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Thread: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

  1. #1

    Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    The Cure for Self-Consciousness
    By Martha Beck, PhD
    Oprah Magazine
    July 2007

    It's one word—one little word—but it has revelatory power.

    You step into the party feeling reasonably confident. True, your favorite little black dress feels somewhat tight, but it's still elegant, and the wind outside only tousled your hair a little. Then, just as you're preparing to mingle, it happens: You pass a mirror and glimpse your reflection—your horrifying, horrifying reflection. The dress isn't just tight; it fits like Luciano Pavarotti's diving suit. Your hair looks as though a crazed weasel nested, bore young, and died there. Aghast, you wobble off your high heels and sprain an ankle. All eyes are glued on you. All conversation focuses on your disgrace. Everyone begins texting hilarious descriptions of you from their cell phones.

    In your dreams, baby.

    I mean this both literally and figuratively. Most of us occasionally dream about being embarrassed in social settings. But even in waking life, many of us operate as if Simon Cowell is doing a play-by-play of our work, wardrobe and snack choices. One team of researchers has dubbed this phenomenon the "spotlight effect." In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny. To claim it, we need to develop a mental dimmer switch.

    Thomas Gilovich, PhD, Victoria Husted Medvec, PhD, and Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, the psychologists who coined the term spotlight effect, also devised numerous ways to measure it. In one experiment, they had college students enter a room with other students while wearing an "embarrassing" T-shirt. (The shirt bore the likeness of a certain singer, whom I won't identify here. I will say that for days after reading this study, I was medically unable to stop humming "Copacabana.") When the mortified students were asked to guess how many people in the room would remember the face on their T-shirt, they gave a number about twice as high as the number of students who actually remembered the shirt.

    Other studies support what this one suggested: The spotlight effect makes most of us assume we're getting about twice as much attention as we actually are. When Lincoln said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here," he was wrong—but only because he was president of the United States. If you are currently president, rest assured that millions will note and long remember if, say, you barf on the prime minister of Japan. However, if you are not president, you're probably pointlessly blinded by the glare of imaginary social judgments.

    These judgments aren't limited just to times when we mess up. Our distorted perceptions mean we not only exaggerate the impact of our errors but also undersell our inspirations and contributions. For example:

    • You modestly mumble an idea in a meeting, assuming that co-workers will be awestruck if they like it, appalled if they don't. Net effect: Nobody really hears the idea—until the annoying extrovert across the table repeats it more loudly, and gets all the glory.
    • You wear clothes a bit duller and more concealing than the ones you love, only to look back years later and wish you'd bared and dared more in your youth. (As one of my friends sighed about her self-conscious daughter, "If she only realized that at her age, you're beautiful even if you're not beautiful.")
    • You sing, swing, and mamba only in the privacy of your home, never with other people. Repressing the urge to sing "Copacabana," you miss the joy of sharing silly or sultry abandon with the people you love—and the people you may never get to love because inhibition robs you of the confidence needed to form a bond.

    These self-limiting behaviors have no positive side; contrary to what many assume, they rarely save us from doing things we'll later regret. In fact, Gilovich and Medvec have found in other studies that, in the long run, people most often regret the things they failed to try, rather than the things they bombed at. Trying yields either success or an opportunity to learn; not trying has no positive result besides avoiding mockery or envy that (research shows) wouldn't be nearly as big or bad as we fear.

    How to Free Yourself from the Glare

    1. Double everything.

    Just knowing that the spotlight effect is real and ubiquitous can begin to liberate us from its inhibiting clutches. I find it very comforting to have an actual number associated with my shame-based illusions: Spotlight effect studies suggest that people typically pay about 50 percent as much attention to me as I think they are. The first time I actually stood under a spotlight, in a high school play, the director told me, "Small gestures look embarrassed, so they're embarrassing. If you're going to do something, and you don't want to look foolish, do it BIG." Now, thanks to Gilovich, Medvec and Savitsky, I know how big to make my actions—about twice as big as I think they should be.

