Here’s a challenge: think of the last 2 or 3 embarrassing things you did. Or, think of the last time you said or did something embarrassing when out drinking.
Easy? I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to think of something silly you’ve done recently.
Now, another challenge: think of the last 2 or 3 embarrassing things you saw someone else do, or the last couple times someone else said something embarrassing when out drinking.
A bit harder, isn’t it?
Sometime around middle school, our social awareness comes online and we start getting paranoid about what other people think of us. We worry we’ll make some mistake, and that as a result, our peers will judge us and laugh at us and our image in their minds will be tarnished.
But here’s the good news: no one really cares all that much about you, or what you do, or what embarrassing things you’ve done in the past. It’s unlikely anyone can remember 99% of the silly things you’ve done. No one is talking about you regularly. No one even thinks of you that frequently besides a best friend or significant other.
If you don’t believe me, simply monitor your thoughts for the day. How often do you think about silly things your friends have done? How often do you think about them at all besides when someone else brings up a piece of gossip or you see them on a social network? And how often do you remember the little judgements you make about people around you for more than a few seconds?
Odds are you’ll realize that you don’t think about any of these things much at all… so why are you so scared that other people are doing it to you all the time?
This tendency is called the Spotlight Effect. We all think that we’re walking around with a giant spotlight on us where people are always noticing us, thinking about us, talking about us, and it makes us paranoid.
Where does it come from? Well, first, you’re the center of your world. It’s impossible to imagine your existence without you which gives you the illusion that you’re incredibly important. But, of course, no one else is stuck with you all the time, and they’re too busy worrying about their own spotlight to be focused on yours. Add in how social media has turned each of us into our own little media company, and it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that people are watching your every move.
There’s also a biological element. Back in the day when we lived in tribes, we needed some social monitoring to make sure we didn’t get kicked out of the group. That awareness that everyone around you might be monitoring you has carried over to a world where you see more people in a day than you might have seen in a lifetime, and where your potential for embarrassment via the Internet is magnitudes higher than any medium in human history.
But with a small amount of awareness, the extent to which we delude ourselves into believing in our own importance becomes apparent. You barely spend any time thinking about other people, especially silly things they’ve done, because you’re so busy thinking about yourself and your own life. If you’re not constantly reminiscing on that time Cindy slipped and fell 3 years ago, then why are you so hung up on your own embarrassment or potential embarrassment?
Unfortunately, most people don’t know about the spotlight effect, and they spend their days obsessed, consciously or not, with what other people are thinking about them, never realizing that no one is thinking about them. That mistake comes at a cost. When you think that you’re being followed by a spotlight and everyone is transfixed on you, you’ll be much more likely to overestimate things as risky, be more afraid to think outside the box or challenge norms like college. You’ll get obsessed with ephemeral information about other people’s lives, and make yourself unhappy all the while.
But, if you realize that the spotlight effect exists and that no one is really thinking about you all that much, you’ll be much less afraid to speak your mind, you won’t get bothered by the embarrassing mistakes we all make from time to time, and you’ll stop obsessing so much about how you appear online to others.
You’re not thinking about other people that much, and they’re not thinking about you. That shouldn’t be depressing, it’s liberating! Do whatever you want secure in the notion that no one really cares anyway. And if they do, they’ll forget about it in a few minutes anyway when their thoughts return to themselves.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.