By Dara Chea
Do you always get the feeling you’re noticed by others, that they’re staring at you, while they’re actually not? When you step into this sort of feeling, it technically means you are suffering from the ‘spotlight effect’.
Psychologists coined this term after observing how people tend to overestimate how much others notice them, such as their appearance, behavior, or embarrassing moments. For example, when you get a new haircut, or join a wedding party, conference, or workshop, you may often feel insecure walking past the crowds, feeling all eyes on you. If left unchecked, the spotlight effect can worsen anxiety, and may lead to fear of being in social situations or trying something new.
So, what is it like to live with the spotlight effect? Let’s take a look at the case of Virak, a young man who’s starting his new semester at university.
First Day At School
It’s the start of the new semester at university, and Virak is late for his first class. Rushing to get ready, he puts on his uniform sloppily – he leaves his shirt untucked and puts a few of the buttons in the wrong loops. While on his way, he has the sudden thought that the teacher would not let him into the class for being late, and that everyone would laugh at his messy outfit.
He dreads walking into the English class. It’s 8:10 am – the middle of the session already. He feels extremely awkward as he enters, fearing the other students would stare and make fun of him. But no one pays him any attention, as everyone is focused on the lecture. Virak still can’t help but feel nervous as he walks over to the empty seat at the front row, his legs trembling so much that he trips on his own feet and falls down. Oh, Buddha! Now, everyone’s laughing at him. He wants to disappear. All that fills his mind is how they must think he’s stupid and weird.
The lecturer bothers to ask him, “Are you ok, boy?” He’s about to give a response but then just shrugs as a sign of being fine, so as not to disrupt the class any further. As the lecture resumes, he suddenly realizes there’s only him sitting in the front row. And there’s a group of girls sitting behind him. Gazing backwards, he’s startled to see people looking at him. He thinks to himself, “Oh gosh! All eyes are on me. What am I supposed to do in this class?” He feels his body turn hot like boiling water.
As the first session is about to end, the lecturer’s attention lands on Virak and calls him to finish the final paragraph of the reading passage. Virak had been spacing out the whole time. He hurriedly starts reading, shaking from his nerves Suddenly, he mispronounces the name “John” and blurts out “Jonh” instead. What a graceful moment!
The teacher cuts in, “Pardon? You mean John?”
Virak hurries to correct himself by uttering, “Oh no… sorry teacher. It’s John indeed”. All classmates laughs even harder, and a yellow liquid begins pooling up at his feet. He wants to stop it, but he can’t. The flow is already too strong.
In Virak’s case, the main root cause of his problem is mainly his exaggeration of how much others pay attention to him. No matter where he goes and what he does, Virak is under the spotlight effect. He seems to feel that everything he does is under a social microscope. He fears he’s being judged, causing him to panic, worry, and even literally pees his pants. While we likely won’t pee our pants in real life, the anxiety is very much there.
So the question is, how can we escape from always being a prey of the spotlight effect? Here are the three possible ways:
1/ Remind yourself people don’t really care
Because we’re always aware of our every thought, feeling and action, we tend to think that others notice and give significance to them too, when in fact, they don’t. The next time you feel yourself sinking into the spotlight effect, remember that people are probably caring about their own lives and not paying much attention to yours. With that in mind, you can start to dim the spotlight a little bit at a time.
2/ Try to gain some confidence
Actually, Virak fell into the spotlight effect because he wasn’t confident in himself. From his appearance to his actions, he felt people would judge and make fun of him for. If you are often self-conscious too, you can try to fix what makes you uncomfortable. For example, if you feel insecure with the way you dress, you can try out new outfits that make you feel more confident in your looks. But one important thing you need to remember is to be yourself. Everyone has flaws, and decent people will not be concerned with your minor flaws. Be confident, be yourself, and the rest will work out.
3/ Broaden your perspective
Does whatever you’re worried about really matter in the big picture? The next time you feel anxious to do something, ask yourself this important question: “So?”
Here are some examples where this simple question might help you break out of the imaginary spotlight:
“If I happen to always express my ideas and ask such questions in the class, other classmates might get annoyed.”
“If I go shopping in the supermarket and wear yellow pants with the red-heart mark on the bottom side, people will laugh at me crazily.”
What’s the worst that could happen? By asking yourself, ‘So?’ you’re broadening your perspective on life, and reminding yourself that the moment will not matter much at all in the long-term (because really, who cares?). Ask yourself this question whenever you feel hesitant to do something that would actually make your life better or more enjoyable. It can help shove you out of the spotlight,and release you from acting on just your instincts alone. While you may worry that actions outside the norm would not be socially acceptable, sometimes owning that you are different is likely to earn you more positive attention than negative judgement.
If anyone happens to know more interesting ways to help overcome the spotlight effect, bring it on. I’d really appreciate all your thoughts on this matter.
Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.