Understanding the Spotlight Effect has helped me become much less anxious in group settings. The core of the idea is simple. We, as human beings, tend to naturally care about how the people around us see us, including strangers and people we don’t know well. This desire to be liked and accepted by others causes us to pay a great deal of attention to our own behavior in social settings and to think a lot about how others are interpreting and reacting to us.
Because of this, we have a tendency to do three things in social circumstances when we do or say something that we worry others may judge us for, as if an invisible spotlight were shining down on us, drawing the attention of everyone. We tend to assume:
- That our actions jump out at others. We tend to feel like everything we do or say when we are nervous is being observed and analyzed be the people around us. We tend to forget that others have their own emotions and thoughts running around inside of their heads, and are most likely paying less attention to us than we fear.
- That others will judge us harshly. When we do something that is a little awkward or embarrassing, we tend to assume that people will react much more negatively than they actually do to our mistakes or missteps. Although there are exceptions, people in general are much less likely to sweat the small stuff and will probably give us the benefit of the doubt.
- That others will reevaluate us negatively. Even a genuine mistake rarely causes others to strongly change their opinions of us. Many people already have a view of you based on others interactions, and they will take that into account when something new happens. This means that for little things at least, we tend to feel like people will be upset with us or dislike us, when that is rarely the case.
For me, the spotlight effect is stronger in kinky/sexual social situations, because my poly/kink is a newer aspect of my identity and one that I have a few insecurities and neurosis about (getting better by the day and not letting them stop me!). Talking about my sexuality or asking for what I want feels like a time when I could be rejected, which is not at all what is happening, but those automatic negative reactive feelings still jump out at times. Reminding myself that others will tend not to notice my behavior (except of course the person I am talking to) helps me relax a little.
Reminding myself that a no isn’t rejection and that most people won’t be mad for a respectful request or question and that they have the same, human feelings I do, reduces my tendency to feel like I am bothering someone or engaging in some kind of test of my attractiveness/worthiness. Telling myself that even if things do get a little awkward, people will tend to understand, helps me to forgive myself.
Finally, reminding myself that we are all in this journey together and being honest about my vulnerability helps me feel more connected to the others around me and more grateful for having this chance to learn about myself and to grow as a person.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In addition to being a fairly new explorer of polyamory and BDSM, I have also been trained as a social researcher specialising in how people learn and how individuals and groups tend to influence each other. Most of the concepts I deal with are an inherent part of human psychology, which apply to a wide range of social and learning environments.
Since I am currently trying to network and get myself out there, I am starting to apply some of these ideas that I normally use in my work to my personal sexual development.