No, they're not all judging you – you’re not in the spotlight as much as you think

Don't let anxiety about what others think of you hold you back from being yourself – because most of the time, people are thinking about themselves and don't put a lot of effort into judging you. —

Have you ever felt like you have to watch what you say and do for fear of other people judging you?

One of the drawbacks of being the only species to possess self-awareness (so far as we know) is that we can be overly focused on our behaviour and how we come across to others. It doesn’t help that this is often reinforced by our parents when we’re growing up. I’m sure many of us were given warnings about keeping our reputation intact by not embarrassing ourselves by doing anything that might “bring shame”.

Speaking of bringing shame, in 2000, researchers at Cornell University in the United States conducted a creative study to see how much attention other people pay us compared with how much we believe they think about us.

They asked some students to attend a large psychology class wearing bright yellow Barry Manilow T-shirts. Manilow is an American singer, best known during the 1970s and 1980s, whose music can be (for some) overly-sentimental. When asked how many would notice the garish garments, the participants thought at least half of the people in the room would take note of their outfit. In fact, the researchers found that only 20% paid any attention to the bright clothing.

The expectations of those who wore the T-shirts demonstrated what’s known as the spotlight effect: the tendency to believe that people pay more attention to us than they actually do.

You can test this yourself: In the past few days, how many people have you been thinking about in a judgemental way? How many embarrassing comments or actions by others do you remember? It’s likely that you won’t have thought much, if at all, about these things. On the contrary, you’re probably too busy thinking about how you come across to bother much about the comings and goings of others.

As a friend of mine put it, “In a self-centred world, nobody cares what you’re doing”. That’s not to say that we’re arrogant and conceited – merely that we tend to focus on our own experiences to the exclusion of everyone else’s because that’s what is most immediate to us.

A couple of weeks ago, I spilt some coffee on my shirt and was, of course, embarrassed to be walking around sporting a coffee stain. I had several interactions and was sure people would be judging my appearance. Either they were being kind or they didn’t notice because nobody said a word. Even if they did notice, I doubt they remember and, if they do, I’m sure they’re indifferent to a moment long passed.

Like any other bias, the spotlight effect can feel true because we tend to believe how we think about and see the world is objective and accurate even when it’s not. This means that whatever we see or focus on, we feel like everybody else must see or be focusing on the same thing. They’re not. People have a much greater concern – themselves. This is helpful to keep in mind because we can hold ourselves back from doing what matters for fear of what others might think should we try something and fail. They might notice and comment in the moment, but their attention is brief and fleeting.

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh invited us to imagine what life would be like if we had no courage to attempt anything. To those who feel they’re not creative or artistic enough, he advised that if the voice inside is telling us we cannot paint, then we should paint and so silence the voice.

It’s good advice. How much mental energy do we spend worrying about what others might think about us? Is it worth losing out on pleasures and possibilities for the sake of worrying about judgements that probably don’t exist?

Even if they do exist, is the brief lifespan of those judgements worth holding yourself back from doing something or being yourself in a way that brings you joy and purpose? Or might you find, in years to come, you regret having given so much weight to what you believed others were thinking?

American "gonzo" journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson said that when we procrastinate on our choices, we will inevitably have our choices made for us by circumstance. He also asked, “Who is the happier man: he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

We can become so entangled in people’s perspectives that we forget our own and live by the expectations of others. Consequently, our world can feel suffocating and stagnant rather than meaningful and free.

The spotlight effect can make us feel like we’re constantly under scrutiny but the reality is no one is judging us anywhere near as much as we think. This realisation hopefully encourages us to experience the possibilities and pleasures that life has to offer when we open up to ourselves in the knowledge that most people aren’t paying attention.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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