Picture this. It’s the end of a play and the entire stage goes dark except for one spotlight that’s shining on the lead actor. Every move that the actor makes is highlighted for the crowd to see.
Some people live their lives as though they are this lead actor who never leaves the stage. The spotlight effect causes them to think that the public is watching their every move. Understandably, this can lead to social anxiety and living with an immense sense of pressure to be perfect.
This article is here to teach you how to turn off the spotlight and exit the stage. With the tips from this article, you can free yourself to enjoy the crowd instead of feeling constantly judged by them.
What is the spotlight effect?
The spotlight effect is a cognitive bias that describes a belief that the world is always watching you. We tend to think that people are paying far greater attention to us than they actually are.
You feel like every move you make is under the microscope of the public eye.
This means in your mind the public highlights both your successes and your failures.
In reality, most of us are so wrapped up in our own world and problems that we’re too busy to notice anyone else’s. And what’s funny about it is we’re all so worried about what others think of us that we don’t even have time to be judging others.
What are examples of the spotlight effect?
The spotlight effect occurs in most of our lives on a daily basis. Just think about your day and I bet you can come up with a moment where you think people noticed you more than they did.
A classic example is the freakout moment you have when you realize your zipper is down. I almost guarantee that no one around you noticed.
Yet, in your mind, you’re insanely embarrassed because you’re sure everyone you passed saw you and thought you were such a slob.
I remember when I was growing up playing the piano in church. I would play a wrong note or use an incorrect tempo. This would result in me immediately feeling disappointed in myself.
I was certain the entire crowd noticed my mistake and that it ruined the song for them. In reality, most people didn’t even pick up on the mistake. And if they did, they certainly didn’t care as much as I did about it.
When you write down examples of the spotlight effect, you start to realize how absurd it is that we think this way.
Studies on the spotlight effect
A research study in 2000 highlighted the spotlight effect when it comes to our appearance. In this study, they asked people to wear one shirt that was flattering and one that was not so flattering.
The participants anticipated that 50% of people would notice the unflattering shirt. In reality, only 25% of people noticed the unflattering shirt.
The same held true regarding the flattering outfit. Needless to say, people don’t pay attention to us as much as we think they do.
Researchers tested the same theory when it came to athletic performance or performance on a video game. Guess what the results concluded?
You guessed it. People didn’t notice the participant’s failures or successes as much as the participant thought they would.
The data seems to suggest we really do live in our own little bubbles of self-perception after all.
How does the spotlight effect influence your mental health
Living under the spotlight just doesn’t sound appealing. No one likes the idea of living a highly scrutinized life where there is pressure to perform.
Research in 2021 found that college students who experienced the spotlight effect were more likely to suffer from anxiety. This was particularly true when students thought that other students were perceiving them in a negative manner.
These findings are highly relatable for me personally. I used to feel like every mistake I made during a presentation in PT school was easily noticed by my fellow students or professors.
This resulted in me experiencing high levels of anxiety before any type of class presentation. And instead of it being a learning experience, I just felt immense dread during any presentation.
I wish I could go back to my PT self and tell her that no one was paying as much attention as I thought. And better yet, I was the only one putting the pressure on myself.
5 ways to overcome the spotlight effect
If you’re ready to see what life is like offstage, then these 5 tips are here to guide you through a smooth exit off center stage.
1. Realize you’re not the star of the show
That may sound harsh. But it is the truth of the matter.
By assuming that the entire world is hyper-focused on you, you’re ignoring the fact that you are not the only human on planet earth.
I’ve come to realize that it’s selfish to assume everyone is paying gobs of attention to me. And this has freed me to divert my focus unselfishly on others.
Accept that in this big world, the thing you are self-conscious about in the public eye is just a grain of sand. And no one stops to notice each grain of sand.
So let go of the pressure to perform for others in your daily life. Realizing your own humble insignificance allows you to exist freely outside of the microscope of the public eye.
2. Become aware of other’s true reactions
Sometimes when you’re conscious of others' reactions to you, you’re not perceiving their true reaction.
Your thoughts about what you think they are thinking about you are influencing your reaction. Read that again. It’s sort of a tricky concept to really wrap your mind around.
Instead of predicting what they’re thinking, stop and listen. Listen to their words and their body language.
Because when you stop and pay attention to how they are responding, you may realize they are not at all concerned about what you’re self-conscious of.
This simple awareness can help you understand that people are not as aware of you as you think they are.
3. Use the “so what” method
This tip may be one of my favorites. Mostly because it’s just fun to say “so what”.
When you find yourself overly concerned with others’ perceptions, ask yourself “so what?”. So what if they think your outfit is silly? Or so what if they think you messed up the presentation?
This question often leads you to realize what you’re afraid of. And it puts you back in the driver's seat of your emotions.
You can ask yourself “so what” as many times as you need to until the stress and anxiety around your worry about what others think dissipates.
It’s a simple and powerful tool. I use it often when I find myself getting caught up in my social anxiety.
It helps me realize that it doesn’t matter what others think of me at the end of the day.
4. Accept yourself first
Oftentimes, we exaggerate how much others are being critical of us because we don’t accept ourselves.
We strive to be accepted by others because we haven’t gifted ourselves the love we so desperately seek.
You have to learn to value your opinion over that of others. Once that sinks in, you don’t care nearly as much about others’ perceptions.
You start to realize that you can make yourself happy. And you start to see that you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself to please others.
By loving who you are and accepting your beautiful flaws, you can be content regardless of the outcome of any social situation. Because you accept that you are enough and you always will be.
Accept yourself as you are. Because if no one has told you lately, let me remind you that you are pretty stinking wonderful.
5. Ask for feedback
If you are living in fear that others are constantly judging you, a healthy response is to ask for authentic feedback from folks you trust.
Instead of assuming people are having certain thoughts about you or your work, you can directly ask. This way there is no guessing what they are thinking.
This also helps you avoid the self-conscious narrative in your head about how they are judging you or not accepting you. And often the feedback you receive indicates that people are not being as critical of you as you think.
I remember treating a patient where I assumed the patient was feeling dissatisfied with the session secondary to them being silent. I felt bummed because I thought I had failed them as a clinician and they would not come back.
I’m not sure what prompted me to ask for feedback about the session, but I did. Turns out the patient was very happy with the session but had lost a loved one earlier that day.
Instantaneously I realized how much we assume people are reacting to us when in reality there are so many factors shaping their reactions.
If you are creating a destructive narrative in your head, stop the story in its tracks. Just ask the person for feedback, so you’re not trying to play mind reader.
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No one likes to feel like their life is being lived from center stage in front of a panel of critics. Using the tips from this article, you can defeat this bias called the spotlight effect and gracefully navigate the social stage. And once you leave your self-perceived spotlight, you may find you enjoy your role in the show of life so much more.
Have you felt like you're in the spotlight lately? What's your favorite tip from this article? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!