The Spotlight Effect: Yet another opportunity we get in our own way.

Cindy JobsADHD In The Workplace, Health and Well-Being, Organization

Have you ever felt that someone is watching your every move? Do you think that all eyes are on you and everyone focuses on every minor misstep you make?

I assure you with almost 100% certainty that people are not paying nearly the attention to you that you think they are. However, the Spotlight Effect makes us feel otherwise. 

The Spotlight Effect refers to the tendency to think that more people notice something about you than they do.

The spotlight effect can show up both in positive and negative contexts:

For example, we think we’ve nailed a presentation to a client, only to find out that wasn’t the case. In actuality, they hardly remembered a thing we said. 

Conversely, we may think the presentation was awful and that everyone in the room is talking about our poor job. But, in reality, people were very impressed with our poise and knowledge.

Whatever the case, we are significantly overestimating or underestimating the attention people pay to us.

How else might this show up:

You arrive at a party with a stain on your shirt and obsess about it all night. You contemplate leaving the party early. Chances are, no one even noticed the stain.

At that same party, you spill some onion dip on the tablecloth. You alert the host, clean it up, then spend the rest of the night assuming the shared whispers are all about your clumsiness. More than likely, they are talking sports or politics, not obsessing about spilled onion dip.

You have an outfit you feel confident in, and you just realized you wore the same thing the last time you met the same client. Trust me; they don’t remember.

You changed your hairstyle, and no one mentioned it. Based on that, you assume it’s not flattering and must change it NOW. Chances are people may have noticed “something different,” but since you KNOW it’s different, you assume everyone else does too.

Why is it important to understand the spotlight effect? Because it changes our interactions with and perceptions of others. The spotlight effect contributes to stress and anxiety, which have consequences both mentally and physically.

Now, what can we do about it?

Role reversal:  Ask yourself, “If they had a spot on their shirt, would I notice, let alone focus on it?” Probably not.

Ask yourself what the data says: What information do you have that they are focusing on you? What else could be their focus? Stepping back and asking what else could contribute to their actions may help balance the situation and reduce stress.

Take a deep breath and move on.

Your fly was down. You had spinach in your teeth. You incorrectly used a preposition. You mispronounced Qatar. You were a bit off-pitch at karaoke night.

My guess is no one noticed. And if they did, they don’t care nearly as much as you think they do.

Want more information about the spotlight effect? Here are some great articles:

Psychology Today:  The Spotlight Effect

Very Well Mind: The spotlight effect and social anxiety.

Healthline: Always feeling self-conscious?  Here’s why you shouldn’t, according to science.

Cindy Jobs, PCAC, ACC

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