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Overcoming the spotlight effect and living unabashedly

Learning that really, no one notices that stain on your shirt

<p>For as long as I can remember, I have been extremely conscious of myself — how others perceive me and subsequently how they might judge me.</p>

For as long as I can remember, I have been extremely conscious of myself — how others perceive me and subsequently how they might judge me.

For as long as I can remember, I have been extremely conscious of myself — how others perceive me and subsequently how they might judge me. If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, the term “spotlight effect” may ring a bell. It’s the phenomenon in which you tend to overestimate how much other people notice aspects of your appearance or behavior. I lived under an imagined spotlight for years, constantly worried about my perceived intellect and physical appearance. Only in college did I decide to turn off the spotlight I had placed overhead — and in doing so, I began to live for myself.

If I made a wrong comment in class, I used to instantaneously feel shame deep in my core, lodged heavily behind my sternum. I would think about the moment for hours on end. A single pimple on my face would make me want to lock myself in my room and never face humanity again. Growing up with social media exacerbated the pressure to look and act perfectly. I have spent an embarrassing amount of screen time on Instagram, analyzing my profile from one point of view to another, zooming into each of my posts to see if I looked “cool enough,” “fun enough” or “pretty enough.”

My anxious thoughts took over my life, preventing me from trying new things. As I entered the new realm of “College Life,” capital “L,” I recognized how the University was an environment rich with opportunity. Countless times I passed by an infographic detailing an exciting CIO, event or job. However, I would grab these flyers only to let them gather dust on my desk. The lack of initiative was not due to laziness but fear of scrutiny. Without a familiar face, club meetings and information sessions felt like an opportunity ripe for embarrassment. I knew I’d be placing myself in the midst of strangers, directly under their gaze.

I came to realize the extent to which my unfounded fear of judgment burdened me. If I am reluctant to ask questions, ask for assistance and embark on new endeavors, how am I supposed to experience my surroundings to their fullest? The spotlight effect is also a narrowing effect — it limits the vision you have of your possibilities, boxing you into walls made out of social pressures. 

A close friend once told me how he stepped out of the spotlight effect — at some point in high school, he simply decided not to care about what other people thought of him. His decision to live for himself bewildered me. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I wasn’t constantly molding myself to meet the expectations of others or tirelessly trying to satisfy someone else in every relationship — platonically, romantically or professionally. I couldn’t envision myself venturing into a new activity unless I had carefully crafted the perfect persona in preparation beforehand.

But eventually I took my friend’s advice — I lived for myself. Rest assured, I still fought with social pressures, asking myself, “What if they do care? What if they notice when I mix up my words while talking?” To all those who may sympathize with that train of thought, I’ll ask you this — when have you ever torn someone to pieces over a simple pronunciation mistake? When have you ever judged someone for wearing mismatched socks? In hopes that we all are empathetic, kind people, I’ll say that the answer is never. Realizing that this is the case, I adopted a new mindset and told myself a new motto — no one truly cares. 

Entering 2024, I vowed to live in a carefree way without fear of other people’s attention. I took myself out of my comfort zone academically and socially. I allowed myself to eat alone in a dining hall. I worked out at the gym during peak time, went to professors’ office hours and joined new clubs. I spoke up during discussions — and in an 8 a.m. class at that. 

And lo and behold, the world didn’t explode. I never once found myself regretting being outside my comfort zone. I can’t speak for everyone regarding how it feels to be out of the spotlight, but I grew a greater appreciation for my potential and abilities. I found myself applying for internships, making new friends and feeling less restrained by the self-imposed boundaries that had stood solid for so long.

I still have a long way to go. I still hesitate before speaking up, have to give myself a pep talk before entering a group conversation and feel like Pigpen from Charlie Brown if I notice a stain on my shirt mid-class. Changing your mindset and your habits is a difficult thing to do and probably one of the hardest cycles to break. But as spring — the season of new beginnings — approaches, I promise you all that it is never that deep. Live for yourself.

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