstriction of the blood flow to the brain and it further exacerbates. So they're constantly on this verge of anxiety and then one little stressor and it pushes them right over into an anxiety attack or something. Do you have any comments on the CO2 regulation or any of the other physiologic parameters we're looking at to?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, awesome that you're doing such a deep analysis while under stress. And one of the breathing protocols that I've found to be important for this exchange of gas is, and I learned this from Brian McKenzie, and so it's not box breathing, but it is, if it's a six second inhale, it's a six second hold and a 12 second exhale and a six second hold. So in for six or seven or eight, whatever. So if it's an eight second inhale, it'd be a 16 second exhale. So eight, eight, 16, eight let's say. And when I do that work and when athletes that I spend time with do that work, we become more proficient. We become better at that exchange of dioxide and oxygen. So I wonder if that shows up in you for you and your community if you think about that as a training protocol.

And one more piece to maybe play with is nose breathing versus mouth breathing. There's something to be said about holding it together as long as you can in training using nasal breathing. And again, I learned that from Brian McKenzie and his grounded work there, and sounds like you've spent a lot of time here. I'm wondering if those square with your findings.

Dr. Dan Stickler: We do, we will take them through different practices of breathing. A lot of the times we'll see that they're using too much of the chest for the breath and not much of the diaphragm. But what's nice about it is it gives instant feedback of what's changing, but then they can feel the change in their physiology when they start to drop into a normal capnia.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah. Almost instantly. You're like, oh, that's different. Oh, that's different. And then there's something about periphery vasoconstriction that's different between anxiety or high stress and joy, happiness, love. So you still get that heart pound, but there's a vasoconstriction that's different I think on the periphery. And I don't know how to teach or train that. I don't know how to manipulate conditions internally or externally to find favor in that. Have you found any success in manipulating?

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. What we'll do is if they're vasoconstricting during a stressor, we'll see the skin conductions go down, the skin temperature will go down, and then we do a lot of visualization with them, imagining putting their hands in a heated box or something like that. And they gradually, it's just biofeedback training where they start to learn what they can do to bring that vasoconstriction back to normal flow.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Okay. And are you finding that that is impacting performance or the perception of the experience?

Dr. Dan Stickler: It's the perception of the experience primarily. Yeah.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, because I recognize for me personally, again, and of one is that two things, I grew up surfing relatively cold water in southern California. It's not terribly cold, but relatively cold. And unfortunately when we were in high school, it was like a badge of honor if you couldn't start your car with your keys because you couldn't hold, you're so cold, your periphery and your hand was so contorted that you couldn't start your car. And so I've fried, we all have that group of friends, we've all fried our periphery fingertips and toes, and skiing is brutal as an older person now. And so as soon as my activation turns on, I actually, I get very cold and I'm not "nervous or overactivated, overaroused," but it's the weak link. And so if that's the case, I wonder if I were to do some imagination, like a neurobio feedback experience on heating my hands, if it's not actually affecting performance, and it's like, oh, that's who you are, Mike, no, forget about it. I'm wondering if you would say it would not be worth, the juice would not be worth the squeeze there?

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, it depends. I think it can get to a point where it does affect performance. We don't have, we're doing this in a clinical setting, so we're taking them through these stressors that are not necessarily like their everyday stressor or their sports specific stressor in order. So it's hard for us to say for sure how much of an impact it's having on performance, but it's definitely the perception piece of it. And-

Dr. Michael Gervais: Oh, that's cool. Okay.

Dr. Dan Stickler: ... I would imagine the perception might impact that performance.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, that's where I was getting at, is that perception certainly would, and if you're a surgeon or you're doing something with small motor dexterity, it probably is going to impact it for sure. But if you can work at the cognition level and be like, who cares? My job is to speak. Who cares how cold my hands are? Forget about it. Yeah, okay. I appreciate that. That part-

Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah, that's interesting. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms, but I love that.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah.

Dr. Dan Stickler: We'll have to do some research on that one.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Yeah, good. If you need a surfer who's like fried his neuropathy, let me know.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, we don't have to worry about it in Texas. We're a hundred [inaudible 00:45:49] every day.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Exactly.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So I want to honor your time here, but I'd love to have a couple tips that people can do if they find themselves having this FOPO. Where do we start? What are some easy things that we can get going on now?