    I've been experimenting with this in many different circumstances: raising both my hands, instead of one, to ask a question of a lecturer I much admire; pausing twice as long for dramatic effect while telling a story to some friends; eating two servings of a fabulous dessert at a literary club luncheon. The result? I do seem to have attracted more attention, but rather than the disapproving judgment I expected, most people seem to feel pleased and liberated, made safer in their own skin by my willingness to live large in mine.

    I believe this reaction is a major reason a lovely lady from Hawaii named Brook Lee once won the Miss Universe pageant. When asked what she'd do if she had no rules to follow, she replied, "I would eat everything in the whole world—twice!" That one word—"twice!"—struck a chord with me, the audience and the judges, landing Ms. Lee squarely beneath the spotlight she actually wanted. Why not join her by doubling the social behaviors you usually limit: the energy with which you communicate, the intensity of the colors you wear, the number of times you laugh, the clarity of the opinions you voice. You may think this will attract massive disapproval from others. Actually, you'll be lucky to attract more than a passing glance, and my experience (not to mention Ms. Lee's) suggests it will be more approving than not.

    2. Think through your limits—not to them.
    "You can't break that board by hitting it," my karate teacher told me. "Hit something 10 inches behind it. As far as you're concerned, the board doesn't even exist."

    "But," I pointed out, "it does exist." (I am a trained observer.)

    My sensei shrugged. "That's what you think."

    Mentally noting that this man had been hit in the head many, many times, I proceeded to batter my hands to smithereens, trying to break that unbreakable board. When every knuckle was swollen, tender and bleeding, I said, "My hands hurt."

    "Yes," said my sensei. "Your mind is really damaging them."

    You get the metaphor: We smash into barriers of shame, embarrassment, and regret because we pull our punches in myriad social situations. Stopping at what we think is the limit of embarrassing behavior, we let others claim the credit, the opportunity, the job, the person we love from afar.

    The next time you feel performance anxiety in any form, remember that the negative attention you fear does not exist except in your mind—if this works with the hard, cold reality of my ice block, I guarantee it will work with something as vaporous as other people's opinions. Act as if there is no spotlight on you, even if there is one. Say, do, and be what you would if no one else were looking. It will be scary at first, but if you persist, there will come that liberating moment when you'll feel yourself sailing straight through your life's most inhibiting barriers without even feeling a bump.

    3. Ask yourself the Universal Question.
    Once, I had an intense, emotional cell phone discussion with a friend while riding in a taxi. At a certain point I fell into a strangled silence.

    "What's wrong with you?" my friend asked. "Why aren't you talking?"

    Covering my mouth with one hand, I whispered, "The driver can hear me."

    At this point, my friend said something so lucid, so mind expanding, so simultaneously Socratic and Zenlike, that I memorized it on the spot. I've gained comfort by repeating it to myself in many other situations. I encourage you, too, to memorize this question and use it when you find yourself shrinking back from an imaginary spotlight. My friend said—and I quote:


    This brilliant interrogatory challenged me to consider the long-term consequences of being embarrassed (really, who cares?). It reminded me that failing to act almost always leaves me with more regret than taking embarrassing action. Here are a few instances where the Universal Question might help a person break through imprisoning inhibitions:

    "If I say what I really think, people might disagree with me."


    "If I leave my drunken abusive husband, his crazy family will call me a bitch."


    "If I go windsurfing, I'll look like a klutz. Plus, people will see my cellulite."


    There are endless applications for the Universal Question. I suggest using it every time you feel yourself hesitating to do something that might deepen or broaden your life. The answer to the question "So?" is almost always "Well, when you put it that way…" It pushes us into the spotlight, showing us we can survive there and freeing us to act on our best instincts.

    Today, remember that what you perceive as prudent social caution is probably limiting your life to about half its natural capacity; that if you did everything you long to do twice as often, twice as boldly, twice as openly, you wouldn't attract a shred more social pressure than you already think you're getting. Consider that vaulting well past the limits of your inhibitions will probably earn you more positive attention than negative judgment. More often than not, this will work out well. If it doesn't, remember the most enlightening of questions: "So?" Little by little, you'll feel and see that the worst consequences of living in the light are less oppressive than the best advantages of hiding in the shadows. And you'll have little to fear from the rest of us, who will only be inspired by your daring as we sit, blinking and bedazzled, in the private spotlights of our own attention.

