The Spotlight Effect: How it Dims Our Shine

The Spotlight Effect

By Angela Noel

March 20, 2018

Two months ago, something magical happened: WordPress Discover featured my post, Co-Parenting: Confessions of a Part-Time Mom, as an Editor’s Pick!

I’d submitted the post on January 15 and heard back from an editor within minutes. I had just over a week to prepare for my January 23rd debut. I felt both honored and excited. Who would I meet? Would my words resonate with others? Would I get evil comments or get spammed by bots promoting Viagra?

But as the day approached, mixed with the excitement, an uneasy feeling crept in.

Being “Out There”

When the 23rd rolled around, I was delighted by the reaction. My wonderful Facebook blogging group shared the post and sent me lovely messages. My friends and family congratulated me. Hundreds of people read it. Lots of people commented on it, sharing heartfelt stories. My followers doubled, tripled, quadrupled. No one said anything evil. Only one bot spammed me with an invitation to try Cialis for my erectile dysfunction needs.

Wordpress DiscoverDespite all the delights of that first week, the uneasy feeling persisted. I acted weird. I walked the hallways at work, and talked with co-workers as I always do. But everything felt different.

Most people didn’t know about my post. Why should they? Though proud of the recognition, I didn’t wear a patch on my shirt or put a sign up on my office door that read: Hi, my name is Angela and I was featured on WordPress Discover!  The very fact that it was OUT THERE, made me jumpy.

Clearly, I publish online and share things on social media. I KNOW it’s public and people can see it. But until the editors picked my post, I’d never really thought about the acceleration process–how things can bloom outside of my control. I suddenly felt terribly vulnerable.

As a result of this vulnerable feeling, I sensed all eyes on me. I heard whispering in the halls and worried they whispered about me. When I spoke to new people, I worried I’d said the wrong thing. Every time I made a joke, I fretted that I hurt someone’s feelings. This went on for a whole week. Truthfully, I knew I was being ridiculous. But, a cognitive bias had me by the brain.The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

Known as “the spotlight effect” this elf leads us to mistakenly conclude that others are thinking about us, our actions and words, far more than they really are. For example, that pimple I’m so ashamed of, the mistake I made on the conference call, or the time I split my pants at work . . . all of these imperfections loom large in my mind, but are the merest of blips on the radar of everyone else (if they’re noticed at all).

However, it’s not always easy to notice when the spotlight effect is at work. For example, I’m not particularly self-conscious as a general rule. Public speaking doesn’t bother me. But this was something different. My feelings, my art, my family, my child, my greatest love was all on display on a much bigger stage. It scared me. And my brain tried to help by making me pay extra attention to the reactions of people around me–I saw threats where there were none. My brain tried to keep me safe. It tried to help me fit in.

Thank you, brain. But also, please stop. I’m okay.

Next time I have a bigger stage for my words to sing on, I’ll be less afraid. After talking about the spotlight effect with friends and co-workers, I know it happens to us all. I can short-circuit its effects by realizing that no matter what, even if I’d had an evil comment or two or ten, it wouldn’t change anything. I’d still be me. I’d still want to share and connect, learn and grow.

I’m so grateful to the editors of WordPress Discover. I also owe a debt to Susie Lindau for writing her post: How to Be Discovered on WordPress. Despite my fears, and my episode of weirdness, I wouldn’t trade a single second of this experience.

More than anything, I feel honored by the many comments of readers. I promise to share my best self, and all my flaws and vulnerabilities, with you. Sometimes, I might be afraid. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Your turn: Have you ever felt exposed and vulnerable? When have you suffered from the spotlight effect?

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

68 thoughts on “The Spotlight Effect: How it Dims Our Shine”

  1. Long story short, I ended up involuntarily talking about my sex life on TV. I was living in London at the time and got people coming up to me in the street and at work. Eurgh, that definitely gave me the spotlight effect for some time (months and months). I was quite paranoid for some time and I whilst I could laugh about it, I just wanted to be “normal” again.

    1. OMG! That’s a whopper of an exposure experience. Though my “fame” is certainly the tiniest of tiny bits, it makes me think of how astonishing it must be to be actually famous. Every word, every gesture interpreted and somehow open to criticism. Now in that case–the spotlight effect isn’t true–it really is the spotlight! In your case, you definitely got a megadose of what it’s like to be famous. Good for you that you could laugh about it. I bet you’re stronger for it.

