I recently started wearing invisible braces, and despite their name, I can’t help but feel like the entire world stares at me every time I wear them. I imagine the coffee shop barista thinking, “Why is this grown woman trying to straighten her teeth now?” and my friendly neighbor judging me for my slight lisp when exchanging niceties. Whenever I’m with friends, colleagues, or even my partner, I fight back the urge to ask, “Can you see them?!”—and when I do blurt out that question, the answer is always a resounding, “Nope!”
As humans, we are inherently hyper-focused on ourselves. We’re worried that everyone’s judging our bad hair day, that lingering mustard stain, or the dust and cat hair that somehow made its way onto the computer screen right before a presentation. In reality, nobody notices the extra frizz in your hair, your coworkers are oblivious to your condiment mishap, and those dust particles are par for the course. Even if people did notice, they wouldn’t really care because, well, they’re likely too busy worrying about their own issues.
This egocentric proclivity is referred to as the spotlight effect, or “the tendency to feel and behave as if we are the focus of attention from an ‘audience’ that shares our preoccupations and insecurities about ourselves,” explains Dr. Emma D. Levine, a cognitive therapist. “This imaginary audience is typically experienced as a potential threat insofar as we may be experienced negatively,” she notes. “This is why, when we feel under the spotlight, we often experience uncomfortable emotional states, such as heightened self-consciousness or distortions in how we imagine others may view us.” Dr. Helen Odessky, psychologist and author of “Stop Anxiety From Stopping You,” says this tendency is residual hardwiring from those primitive days when identifying friend or foe was essential to our survival. A lifesaver back then, perhaps, but in today’s world, it’s a nuisance—with the potential for being worse.
There’s an entire spotlight effect spectrum ranging from natural egocentricity to a full-blown disorder that can disrupt your entire world. On one end of the spectrum, it’s normal to experience mild (but manageable and fleeting) discomfort. In fact, the concern for how others view us is characteristic of maturity and social sensitivity. Things become problematic when we experience a heightened sensitivity to other’s evaluations constantly, and when we believe that others are internally criticizing and judging us versus being supportive and understanding.
No matter where you fall on that spectrum—and it’s certainly possible to fluctuate back and forth—there’s one thing that can free you from the heat of the spotlight: realizing that nobody cares as much as you think they do. Easier said than done though, right? Here are a few ways you can get to it.
We all live inside our heads, and we also have a propensity toward irrational thinking. The problem is that we become so accustomed to our internal thoughts that they start to feel unquestionably realistic. “Many psychologists have written about types of errors, or distortions, in the thinking of people who feel vulnerable to the problematic impact of the spotlight effect,” explains Levine. “One common example is ‘mind reading,’ or the tendency to believe that you know what others are thinking, thereby failing to consider other, more likely, possibilities.” For example, maybe you’re positive that your date keeps looking at your blemish in disgust when in actuality they can’t take their eyes off of you because they find you so attractive. Or maybe you’re wearing invisible braces (ahem) and feel certain people are judging you for wearing them at 31 years old, when really they’re thinking, “Huh, wonder if those would work for me?” To help you identify and modify situations that trigger irrational thinking, Levine suggests keeping a thought log, whether that be in a journal or on a device. In it, briefly describe the triggering situation, your physical symptoms, the way you behaved in response, and the thoughts that went through your head.
“It takes practice to identify errors in our automatic thoughts,” says Levine. “Once we begin to catch these errors, though, we can begin to challenge our thoughts that are not serving us by asking questions such as: ‘Do I know for certain that [he is staring at my blemish]?’ and ‘What evidence do I have that [he feels disgusted by me]?’ and ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ Can I cope with it? Is there an alternative interpretation? What’s most realistic?’” Over time, you’ll notice patterns and be able to navigate those triggering situations in real time from a more rational perspective.
Think back to the last time you were at the grocery store, walked down the sidewalk, rode the train, or took the elevator. Now try to remember one detail about another person you encountered in any of those situations. Better yet, try remembering a time you unfavorably judged another person in one of these scenarios. Not so easy, is it? That’s because we’re all thinking about ourselves and our own issues. “We all have to devote a considerable amount of our attention to our own lives,” says Odessky. “Even when you notice someone's mistake or mishap, think about how much time you devote to it before moving on to something more pertinent to your own life.”
“It may also be helpful to gradually expose yourself to the situations that feel uncomfortable, starting with easier situations and working up to harder ones,” advises Levine. “Even though it may sound counterintuitive, science tells us that if you stay in a situation that makes you uncomfortable for long enough, your anxiety will eventually level off and then decrease.” Maybe that means you linger longer at the water fountain with your coworkers, or you strike up a conversation with the person next to you in line. Maybe that means you go makeup-free when you’ve got a row of pimples on your chin, or you volunteer to give the next big presentation at work—cat hair on the computer screen and all. Whatever the situation, consistently remind yourself that you’re not a mind reader and that others are very preoccupied with themselves. When you find yourself in a situation where you do feel like you’re under the microscope, utilize coping mechanisms that help you relax. Deep, consistent breaths can calm your mind, and listening to your favorite music for two-to-three minutes can relax you, too. “Learning to relax, both physically and mentally, is a critical pathway to turning down the spotlight,” says Levine. In the end, we cannot control other people’s perceptions of us, which in and of itself can be freeing. What’s even more freeing, though, is gaining control over your own thoughts and behaviors. Doing so will allow you to enjoy the activities that add value to your life, excel in the workspace, and build meaningful relationships with those around you.