    Columnist Martha Beck's bestselling books include Finding Your Own North Star, Steering by Starlight, and The Four-Day Win.
    Last edited by Daniel; March 18th, 2009 at 01:27 AM.
    "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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  3. Lightbulb Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    I definitely needed to find this today.

    Glad to know it's a well documented thing as I suspected it must be common in our cynical and mocking society.
    I constantly feel watched, even when I know I'm alone, and I always have had a fear that people are watching me all the time. So much so that I have abad habit of modifying me behvaiour when I'm alone even.

    I've been aware of this for a while though, and as such I've made an effort to basically do what's suggested in here. Live louder, be freer, and say "who cares?". It's ver liberating, actually probably one of the most liberating thing sin my life was when my sister told me "the world doesn't revolve around you".

    I used to agonize over the worry that I'd embarassed myself over things I'd done, because I am a bit odd to start with. But now I have a trick to evade that ball and chain of shame that loves to clamp on: I just remind myself that the world really doesn't revolve around me. The anonymity of my tinyness is extremely comforting when I feel as if everyone thinks I'm a freak and loser.

    The biggest motivation for me to change is captured in a sentence from the article:

    "you miss the joy of sharing silly or sultry abandon with the people you love—and the people you may never get to love because inhibition robs you of the confidence needed to form a bond."

    This has robbed me of many potentially positive experiences in the past because I had been so oversensitive to criticisms and failures that I withdrew from life basically. I was to afraid to kill myself but I didn't want to live. I thought the world was rotten because I hated how on the spot I always felt, adn I wondered why I couldn't just live. Now I "get out there" and as we speak I'm in thailand making loads of new friends and not caring whether they secretly think I'm a weird canadian. I think some of them have, but one of them told me she loved me (not in the heavy 'let's get married' way, but in the friendly 'you're a good person' way) and that was more than enough to remind me that even if some people do notice my faults, there's still something good about me.

  4. #3

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    Did everyone see me do that?
    Psychology Today blog: The Social Self
    By Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D.

    June 25, 2009

    The social spotlight is often only in our own mind

    We often feel that everything we do is under a social microscope. For example, we worry that everyone will notice the awkward statement that we make during an important conference call or that everyone was focused on our appearance on a "bad hair day." Are such worries justified or are we just being too sensitive when such thoughts cross our mind?

    Fear of the social spotlight: Overly sensitive or appropriately vigilant?
    According to research findings, we are often too sensitive about how closely others are watching our every move. Social psychologists have studied this phenomenon, which they refer to as "the spotlight effect." Interestingly, the research suggests that we greatly overexaggerate the extent to which the world is watching us.

    A set of experiments conducted by Cornell University Professor Tom Gilovich and his colleagues illustrate the spotlight effect well. In some of their studies, Cornell undergraduates were asked to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt. Although some readers may gleefully begin singing "Mandy" or "Copacabana" at this point, most undergraduates at Cornell would find wearing a t-shirt with Manilow's schnoz in front of other students to be embarrassing. At the end of the study, the shirt wearer was asked to estimate what percentage of the other students would remember their shirt, and they expected that nearly half of the students in the room would be able to recall their embarrassing shirt. However, in actuality when the others students were asked to identify the shirt, less than a quarter of them could do it. On average, people expected that twice as many people would recall the shirt as they actually did.

    However, the spotlight is not just reserved for embarrassing moments -- it works just as well for positive events too. When asked to wear a shirt that most Cornell students saw as very positive (e.g., one featuring Martin Luther King, Jr.), shirt wears still overestimated the percentage of students who would remember it (estimates were about 45%) than actually did (less than 10%).

    Although people may be overly sensitive to who's noticing what they wear, research suggests that the spotlight effect occurs for more substantial events. In one study were students held group discussions, people felt their own comments, ranging from speech flubs to remarkable contributions to the conversations, were far more memorable than they actually were.

