You know how when you trip walking down the street, it feels like the entire cityscape of people is staring at you in amusement? Or when you’ve worn the same pair of pants three times in one week, you’re completely paranoid your colleagues are judging you for your lack of fashion sense (or cleanliness)? What about when you fumble over your words in a presentation, and then can’t stop thinking about how every person in the room now thinks you’re a terrible speaker?
As human beings with an ego and an innate self-awareness of our own feelings, actions and thoughts, we tend to notice and greatly exaggerate our flaws while assuming everyone around us has a microscope focused on faults, mistakes and slip-ups. In truth, other people don’t notice them nearly as much as we assume. Why? Because they’re too busy noticing and greatly exaggerating their own flaws!
This strange phenomenon is what’s known in psychology circles as the spotlight effect. You’re the center of your own world, and everyone else is the center of his or her’s. If you’re someone who sets high standards for yourself, your errors probably feel really difficult to move past. You might play your mistake on an endless internal feedback loop like a cinematographer in the editing room. Or maybe you talk through every facet of it with your significant other, best friend or a colleague over and over until you’re making them crazy, too.
Why exactly are we so, literally, self-centered? In part, it’s due to something called anchoring and adjustment. We’re anchored in the world by our own experiences, and so we have trouble adjusting far enough away from those experiences to accurately assess how much others are paying attention to us.
Think of it this way: when the ship is anchored in port, it’s difficult to gauge the enormity of the rest of the ocean. Similarly, when you spill toothpaste on your shirt but are too late for work to change your outfit, you may go through the rest of your day so anchored in your personal experience of wearing a stained shirt that you can’t adjust to truly consider other it doesn’t register in the viewpoint of others. In reality, people are consumed in their own lives and so far away from caring that you have a spot on your shirt.
The illusion of transparency is another cognitive phenomenon that contributes to the spotlight effect. We all have a tendency to overestimate the degree to which our own mental state is known by others. On the flip side, we also overestimate how well we know other people’s mental states. Because of the illusion of transparency, we assume that whenever we do something we think is dumb and cringe internally we believe that everyone around us can tell. We think we can gauge accurately what they’re thinking—that what we just did was dumb. Ergo: the spotlight effect.
Ok, so all the psych jargon aside, how do you squash feelings of self-consciousness or social anxiety brought on by the spotlight effect? Try these tried-and-true tactics:
Apply The “So What” Test
So what if the guy next to you on the subway is staring at your book cover in horror? So what if you’ve been walking around with your shirt buttoned one-button-off for an entire day? Think about it: what is honestly, really truly going to happen? What will it mean a few days, a week or a year from now? Nothing of consequence. You’ll survive!
Shift Your Focus From Internal Cues To External Cues
When the spotlight effect affects you most saliently, it’s because you’re convinced your internal cues of anxiety—sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, feeling of doom or dread—are noticeable to others and that they’ll therefore judge you even more harshly. It’s helpful to learn to slowly shift from thinking about internal cues to external ones. For example, are the faces of your colleagues really agape in horror when you screw up a line in your presentation? Is everyone in the park actually laughing at you when you take an awkward trip wearing a new pair of heels? Turn your attention to the physical evidence around you. You’ll find little to none that indicates the situation is as embarrassing as you think it is.
Put Yourself In Uncomfortable Situations
Another tactic to consider in learning to overcome the spotlight effect is placing yourself in purposely uncomfortable scenarios, like randomly requesting a percentage off your lunch order from a café. The more secure you become in awkward social situations and master your behavior in them, the more you’ll be able to resist the emotional impact of the spotlight effect and realize how little others fixate on you. For example, if you feel self-conscious asking the waiter for special changes to a dish, you may be afraid he’ll laugh at your request, decline or at worst mock you. But he also may be more than happy to grant your request with no questions ask– and give you props for asking. Either way, you’ll be surprised at how little he and your lunch buddies judge you for it and how quickly they move past it.
Double Your Efforts
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, sometimes it helps to actually be more grandiose rather than timid in your behavior when it comes to drawing less attention to yourself. Take a cue from acting coaches: the key to a convincing stage performance is to double everything from facial expressions to gestures to reactions. The effect is one of confidence and security, rather than the bald self-consciousness communicated by small, meek actions.
It’s normal to have moment of self-doubt. But thanks to the spotlight effect, our blunders often feel way more severe than they are in reality. Next time you’re struggling to move past a mistake, stop and remind yourself of the spotlight effect.