Quick Summary: The spotlight effect refers to our tendency to believe that we are being noticed or observed by others more than we actually are. This can impair our ability to share our authentic self with others, which in turn prevents us from form authentic relationships, and leaves us isolated.
The first day of school is always a big day. Especially in early adolescence (ages ~11-13) it is a time of uncertainty and self-doubt. Or, as I call it, Peak Awkward.
The night before the first day of school, my daughter spent (conservatively) two hours stressing about what to wear. She went through several outfit changes and style iterations, looking for the exact right combination. About 30 minutes after she had finally decided on the correct combination, she realized that it was actually a horrible choice, and needed to start over from scratch.
I (unhelpfully) pointed out that what she wore was not as important as she had built it up to be in her mind. I pointed out that people probably would barely notice what she was wearing. That turned out to be… the wrong thing to say, and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that people would definitely notice. Not only would people notice, but a mistake would be devastating, widely talked about, and have major repercussions that would continue throughout the school year.
While I was fairly irritated as this was going on, I feel fortunate in that I could also deeply appreciate the humor in the situation. The funny thing is though, we all participate in some version of this middle-school behavior. And while it might be easy to see and somewhat funny from our vantage point, when we turn the spotlight on our own versions, it becomes much harder to see the humor. In fact, we mostly get as defensive, irritated, and convinced of others’ lack of insight as my daughter was toward me.
The name for this behavior is called the Spotlight Effect. The spotlight effect refers to the tendency of individuals to believe that they are being noticed or observed by others more than they actually are. This cognitive bias leads us to overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to our appearance, behavior, or actions in social situations. It is particularly pronounced when we are engaged in behaviors that we feel are atypical.
While the implications of this are broad, I think this has profound implications on how we form authentic relationships (or struggle to do so). When we constantly feel as though others are closely observing and judging us, it can lead us to censor ourselves, filtering our thoughts and feelings out of fear of negative judgment. This self-censorship prevents authentic self-expression and can lead to superficial interactions. When we constantly worry about being judged, it can be challenging to engage in open and honest conversations. We do not share our authentic selves. When we do not share our authentic selves, neither do the people around us. This fuels isolation.
For example, many patients who live with chronic health conditions feel scared or uneasy sharing these conditions with others. Whether these conditions are diabetes, substance use, or something else, the spotlight effect plays a role in stopping disclosure. Yet for people who live with major medical challenges, these conditions are a big part of who we are– keeping that part isolated from the world usually does not serve anyone.
So, how do we overcome this? I will offer three strategies:
Practice self-acceptance and mindful self-compassion: Emphasize the importance of self-compassion and accepting oneself as they are. When individuals are more comfortable with their authentic selves, they are more likely to form genuine connections.
Recognize that judgments are not permanent. Even if someone is judgemental, there is a decent chance that judgment will be forgotten (or even what you shared will not be remembered). Related, if someone is so judgmental of the fact that you live with X disease, or like Y thing, probably better to recognize that early and evaluate if this is really someone you want to build a relationship with (hint: don’t build relationships with highly judgmental people).
Third, laugh at yourself. It is easy to see the silliness in the example I started with– but our own behavior with regard to the spotlight effect is equally ridiculous. Laughing at our own idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and absurdities can help us recognize that we are all so very alike in certain ways. We like to think that it is only others who behave in irrational ways, but the reality is we all do. We can either judge ourselves for that or laugh. Choose laughter.