    Why does it occur?
    What fuels people's feeling that they are always in the spotlight? It seems to occur because of an overarching egocentrism to which most people are susceptible. Instead of being a greedy, selfish form of egocentrism, this particular manifestation involves being extremely aware of ourselves (e.g., our appearance, our utterances) and not being able to take the perspective of others who do not spend every waking moment of the day focusing on our thoughts, utterances, and actions.

    Of course, none of this suggests that our screw-ups will always be hidden from others or that our great contributions on a conference call won't earn us a big promotion. However, the research suggests that people should take some comfort that our verbal gaffs, occasional clumsiness, and bad hair is often only bathed in the spotlight of our own mind.

    Related Articles:

    "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  5. #4

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    A related tip:

    Reduce self focused attention by focusing on goals for interactions/events that are incompatible with self focused attention. For example, goals like finding out something that is a source of self pride for your interaction partners, or giving a compliment to each person you talk to.

    Tips: CBT for Social Anxiety
    "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  6. #5

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  7. #6

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    I thank you for this. I started a new job on Friday and I had a lot of trouble speaking because of anxiety (clenching my jaw, etc.) I haven't been able to stop thinking about it because of what people must think of me .. she's a freak, she's so nervous, she can't even speak, how is she going to do the job? Reading this made me realize, they probably aren't even thinking about it and I still am. Thank you

  8. #7

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    I have this problem,but the thing is I tend to internalize so if I think I am not in a center of attention,I tend to ...well hardly speak at times,which makes me worried about people asking why I am not talking and the spotlight effect together,when I tell myself "just be yourself" or apply any philosophical quotes to reduce the effects,I feel as if there is a voice saying"omgosh you are pathetic,you need to rely on those phrases even under such conditions?",in fact those motivational phrases generally make me more awake and self-conscious,I am better when I am in my "spontaneous mode" as in I just do things in the moment,but I couldn't do that all the time.Any suggestions?

  9. #8

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    Any suggestions?
    "Practice. Practice. Practice."
    "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  10. #9

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    I am working on overcoming the 'spotlight effect',but it is really hard.This is something I feel is holding me back in life.I don't just have this problem in social situations,it happens around extended family members,my kids,and even my husband.Not all the time,but often.

    Maybe for me it is more than just social anxiety?It is the same way I used to feel when I would try to visit my parents as an adult.I would try to talk to them but the 'spotlight' feeling would be so overwhelming I couldn't stay in the same room.

    My biggest issue,I think,it just allowing myself to be fully seen.In social situations,when someone is talking to me it is SO hard to sit or stand there and allow them to look straight at me,face to face.It makes me feel like I need to turn away(or run away).So I find myself avoiding interactions because of this.

    I have been trying to fake it in the hopes of eventually getting so used to it that it gets easier,but I cannot even really fake it.I just have a really hard time being looked at.I am not exactly sure what I am afraid they will see but it makes me feel so vulnerable,too vulnerable actually.Maybe the real me and deep down that doesn't seem good enough?I don't know,but even typing this really upsets me because I absolutely hate struggling with this and want to so badly get over it.

  11. #10

    Re: Overcoming the "spotlight effect"

    I wanted to read this but when I clicked on it there was nothing to read.

    I woke up thinking about this 'spotlight' thing.I don't think it is something that I can't overcome,I just need to find something that works for me.

    Maybe I need to pay more attention to my self talk when it happens,remind myself that this is not the past,and that I am a good person and other positive things.And that what I am thinking/feeling is just imaginary,stuff left over from my childhood.

    I was thinking about one of my brothers,probably 10 years or so ago we were at my parents house and he was sitting at the kitchen table,having coffee with my dad.It made me sad to see my brother look and act the way he did,to be that scared,uncomfortable and nervous trying to talk to him.

    Thinking about that made me realize this is why I feel the way I do,because of him(dad),this ' spotlight' thing I struggle with is from all the intense fear of having to be around him and see him face to face,up close.

    Maybe I should try telling myself ' it's not dad' when It happens.

    It is upsetting to realize someone that has been dead over 7 years still controls me.

    ( sorry if I am rambling and this is off topic)

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