      1. Haha. I was on the So Graham Norton show- if you remember that when it was on Channel 4? I was put in the “guest section” of the audience by my friend who worked on the show and was reassured by him that Graham never bothered the people in the guest section when he went into the audience and spoke to them. Needless to say on this occasion he did and I’ll (annoyingly) leave it there as to why haha. I definitely won’t be writing a blog post about. I did get to go to the after show party afterwards & meet Graham and drink copious amounts of free wine though 👍🏻

        1. I used to love that show!!

          This sounds amazing and embarrassing in equal measures! Did your gran watch it?

          1. Haha exactly Angela. One has to get one’s priorities straight here. If you’re very bored one day, you could scroll through my Instagram, back to 2013 and there is a photo of me on the TV show (it happened way back in 1998 though).

  2. I can understand this. I’m outspoken in life and in writing, but my blogging voice is quieter (yes, really) because I know people actually read me. Honestly, I wish more people would, like peeople who aren’t my father. If I had a bigger audience that didn’t know me, I think I’d be even more myself, and perhaps helpful to more people. I’m rambling.

    1. I love it when you ramble. I love that your father reads your blog–mine does too! I hope people read my blog, but I hope to always remember that they’re not my board of directors voting on my content. I want people to read the words and find connection with me (and I with them) but I don’t want to stop being myself. (Now I’m rambling.)

  3. I always love reading your blogs and learning new tricks and tips of blogging. This is really helpful since I am quite new to blogging and can’t quite get the words out of my head onto the screen. I can hear and see them in my head, but as soon as I attempt to transfer them from my brain to the screen the words get lost or disappear. It’s VERY frustrating. Thank you for sharing

  4. I totally get this. I was discovered on wordpress last summer, and as a blogger, I’ve felt *off* ever since. I’ve become such a harsh critic of what I write. Is it good enough, do people expect more from me, will they finally see me for the fraud I am and unfollow? I walked around on a cloud for a while, but over time, while the hundreds of new followers didn’t drop me, they don’t read me either. A few months ago, I became obsessed with being Discovered again and I probably acted in a poor and selfish blogging fashion. Sometimes getting what you want really isn’t what you want.

    1. I also agree with this. I was Freshly Pressed 3 times, in the very beginning of my blogging. It changed the way I write, and made me really self-consicious and self-critical. I probably generalize/sanitise my writing because I *might* get picked up again. And I write less, because I think it has to appeal to everybody, and then I don’t write at all. Have to get back to writing with my heart and get out of my head.

      1. Totally. What’s interesting is that I do love your blog just as it is–your voice and the way you bring ideas forward. So, I don’t want to say yes! do things differently. BUT, I would say, I’m a fan. So wherever you go, if you’re being you, I’ll follow.

    2. Well, if it helps–I found you through Discover. I loved your words and expect nothing from you except to keep telling me about your experiences as you see them. I read you, because you’re you.
      I’m also glad to know that I’m not alone in finding myself a little off-kilter. It’s a really good lesson in self-awareness I think.

  5. I had a book published in the same week I attended a work conference where all the UK’s experts in that same field were gathered. I was a relative newcomer, and I was convinced everyone was incredulous and outraged that I had barged in to their arena. It is the weirdest thing. I am really proud of my achievement, and have had really good feedback, but also want to dive behind a bush any time anyone mentions it.

    1. Ali! You’re awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that experience. It IS possible to be both proud and shy at the same time. Where can I find your book?

  6. Hi Angela (and others in this thread like Jeff Cann and Lorna) — thanks for sharing the link to your post and tagging @WPDiscover.

    It’s always interesting to hear how being featured (or going viral) affects a person, sometimes negatively — it’s a reality of writing and sharing online, as you mention. (On a personal note, I’d stopped writing on my own blog a few years ago for similar reasons — the pressure, the larger audience, the need to be perfect, the conflation of “writing” and “publishing,” and the inability to write for myself. I’d explored this quite a bit in the past.)

    These two posts are older, but also shed light on others’ experiences:

    Overall, I’m glad you connected with readers and are open to sharing all sides of yourself — it’s what makes for the best kind of writing.


