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The Spotlight Effect

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

The year was 2005 or so, I was performing at the Improv in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I recently returned from Los Angeles where I studied improvisation at Second City. I had a spotlight on me each week as I played outrageous characters, many times exposing a truth about myself for the audience to witness. It was freeing to flounder, flub my speech and literally not know what I'm doing for a moment. More times than not, a flub was a gift for my fellow players to run with or at the very least it got a laugh from the audience. Let's say you aren't on stage performing with an improv troupe and you feel as though everyone is noticing something about you or something you did.

If you haven’t heard of the “spotlight effect” you’ve possibly felt it at some point in your life. This phenomenon occurs when you overestimate how much you think others are observing you, especially when you feel you’ve blundered in some way, like during a presentation at work or that stain on your shirt from the chili cheese fries that missed your mouth during lunch. This kind of thought can affect your decision-making, cause anxiety, and in some cases be debilitating.

Why does this happen? We live in our own reality, no one else’s. Everything you come in contact with, every person you meet, every experience you have is filtered through you in your unique way. No one else can truly feel what you feel and think what you think the same way you do. It’s like everyone has their own ecosystem. This kind of bias makes us hyper-focus on ourselves, including our fears, our self-doubts, and our self-criticisms. Then, we place great emphasis on others feeling the same way about us.

What if I told you no one notices, cares, or remembers, or at least not as you imagine? Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton Ph.D. sites in his article in Psychology Today, “This is not to say that people don't notice you at all; only that people do not process information about you as deeply as you do. In other words, while you're stuck ruminating, people have likely moved on.”

Here are some tips that may help diffuse the spotlight effect:

  • Practice self-compassion. You’re human! What would you tell a friend feeling the spotlight?

  • Keep it light, if you blunder, create some light humor in the moment, and then, let it go.

  • Don’t ruminate, instead reflect on a time when someone else felt the same way and how much you didn’t notice, care, or remember.

If you're having trouble with self-compassion or find yourself ruminating often, reach out to me for some compassionate coaching.

*Mendoza-Denton Ph.D., Rodolfo (2012). "The Spotlight Effect." Psychology Today

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