Fear of judgement: why we are afraid of being judged

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If you have ever worried that poor performance in an evaluation will lead to a friend or colleague developing a negative opinion of you, then you are not alone. Fear of judgement by others is common.

Athletes may fear judgement if they do not win a race, students may dread the disappointment of others upon failing an exam, and professionals may worry that a work project will be criticised.

Psychologists refer to these feelings as a “fear of negative evaluation.” Let’s have a look at why we worry about what others think of us, and how we can better manage our fear of being judged. 

A fear of negative evaluation

In evolutionary terms, a fear of judgement makes sense as relating to the need to survive in society. For our ancestors, being evaluated favourably, rather than judged for any shortcomings, would have meant a higher chance of survival. Think about it: even today, success at work propagates a career, whereas poor performance may put you at risk of redundancy or loss of income.

It turns out, this fear of judgement can actually be measured. In their seminal study, David Watson and Ronald Friend developed the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale (FNE) to assess levels of social anxiety. Watson and Friend’s FNE assessment requires a participant to answer “true” or “false” to thirty statements. The total score indicates whether someone is mostly relaxed, has some fear of evaluative situations, or is generally fearful of what others think of them. 

Questions in the FNE scale include:

  • I often worry that people who are important to me won’t think very much of me.
  • I worry about what people will think of me even when I know it doesn’t make any difference.
  • I feel very upset when I commit some social error.
  • If someone is evaluating me, I tend to expect the worst.
  • I worry a lot about what my superiors think of me.

In 1983, a brief version of the FNE assessment — aptly called the “Brief FNE” — was created by Mark Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. Featuring just twelve statements, it offers a more succinct way to measure social anxiety. As with the original FNE scale, higher overall score indicates that you are more fearful of others judging your ability or performance.

Knowing where you lie on the scale is helpful, as your score can indicate how well you are able to judge your own talent. For instance, researchers reported that a high FNE score was more likely to lead an individual to perceive their attempt at public speaking as poor.

Feeling fearful of negative evaluation by others causes a speaker to focus on their awkward appearance or the number of long gaps in their speech. Positive aspects of the performance, such as appearing confident or self-assured, were more commonly overlooked by this group. Understanding that a high FNE may cause internal negative bias can therefore be helpful in assuaging any doubts you might have about your ability.

Furthermore, psychologists have found that having a high FNE score can negatively affect your performance. In 2012, Christopher Mesagnoa, Jack Harveya, and Christopher Janelle conducted a study with experienced basketball players. They found that players who scored highly on the Brief FNE questionnaire displayed increased anxiety that translated into a significant decrease in performance in a high-pressure shooting situation. The researchers concluded that the fear of performing badly can unfortunately increase the chance of poor performance. 

In 2015, psychologists in India reported that students were likely to perform worse when fear of negative evaluation or high levels of anxiety were present. Poor presentation was then noted to cause observers to develop negative feelings towards the performer, worsening their feelings of rejection. This instigated a vicious cycle of worsening anxiety and performance. Crucially, the study notes that it is possible to break this cycle if subjects can develop methods to improve their outward social performance.

Overcoming fear of judgement

As fear of negative evaluation can worsen your performance, it is important to find ways to manage your anxiety of being judged.

1. Find out about yourself

The first step in overcoming fear of judgement is to find out more about yourself. Fear is a human emotion designed to protect us from harm, but once it starts having a detrimental effect on your performance, you need to take control. Acknowledge that you might have some anxiety, and find out where you are on the FNE scale. If you have an average or high score, chances are you have some fear or apprehension about evaluative situations and how others perceive you as a result.

2. Write affirmations

If the FNE has confirmed that you have some fear of judgement, it is time to work on cultivating positivity. Research suggests that Writing affirmations can help to restore self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. By recognising your own qualities, you may be better placed to relieve anxieties about what others think of you. If you are confident in yourself, your abilities, and your performance, what others think is far less likely to matter.

3. Turn down fear

Once you have your affirmations in place, try to let go of memories of previous social judgement. If you still feel shame about an incorrect or poorly perceived contribution to a team meeting, it is time to stop dwelling on it. The remark might be holding you back, but it is likely that everyone else forgot about it months ago. Move on, and try to start afresh so that the past no longer affects your future.

4. Start saying yes

If anxiety has been holding you back, it will not improve if you continue to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. Agree to introduce a guest speaker, give a new colleague a tour of the office, or enrol on a professional qualification course. Start small, and as your experiences grow, so will your confidence. 

5. Get it over with

Waiting to give a presentation can be excruciating. The study of students in India found that although anxiety was high before and during a speech, this emotion often faded as soon as the speech ended. Offering to present first means you will feel anxious for the shortest time possible.

6. Perform with confidence

As we saw earlier, if your FNE is high, your presentation skills are likely to be better than you give yourself credit for. If you can ignore your inner critic so that your performance is not affected, others are more likely to perceive your presentation positively, breaking the cycle of poor performance. Use your affirmations to solidify your personal belief that you know what you are doing, and are capable of succeeding. Trust in your abilities, and your audience will, too. 

7. Make a personal investment

Investing in yourself is key to minimising your fear of judgement. Take a public speaking course, meet with a career coach, or sign up for a gym membership. Think about what will make you feel better about yourself to instil confidence and belief in your talents. For example, undergoing a course of CBT with a therapist has been shown to be particularly helpful in reducing social anxiety which may in turn reduce your fear of being evaluated negatively.

Fear of judgement is common, but it can make you doubt your ability and worsen your performance. Self-assessment of your social anxiety levels using the FNE scale will help you to understand how significantly that fear of negative evaluation is affecting your personal and professional life. Work on building self-belief, and try to nurture your self-confidence. Even though you might feel anxious, it is likely that you are performing more successfully than you think you are.