    1. Hi, Cheri. Thank you reading and adding your personal perspective. It means a lot to me that you’d stop by. New experiences for reflective people have the effect of, I hope, spurring wisdom and self-knowledge. I got more from my experience of being Discovered than I bargained for–and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Reaching people and creating those connections might be scary, but can be a source of great joy, too. Thank you again for the opportunity!

  7. I was sooo happy for you when I saw you’d been featured on discover. You write such sweet, thoughtful posts that it was only a matter of time before they noticed your awesomeness.

    I hadn’t considered that those elves might turn it into a negative experience. I hope now things start to calm down you can enjoy the extra blog-love.

    1. Oh gosh! It wasn’t negative, the feeling just caught me by surprise. Overall, I thought it was awesome. I just found it interesting that my brain took a little logic vacation and I wasn’t myself for awhile. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, and I’d do it all over again. I just would watch for the elves!!
      And thank you for being happy for me–I can’t wait to someday actually meet you and go on one of those walks I love reading so much about.

  8. Such an interesting perspective Angela. I can understand your feelings and I’m glad you’ve shared them with us. It’s a real honour to be picked but I can see the concerns or effects too. I enjoy your writing so you’re always a winner to me 😊

  9. It reminds me of a saying, “the tallest blade of grass is the first to get chopped.” That, to me, perfectly describes why so many of us are afraid to step out of our comfort zone and draw attention to ourselves. Quite related to the fear of judgment, by the way. For me, I desire to live a life of service, helping people heal and showing them how to awaken. On the other hand, I sometimes worry (not as much as I used to) that people will look at me, not being flawless, and ask who do I think I am giving other people advice? I think it was Sonya Choquette who beautifully explained this dilemma. We all have not only a purpose but also our lessons. So even though we are going through life, making mistakes and learning our own lessons, that should not deter us from living our purpose. What would happen if we all waited until we were perfect to let our light shine?

    1. Absolutely beautifully said. As I’m sure you can readily imagine, I fully agree with you. When we get the thing we desire, the beauty of that moment is so fresh and lovely. But, like the perfect dessert, it is wonderful, it is lovely, though a price must still be paid. I would still choose a larger stage, but I wold do so with the knowledge that it is both sweet and might require a little extra work on my part to digest. 🙂

  10. I totally get your apprehension… and it’s why I have to be careful too. Working in the job I have and as a good Indian girl I have to be careful… but you so sorry and second guess yourself the moment you put yourself out there… let alone when you are pushed into the spotlight!

    1. I am so glad I’m not alone. It’s definitely an interesting effect. There’s a fine line between being thoughtful and overthinking. It can be so hard to know the difference!

  11. Great post and well said. You had me nodding. Best thing about blogging is sharing and making us not feel alone in so many areas. So excited for you as well deserved your blog is awesome!! Have a great weekend.

  12. That is an exceptionally interesting post. I suffer from the same thing, I get total paranoia, in fact it may even be partially why I’m writing the way I do at the moment – hiding behind a character.

    1. I’m glad you found it interesting! Becoming aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing leads to much more conscious choices. And, I think, even in embracing the fact that we can’t always control why we feel as we do. We can just set the intention that perhaps we want to have more courage and let our light shine–no matter the consequences.

  13. You bring attention to something few people realize. When I was a therapist I heard from a lot of people with anxiety and low self-esteem suffering The Spotlight Effect. It’s not that they had done anything notable, but they always worried about being noticed in a negative light far more than was realistic. In an odd way, it’s an arrogant kind of insecurity, assuming others are paying so much attention to you. In truth, most of us are too busy worrying about our own spotlight effect to pay attention to others imperfections.

    1. Totally! First, thank you for sharing your experience–and I don’t think I knew you were a therapist at one point!
      I too find it an “arrogant insecurity” in myself. And therefore, a good thing to laugh good-naturedly at. I find it interesting to grapple with being confident and proud that I’m having an impact, but also feeling well-and-truly humbled by the fact that others are feeling impacted.
      In that interesting book “The Psychopath Test” I remember reading the list of “you know you’re a psychopath when…” and thinking uh oh, I see myself in some of this! And then the book goes on to say, “If you’re wondering if you’re a psychopath and worrying a little about it, you’re not a psychopath.” In other words, if I know the spotlight effect can operate on me, and I don’t want it to, I have the awareness I need to short-circuit it in the future. (And not be a psychopath.)

