The Spotlight Effect: It’s Time To Stop Feeling Self-Conscious
It was another day in college, and I was in the washroom washing my hands. Just as I was about to leave, I caught a glimpse of my worst fear: a dark period stain on my pale blue jeans!
I was mortified. The next few hours saw me using my backpack to cover my bum and remain seated as much as possible. There was only one thing running through my mind and swallowing my thoughts. I asked my friend if my period stain was really obvious when we were on the bus ride home.
She looked at me with raised eyebrows. “What period stain?”
What I’ve just described is a prime example of the spotlight effect. It is a cognitive bias that makes us overestimate how much other people actually notice us. As its name suggests, we tend to think that there is a spotlight shining on us at all times, highlighting our flaws and mistakes. In reality, people are much too preoccupied with their own business to notice these things.
What causes the spotlight effect?
As human beings, we use our own experiences to evaluate the world, including other people. Since we are so used to seeing things from our perspective, we end up believing that other people think more like us than they actually do. The truth is, people are far too busy living life from their perspectives to share ours!
Other examples of the spotlight effect that you may have experienced include feeling as if everyone is watching you as you enter a public space, becoming extra self-conscious of how your hair looks when someone enters the room and feeling anxious about what other people might think of the way you dress or walk. However, this effect doesn’t just apply to negative situations. Research has shown that people also overestimate how likely others are to remember a flattering outfit, achievements, or the positive things they said. To put it simply, people don’t notice as much as we think they do.
What can the spotlight effect do?
The spotlight effect can prevent us from taking beneficial actions, such as vocalizing our thoughts, performing on stage or talking to a person we’ve never met. It could also make us feel self-conscious all the time. Besides that, the spotlight effect could stop us from trying new things. To a more severe extent, it can also cause anxiety.
How to overcome the spotlight effect?
When was the last time someone told you to “not worry about what other people think”, and it actually worked? At least for me, that has never happened. No matter how aware we are of the spotlight effect, we can still fall prey to it.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t get out of it. So if you want to stop overthinking about how others perceive you, here are some practices that you can try on your own:
1. Look on the outside, not inside
Instead of focusing on your flaws, start observing the world around you. Direct your attention outwards, instead of inwards. Notice what other people are doing, their facial expressions, and their reactions to your embarrassing situation. This way, you learn how little attention other people are really paying to you and overcome the spotlight effect.
2. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
Ask yourself this: Would you have noticed your embarrassing situation if you were someone else? More often than not, the answer is no. You would have been too preoccupied to bother. And even if you did notice, would it really matter to you? Many of us have been caught in awkward situations ourselves. We know how bad it feels. So naturally, we would sympathize with someone who’s going through an embarrassing moment. If we assess our situation from someone else’s perspective, we’d see that it’s actually not that bad.
3. Get feedback from others
Talk to someone you trust about your embarrassing situation and the spotlight effect. Ask if they noticed your stutter during a presentation or that piece of food that was stuck between your teeth. If they said no, then rejoice! But even if they did notice, ask them what they thought of it, or if they even remembered before you brought it up. Oftentimes, feedback from other people can help you put things into perspective and make sense of the situation. Besides, I firmly believe that talking about something embarrassing makes it less so. It may be difficult to start the conversation, but you would feel much better afterwards.
4. Brave it till you make it
Now, this method may sound rather extreme. It’s derived from exposure therapy, a technique used to help people with anxiety disorders. Basically, the idea is to intentionally expose yourself to embarassing situations until you no longer fear them anymore. Afraid of ruining your makeup? Smudge it on purpose. Worried that you look bad while eating? Use your hands and chew as loudly as you want.
“But why would I want to embarrass myself in front of other people?” I hear you ask. I totally understand where you’re coming from. And so, instead of doing these things in real life, you can imagine them in your mind. Get familiar with the idea of embarrassing yourself, then remind yourself that nobody really notices. That way, you can train your brain to be less anxious when you’re caught in an awkward moment. It’s mind over matter, loves!
Essentially, the spotlight effect tells us that people don’t notice as much as we think they do. Everyone has a lot going on in their lives, and it’s natural that we don’t pay much attention to other people. Though we all have the innate desire to look good in front of others, being aware of the spotlight effect can help you worry less about your flaws and mistakes.
So, even if you mess up, don’t worry! We’ve all been there.