Actionable Tips We Can Use Right Now to Become Aware of and Address FOPO in Our Everyday Lives

Dr. Michael Gervais: Okay, I love that. I think the first order of business is to recognize you're in good company. It's really common for so many of us, even Beethoven, we talk about Beethoven in the book that Beethoven of all people, one of the greatest ever had FOPO. And so it reminds me a little bit of, for me, I felt like I was alone in this experience. As a young person I remember being way overly tuned to the opinions of others, and I just kept it quiet. And I didn't realize until I was in safe environments with world's best or pursuing to be world's best, that they're like, they didn't have a word for it, but they're like, I don't know, they stress like it, I'm telling you. Well, what's the stress? Well, I don't know. It's just looking bad. And just putting it all out there and feeling like I've blown in, and they would talk about letting people down and dah, dah, dah.

So what I'm saying in this frame, the first order of business is just recognize that it's there in so many of us, even the greatest in the world. And so I think there's warmth in that. The second is that I don't know how to go about anything in the world of psychology without building awareness, then skill. So the first order of business is to invest in increasing your awareness. You can do that in at least three ways, and I'll give you a subtle way to do it that's adjacent to the three. But the greatest tool to increase awareness is mindfulness. The science and the research are compelling. It's been around 2,600 years. Every world religion has some sort of function of contemplative prayer or contemplative mindfulness or meditation. So this is a practice that I think we're reminded of the importance of it, but it's not yet part of the rhythm of our business. It's not the rhythm of our family. We just try to find our alone time and do it on the extra time, which is not sustainable.

So I would embrace this idea of recommitting or staying the path of mindfulness because that helps us increase our awareness of our thoughts, awareness of our emotions, our awareness of what's happening around us. And with awareness, we're now swimming upstream rather than downstream in the rapids where it's like, listen, I'm aware that I'm a mess. And so upstream, it's like I'm aware of the thoughts that are leading to me to be in the current, or leading me to be in a fun slipstream. So I think that that part of a practice is really important. And I would go after identity and I would take some time to see if you could illuminate, I'm not suggesting downregulate your performance based identity because it got you somewhere. I don't think it's the path to get you where you want to go, but it's gotten you here. I'm not saying let go of that vine yet. I'm saying be very clear about the vine that is compelling and strong and big, which is your purpose.

And the practice of... This can feel overwhelming. I know, geez, Mike, I don't know my purpose in life. Where do I start? Okay, you can start in a thin sliced way. You can think about your purpose today. You could think about purpose based on your role. What is my purpose today? Is a good question to sort out in the morning, what is my purpose for this week? That's a good question to sort out on Monday or Sunday, whenever you start your days, your weeks. Then you could think about it in role, which is like, what is my purpose as a dad, as a mom, as a entrepreneur, as a partner? What is my purpose there? So there's something there to it. And then as you're practicing purpose, you might level up to what is my life purpose? And you might want to start there. What is my life purpose?

Purpose has three components. It has to be bigger than you. That's a nice thing when you're talking about FOPO is now you're part of something bigger, and it's not all eyes on you. You're a small contributor to this interconnected world that we're living in. So it's bigger than you, it has to matter to you. Nobody can give you purpose. You've got to decide, is this meaningful to me? And there's a future orientation, meaning it can't, life purpose can't be solved today. It's going to take time, and it's something that it maybe even extends past your physical death. What is the purpose that you want to be part of?

So I would go after mindfulness. I would go after purpose-based identity. And the last thing that I would do is when you catch yourself tight, when you catch yourself in that anxious state, celebrate that you're aware of it. And then just take a nice couple breaths, okay, and then see if you can be a researcher. Like, wait a minute, what led me here? What were the thoughts that led me to this tidy feeling? Or what led me to this feeling I have right now? And see if you can be a bit of investigator during those high heat moments. I would start with those three. And just have fun. We don't know how long we're going to be here, so have fun as you're trying to figure out how to be your very best.

Dr. Dan Stickler: I love all that. That really, really brings it together nicely.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Cool.

Dr. Dan Stickler: So how can people learn more, get in touch?

Dr. Michael Gervais: Great. So we've got a podcast as well. Finding Mastery is our podcast, and we're just celebrating our 400th episodes. We've had a blast celebrating the genius and the extraordinary thinking of other people. So that's one great way to do it. We'd appreciate that. And then for the book, FOPO can be bought anywhere on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores. And then you can also go to our website and our website has a bunch of really interesting, we think packages if you are listening to this in advance. And that website is findingmastery.com/book.

Dr. Dan Stickler: Great. Well, again, The First Rule of Mastery. Michael Gervais, thank you for being here, and hopefully we'll get you back sometime soon.

Dr. Michael Gervais: Really appreciated the space and the questions. Thank you so much.

No Comments Yet

Sign in or Register to Comment