  14. Very interesting post Angela, I hadn’t thought about the brain’s effect. I’ve been putting myself out there recently before and through the #MeToo campaign with a story I held silent for nearly forty years. The reactions have been very positive, yet the “what if” fears are there. What if my words trigger someone, what if someone’s response triggers me, what if my PTSD returns, what if people don’t believe me, what if no-one cares…It takes courage to put yourself out there and knowledge and confidence to work through how you are feeling and responding to it. It’s still a huge puzzle for me. Anyway, thank you. I look forward to reading both your co-parenting article and also the Suzie Lindau link. Most of all congrats on putting yourself out there, getting the positive response you deserve, figuring out how it was impacting you, and sharing to support others.

    1. What an excellent comment! Thank you. I’m proud of us both for putting truth out there. Only then can it set us, and others, free. Maybe the fear never really ends. But maybe that’s part of the good stuff. I want to make friends with that fear as a companion–a thing I consult but am not ruled by. That’s my hope for myself anyway.

  15. I don’t know if I could survive a featured post… lol! I participated in a plus sized beauty pageant years ago. Something went wrong with the scoring and people ended up getting pretty heated. I almost won first place due to this mistake (but not second or third, it was odd) and weeks afterwards people came up to me to talk about the mistake and commiserate. It was very strange! I didn’t even think about how competing would put me in the spotlight… every time I saw someone glance and my direction and whisper I wondered are they talking about the pageant? When they most likely were looking at someone behind me or something else just as innocent! Congratulations though, how wonderful to be featured!

    1. This spotlight thing–and particularly when you are LITERALLY in the spotlight of a beauty pageant really is powerful! I’ve learned so much from you and others who have commented, sharing your own experiences. I feel empowered by the fact that this is a universal effect, but one that we can overcome.
      And thank you! It was wonderful. I hope it happens again someday–even with the challenges I might face as a result. nothing comes without some consequences. It can’t all be unicorns and rainbows as they say. But, the goods outweighs the bad when we put ourselves out there with an authentic wish to contribute.

      1. I appreciate your inspiring words here and this whole post. Someday I am going to give submitting my work a go and it’s important to know what to expect! We always think we know and then… ah but it’s nice to know this feeling has a name no matter what the situation 🙂

  16. Fascinating insight Angela. I also suspect it’s working very hard on people with low self esteem and confidence. An expectation that all eyes are looking and waiting to hit troll. Probably at work in cognitive dissonance too.

    My biggest floorshow was getting into the top science journal Nature. After that colleagues were different and envy (perceived and otherwise) was rife… it can alter how you feel too. Pride is well up there during the process, and after it can affect many things. Most of them I think we self create too. Own worst enemy territory.

    1. Absolutely. I think the perception/reality part is the killer. Truly, who am I to think anyone is REALLY putting me on a pedestal? But when I consider how I react to people who’s work I admire, I do have a little of that sense like, “they must be perfect.” And that puts undo pressure on them. We all fail. We all fall. Don’t envy the success of others–that’s a key learning in my life. That success has it’s positives and negatives, just as it would for me. The big opportunity is to appreciate the moment, not dwell to much contemplating our navel’s and get back out there!

      1. Very true, with me success has a habit of raising the bar too next time. I know that’s not a good thing to do either. Each project is different and separate. You point about looking at others work and considering it perfect is also a good one. That can really impact self doubt too. It’s an important lesson to realise it’s not healthy. I must take heed more!

    1. One thing I’m learning (or trying to learn) is to encourage in myself and my kiddo, that shining is wonderful. But it’s like a flashlight, it lasts and then it turns off. It’s not supposed to be forever. It’s not what sustains us or defines us. It’s good to get the accolades, it’s equally good to just do the work. How does your school help the kids who shy away?

  17. Ummm… I feel like this post was meant to be – it happened for a reason. Again, your words touch me and I can easily relate to them. Maybe they will even help me through the next few days.

    The term “spotlight effect” is perfect – and explains this phenomenon well. I enjoyed reading and learning about this “elf” through your post and the link you shared. I, unlike you, have always been self-conscious. But more than that, I’m always observing others – trying to gather what they’re thinking about, feeling, or experiencing. Maybe this exacerbates the effect.

