The Spotlight Effect: Why You’re Your Own Worst Critic

spotlight effect
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“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do,” wrote David Foster Wallace in his 1996 tome, Infinite Jest. Three years later, a pair of psychologists would give that same sentiment a name: the spotlight effect.

What Wallace, and later researchers Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky, were explaining something that creative professionals – and just about everyone – struggles with all of the time: The feeling that everyone is judging us at every turn, and that everyone sees the flaws that we think are the most glaring. This phenomenon explains several issues which plague the creative community, including our inability to judge our work, our overall fear of touting our own success, and our fear that we just aren’t good enough.

In an episode of Freakonomics Radio, University of Chicago profession Nickolas Epley explains how being an expert on something can actually make you less attuned to the experiences of that thing than others – and that includes yourself.

“If you can’t understand what other people think [and] how you’re being seen by other people, it’s very hard to lead or manage them effectively,” he explains. “One thing that makes it hard to understand what others are thinking is that we tend to rely on our own mind perhaps a little bit too much when it’s not necessarily perfectly appropriate to do so.”

In the episode, Epley gives the example of an experiment wherein a subject was asked to wear an embarrassing t-shirt. The subject was then told to enter a room, then quickly called back out. Researchers then asked the subject how many people would identify that the subject was wearing the t-shirt. Unsurprisingly, the subject is almost always sure that everyone noticed – when, in fact, almost no one (or actually no one) noticed.

Which means that when we think that everyone else is judging us – that everyone else is dialing into all of our smallest flaws and all of our biggest concerns about ourself – the truth is that they’re probably much more preoccupied with their own struggles and flaws. We just assume they’re consumed with ours, too, because we are. But we are not the most reliable source on that subject.

Often, researchers and psychologists refer to the spotlight effect as a product of egocentrism, when, in truth, it’s really more about the fact that we all tend to default to the subjects that we know the most about. In the vast majority of cases, that’s ourselves and our own experiences. And, interestingly, the spotlight effect almost always plays more on our flaws than our advantages – we tend to assume that people notice our poorest moments more than our greatest ones, and that our flaws are our most defining traits. This is what makes us terrible critics of our own work much of the time, and what keeps us from pursuing challenges which might seem slightly out of range.

Understanding our own inability to judge how others see us can make us emotionally stronger – and can also make us more empathetic to others, thus allowing us to be better listeners and contributors in the workplace (as well as in our personal lives).

In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Dr. Brené Brown describes a trait called “shame resilience,” which essentially means they’re able to move past feelings of shame to succeed.

“Over and over, the women I interviewed explained how empathy is the strongest antidote for shame,” she writes. “It’s not just about having our needs for empathy met; shame resilience requires us to be able to respond empathically to others.”

A big part, then, of shame resilience – and of getting out of our own way, creatively – is the understanding that everyone is suffering from the same spotlight effect, and that everyone needs to be treated kindly – ourselves included.

Julieanne Kost is a CreativeLive instructor and Principal Digital Imaging Evangelist for Adobe Systems and, during Photoshop Week 2015, she explained how she gets out from under the crushing weight of the spotlight effect.

“I have a lot of self-limiting beliefs,” she explained. To curb her negative self-talk – and to remind herself that her harshest criticism is internal, not external, she writes down the reasons she thinks she can’t do things. Often, she says, that helps her move past the feeling of limitation, because she realizes that the those forces aren’t external, but internal.

Though it can feel supremely isolating, one of the most important elements about the spotlight effect is to remember that it impacts just about everyone at some point. Just as Wallace wrote, people don’t really think about you as often as you think they do. Which means as a creative entrepreneur, you’ve got to focus on giving your audience positive associations, and delivering the best possible work you can. That way, when they do talk about you, you don’t have to worry as much about what they’re saying.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.