Why You Think People Are Paying More Attention To You Than They Really Are
My husband and I just moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico from Tucson, Arizona. Our moving day was like most probably are, special and fun. But also really long, exhausting and without much food. By the time we’d unloaded our UHaul and got everything up the stairs in our loft, we were starving. We ended up at Five Guys for dinner and I ordered a massive burger and order of fries. We sat outside at a little table and haussed the burgers and fries, hardly talking.
When I finished my burger, I said to Trevor, “Those people in there were probably watching me and thinking I don’t have any manners.”
And that is the spotlight effect in action.
The spotlight effect is when we overestimate the amount of attention people give to our outward appearance or behavior.
It creates a climate that misunderstandings can thrive in.
There are very real consequences in our day-to-day life, and professional opportunities alike, if we don’t keep the spotlight effect in check. We limit ourselves when we start to believe that our actions, or worse, our existence, is being critiqued by those around us.
For example, pretend you’re giving a presentation at work. During it, you start getting nervous and your face gets hot. You’re first response is dread--you just know everyone is noticing your face getting red and the shine of sweat starting to form on your forehead. You panic, and anxiously dab your forehead. As you do so, your voice starts shaking. You fumble with your slides, and start saying ‘um’ more often than real words. If you’re like me, your glasses might start fogging up a bit too!
It’s the story that so many people’s worst nightmares are made of!
It’s stressful. Your mind gets stuck on the false-belief that everyone’s thinking about how awkward and nervous you are. And it just keeps going in a vicious cycle.
I’ve totally been there. It’s easy to believe that others are laughing at you, focusing on your flaws or criticizing you. But do you know what the reality likely is?
They probably aren’t noticing those things. They may be listening to you (hopefully), but they aren’t watching you with the intensity you feel like they are. And if they are, it’s because their very intrigued in what you’re saying or doing.
We tend to assume others are noticing the worst parts of ourselves. But that is rarely the case (unless they’re just the mean, jealous type. But the issue is on them, not you).
Especially in a professional setting, people want you to succeed when you’re talking.
If you’re in a meeting or in front of a group, you are presenting. And you are likely sharing new information or a perspective that others can learn from. You have something of value to offer when you speak, and people want your message to get across clearly. It’s to everyone’s benefit.
They are listening to your words and trying to process them when you speak (again, if they aren’t, it’s on them). You need to regard your own insights enough that your focus is on how you are communicating, not your insecurities.
The moment you let insecurity sweep you up, your words will start getting jumbled. And usually the cycle of nerves and panic picks up in full speed.
Part of the issue is that when we make mistakes, we feel like that’s all people noticed. Rather than making a mistake and seeing it as something we can recover, we allow ourselves to derail.
You can come back after mistakes and slip ups. You can restart at any moment.
But often, once nerves show themselves, people give in to them. In doing so, they give up on themselves.
I’ve been using a professional setting for my example, but think about the implications for your personal life, too.
I’d argue that your personal life is where understanding how the spotlight effect hinders us matters most.
Are you keeping friends at arm’s distance because you’re afraid of what they’d think if they got any closer?
They are probably craving closer connection with you.
Do you turn away from your lover because you feel embarrassed or ashamed of your body?
They love you and want you. As is.
Have you felt like you’re failing because your kids seem to want nothing to do with you?
It’s not about you. You haven’t failed them. They’re just figuring out how to deal with their emotions.
The spotlight effect plays a part in all of these serious life experiences and more.
It can be difficult and all-encompassing for some people. And unlike the self-confidence we gain from ‘embracing the spotlight’, the spotlight effect creates a state of hyper-self-consciousness that makes you cringe at the thought of focused attention or getting too close to people.
If you turn away from attention too many times, you run the risk of damaging relationships and opportunities long term.
People’s focus on you is usually out of connection, friendship, love and respect, not critique.
The reality is, people are equally immersed in their own inner worlds as you are in yours. Their attention to you is for connection, friendship, love, respect. It should be received with joy and gratitude.
When it comes to being understood, what people tend to care about is who you really are and what you have to offer. And this is what most of us want ourselves. To be me, and offer my gifts to the world.