    Either way, I love this post of yours – it came at the perfect time. I also love your transparency and your willingness to share your beautiful thoughts, wisdom, and words.

    1. I definitely feel like I’m always observing and trying to think about how others are experiencing the world. I think that’s empathy! And you have it in abundance-which is awesome.
      It’s when I over-index into my perception of what others are thinking, rather than being true to myself, that I get in trouble. Normally, I trust myself and my perceptions. I feel true in my own intent and committed to making things right if they go wrong. I think that’s my definition of “self-confident” vs “self-conscious.”
      You’re ability to empathize and commitment to doing what’s right will always steer you right. I’ve no doubt of that!
      Trust your instincts. You’ll know just what to do. Even if a weird period hits, it won’t be long lasting. 🙂

  18. Of all the bloggers that I connect with, you are really the most deserving to have been “Discovered”. But I also understand the spotlight feeling and feeling vulnerable. I had my own much smaller spotlight moment yesterday…I had been asked to speak at my school’s Commemoration Day to mark 40 years of co-education, as both the first girl to go through the school and the chair of the alumni committee. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t standing on a stage in the town’s theatre speaking to a packed auditorium!! The students who stood up before me spoke of 100 years of women having the vote, equality and diversity…eek, maybe my memories and quips were too informal. For an hour or so after, I was inundated by students (who I hadn’t been able to see as I was blinded by the stage lights) coming to ask me questions…..hmmm maybe this should be a blog post!!

    1. IT SHOULD DEFINITELY BE A BLOG POST! I’m shouting because I’m so excited. 🙂
      What an incredible experience! And no doubt the audience found so much value in your authentic “quips” and stories.
      Oh gosh, I’m certain it was awesome to experience–for both you and the audience. I would feel cheated if you didn’t share the tale.
      I’d also be interested in what the aftermath felt like. Did the “glow” of the spotlight last for a day or two or more? Or did you just want to retreat and hope people forgot about it? I just plain can’t wait to learn more.

  19. Congratulations on your ‘discovery.’ And thank you for sharing your feelings about it. I have felt like that before when something momentous happened in my mind. The bottom line is, people don’t think about me much and my little ‘splash’ didn’t creat much of a wave in the big ocean of life. But It is good to do your own personal celebration of your accomplishments and revel in the spot light. Well done! – Molly

    1. So true. I actually find it so comforting in a weird way to put it into perspective like that. “You’re not that Great” is a book by Daniel Crosby and it really makes the case for why it’s actually wonderful to realize all that the”specialness” we thought we needed to have and be is illusory. But that needn’t be discouraging. It’s actually freeing. We can do great things, but so can everyone else. We’re all part of this great big ocean. Every drop matters as part of the whole, but no one drop will ever BE the ocean, no matter how large.
      And yet, just as you say–it’s still pretty cool to be seen and heard and know that, if but for a brief moment, I touched another life.

      1. That sounds like an interesting book, Angela. I think the freedom that ensues from recognizing our place in the big picture is letting go of ego. The frees us to be more authentic and to celebrate the accomplishments of others, without jealousy or fear it detracts from us. That is a beautiful place to be emotionally. -Molly

  20. Thanks for the shout, Angela! Congratulations again!!!

    You’re right about the self-conscious, spotlight issue. Once I become paranoid, my thoughts start looping in a negative way. It takes a ton of effort to break out of it!

  21. You are such an amazing writer and you should never doubt yourself. I’ve had the spotlight effect for many things but never knew it was called that. The giant zit on my cheek, when I had bells palsy, anything that I was overly worried about. Congrats on the discovery! You deserved it!

    1. Thank you! I think it helps to have a name for the thing for some reason. Being able to say, “That’s the old spotlight effect again…” seems like it makes things easier. Like naming Voldemort, Voldemort if you know what I mean.

  22. Angela, such a delightful, positive post. So enjoyable. Congratulations, wishing you continued success.

      1. I took a bit of an impromptu break from blogging, but came back about 3 weeks ago (slowly, easing myself back in), so I’m now playing catch-up and seeing what I’ve missed 🙂

          1. Well it’s honestly so lovely to have been missed/thought of! What a heart-warming sentiment 🙂 I am glad to be back and making some progress on the blogosphere once again!

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