Always feeling self-conscious? The ‘spotlight effect’ could be to blame
The ‘spotlight effect’ is a phenomenon where people overestimate how much others are focusing on them. Knowing more about it can help to ease social anxiety.
You know the feeling, the one where you’re walking around central London or sitting at a busy restaurant alone and it feels like everyone is looking at you? But there’s nothing on your face (you checked, multiple times), and you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. That same feeling might crop up when you eat in front of people, when exercising at the gym, during a meeting at work or when a big group of people passes you on the street.
Well, it’s probably something called the ‘spotlight effect’. Spotlighting is when we overestimate how much other people are focusing on or judging us, and no, it’s not narcissistic. It’s anxiety-driven. The term does what it says on the tin: you always feel like you’re under a spotlight, illuminating every small flaw and abnormality.
What is spotlighting, according to psychologists
Speaking with Stylist, Desiree Silverstone, psychotherapist and director of Head Honchos Executive Coaching, explains: “It is estimated that more than 180 cognitive biases can occur when people deal with data, think critically or perceive reality as a whole.
“In basic terms, the spotlight effect (aka being self-conscious) is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate how much others notice and observe them. In addition, it causes them to overestimate how much others care about what they notice.”
“This spotlight effect can be attributed to the fact that we have an egocentric bias when analysing how others perceive us. An example of this is the tendency to compare other people’s viewpoints to the viewpoints that we hold. As we look at things from our own perspective, we find it difficult to judge what others’ perspectives are like.”
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, feels it’s an important term to know. “If you’re someone who experiences a lot of social anxiety and tends to ruminate over your behaviour or what you say, it can be helpful to remember that most people are more concerned with themselves than anyone else.”
How to cope with the spotlight effect
Silverstone believes that there are ways of dealing with this: “The first is to be aware that you have this bias. The second is to practise a self-distancing technique – changing one’s perspective by ‘externalising’. This technique requires you to separate the emotion that you are experiencing from yourself by pretending that the emotion or thought that you are experiencing belongs to a friend. What advice would you give your friend? What questions would you ask to test their reality? These techniques help the brain distance itself from the emotion and help you think about things in a different way.”
As always, with anxiety, it’s about getting out of your own head and separating the irrational thoughts from the rational and – most importantly – being easy on yourself. It’s hard to navigate through the word feeling self-conscious, and it’s completely exhausting to perceive yourself in such a self-aware way. No one can keep up that high a standard.
Someone once gave me sage advice that has stuck with me: everyone is thinking about themselves and no one is focusing on anything but how they personally move through the world. We are all the main characters of our lives, and that under-the-skin spot will only ever be something you notice.
Do you take stock of everyone sitting in a busy restaurant? I doubt you care about the way they are eating or talking, and the same is true in reverse. People are busy, generally kind and living in their own heads the majority of the time. Their spotlight is firmly focused on themselves, not you or me.
Reminding myself of this helps when I’ve got anxiety sweats on the Tube because I think everyone has noticed my wonky eyeliner. They haven’t and they won’t.
So take a deep breath, and nudge that spotlight burning your retinas out of the way.
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