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Are you really in the spotlight?

I keep a list of topics that I think would add value to you and make for good ‘food for thought.’ One of the topics I’ve had on my list, almost since the beginning of lockdown, is the spotlight effect. This week, I knew its time had come. I was delivering a workshop and giving an example of triggers that can cause anxiety, I mentioned that I was an anxious teen and often felt like I was on the outside looking in at the ‘cool’ kids. As a youngster, I suffered with enormous social anxiety because I thought my insecurities were visible to everyone. As an adult, it affects me much less but is still something I still need to manage. Someone I went to school with was attending the workshop, she later told me that she nearly fell off her chair when I gave that example because she remembers me as the cool kid that she was looking at! There-in lies the spotlight effect and it is very relevant right now and causing lots of social anxiety. So, let’s understand it better and take Key Steps to overcome its impact:


  1.  What is the spotlight effect? A cognitive bias that leads people to believe that more people take notice of their actions and appearance (and care about them) than is actually the case. It’s an apt name. We think we are in the spotlight and all eyes are on us, all the time, noticing everything. I’m sure you’ve had this experience. Most of us have. You do something that seems so embarrassing, it consumes all of your attention and you’re sure that everyone’s watching you and snickering or feeling embarrassed for you. Later you find out that nobody had any idea you did anything unusual. Be aware that the flip side of this is also true; people don’t notice your moments of brilliance as much as you think they do.

    This is especially relevant and prevalent now that many of us are video conferencing
    . Even people who don’t regularly experience social anxiety are reporting feeling overwhelmed by back-to-back video calls in a way they didn’t experience with back-to-back in-person meetings. It’s been dubbed Zoom fatigue and a big factor is that seeing yourself on a screen can make you feel self-conscious and significantly amplify the spotlight effect.
  2. Why do we suffer from this? We have an egocentric bias when assessing our own behaviour and our appearance to others. Because we are the centre of our world (this is especially true for children and teenagers), we exaggerate our importance. In reality, people are so caught up in their own spotlights that what we do is largely a non-event. To add to this, there is what psychologists call the illusion of transparency where we think others can see and sense how we feel. The reality is that, unless your face flushes bright red or your hands tremble with nervousness, what you feel on the inside can’t be seen from the outside (during our Powerful Presentation Skills Programme, I reinforce this mantra to support in overcome stage fright).
  3. What can we do about it? There are a number of Key Steps you can take:3.1  Identify the thoughts that are most responsible for the feelings you are having. For example, “they must think I am clueless” or “everyone must’ve notice me fluffing the opening of my presentation.” Examine what facts there are to support your thoughts – usually there aren’t any facts, just feelings. The messages the feelings are sending seem like facts but they are not.

    3.2  Interrupt and replace your thoughts. Your thinking is one area that you have complete control over so weed the garden of your mind. You can do this by checking if you are jumping to conclusions or not (see 3.1 above). When you realise that you are, interrupt and replace your thoughts. This can be done by saying something like, “it’s actually pretty arrogant of me to think that everyone is fixated on me all the time” or “no-one can see what I feel” – studies show that the power of this ‘pattern interrupt’ can be amplified by talking to yourself aloud. Only do this if you are in private and can do it safely without feeling like you are going to embarrass yourself – or you might end up creating conditions for the spotlight effect all over again.

    3.3  Remind yourself that people are caught in their own spotlights. Endless studies show that people are too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice your ‘mistakes’ or imperfections. Right now, my hair hasn’t been cut or coloured since January so I am really not too worried about yours 😊. Remember that, even if someone does notice your hair (or whatever you are worried about), they probably won’t care about it nearly as much as you think, and they probably won’t remember it in the long-run.

    3.4  Get to the root of your anxiety and build your confidence. Journaling can help increase your awareness of the triggers of your social anxiety. Taking steps to work on increasing your EQ will also make a huge difference. Emotional Intelligence is a vital life and leadership skill that no individual or organisation can afford not to develop. It can also really help to work with a professional coach or therapist and take steps to get to the root of your anxiety and take deeper Key Steps to…

“be the difference that makes the difference



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