Imagine yourself in middle school, and immerse yourself in the drama that surrounded you. Every locker, classroom seat, or corner would be filled with girls engaged in conversation and guys casually drifting around, exuding a bro-y attitude tinged with nonchalance. Maybe you resemble one of these people.
Think back carefully. Did you constantly worry what other people were thinking? Too many people take the proverb “the world is your stage, and everyone is watching” too seriously and live their lives with butterflies in their stomach.
Wondering what people are thinking about us becomes an addiction and soon leads us down a rabbit hole of delusions about ourselves. “The Spotlight Effect,” a term coined by Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky, explains that we have the impression that a spotlight is always shining on us. More specifically, it highlights that we notice our flaws much more than other people do. It may seem obvious in theory, but we often don’t realize how conscious we are about certain issues.
A complex that I have always had is seeming “too Indian.” I associated being Indian with a slight look of unkemptness, an “Einstein” like air, and being exceptionally smart. I worried that my glasses make me look like a “nerd,” and I was careful never to be the only one to raise my hand in class. Even though I knew that I was looking at myself too critically, I didn’t stop suppressing myself because I still had doubts that people were noticing.
That may be a much less tangible example, but think about the last time you had a pimple. I remember looking in the mirror and wincing at the sight of a large, angry pustule. Almost immediately, thoughts of “What’s everyone going to say?” filled my head. I spent nearly an entire day fidgeting and fussing over my pimple. I was entirely on edge, waiting for someone to say something, but they never did. In fact, I don’t think anyone noticed it. However, that doesn’t stop me from the stress and embarrassment of any pimple I get.
Sometimes, people can feel the spotlight effect so intensely that they can’t function normally. One of my friends wasn’t able to leave the lunch table to get a spoon from the lunch line because she was so conscious of what people were going to think about her. Thinking matter-of-factly, nobody would have thought anything of it. They definitely wouldn’t be saying “what a dumbass” as she had feared.
I think a lot of times that we just have to turn the spotlight off, which is so much easier said than done. We’re wired to seek approval from our peers, and we tend to notice our imperfections more than anyone else does.
Everyone flocks to say that they are comfortable with themselves physically, but no one tries to tell their story of self-acceptance. Or when they do, it’s painted as a glossed-over, blissful picture of going from one extreme of the spectrum to the other, but in reality it is a long, wearing process. I struggled with seeing everyone embrace themselves so readily, because I couldn’t.
One day it dawned on me that I didn’t have to care as much. I stopped hanging out with the people that brought the self-doubt within me out. These people were my friends, but they were so insecure and vocal about their insecurities that I started thinking like them. I became increasingly conscious of everything to a point where I couldn’t deal with it. So I did the natural thing and separated myself from people that brought out the worst in me. As it turns out, I didn’t miss them much. I felt liberated and was able to make a few real friends who made me smile and laugh, and who don’t part-time as awful people. I also felt my confidence rise a little bit, for I had reasserted to myself that my opinion was the only one that mattered.
In general now, I’m able to focus on having more fun. By no means have I completely blocked out the “hater” inside me, but each day I think I get better. My dream is to rock my unibrow and mustache, my funky scars on my knees, and my less-than-impeccable hair one day. Then, I would have proven to myself that my self-confidence doesn’t reflect on what other people think I look like, and that would be an achievement.