The Spotlight Effect and Social Anxiety

Not Everyone Is Staring at You

The spotlight effect is experienced as part of social anxiety.
Getty / Yuval Navot / EyeEm
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

The spotlight effect is a term used by social psychologists to refer to the tendency we have to overestimate how much other people notice about us. In other words, we tend to think there is a spotlight on us at all times, highlighting all of our mistakes or flaws, for all the world to see.


For people with social anxiety, the spotlight effect can be much worse, to the point that it has an effect on your ability to work or feel comfortable around other people. It is not uncommon to find yourself feeling embarrassed. However, for people with social anxiety, this feeling can be overemphasized.

For example, if you wake up late and go to work with disheveled hair, you may be convinced that everyone is noticing and secretly thinking badly of you. You may blush or try to hide from your coworkers, convinced that they are pitying or mocking you.

It is believed that the spotlight effect comes from being overly self-conscious as well as not being able to put yourself in the shoes of the other person to realize that their perspective is different from yours.

Impact of Spotlight Effect

All people, but especially those with social anxiety, are very focused on themselves, their actions, and their appearance and believe that everyone else is just as aware. Being aware of the spotlight effect can help to lessen nervousness or embarrassment in social situations.

If you can get to the point that you realize nobody is really paying attention to you, then you will stop worrying so much about it. However, for those with social anxiety, it can be much more difficult to recognize this fact and overcome anxiety linked to the spotlight effect. 

Social anxiety is much more than just nervousness. It reflects differences in brain activity and reactions to your environment. With social anxiety, you may know that your feelings are irrational, but you can't change how you feel.


The spotlight effect can be debilitating if you have social anxiety, making every situation more fear-inducing and intimidating. However, symptoms of social anxiety, including the spotlight effect, can be treated with a combination of therapy and medications.

Cognitive behavioral therapy with a therapist specializing in social anxiety can help you correct your negative thought patterns.

Some medications, such as antidepressants, may be prescribed to help you ward off feelings of dread, helplessness, and doubt. You can also practice exercises learned in therapy to help you manage your daily activities, giving you more confidence and fewer feelings of embarrassment. 


One way to work on overcoming the spotlight effect is to test your belief that other people are noticing and evaluating you. To do this, it's helpful to understand a concept identified through research termed the "illusion of transparency," which asserts that people tend to think that their internal state is visible to others when it truly is not.

You can overcome the spotlight effect by focusing your attention outward and noticing other people's reactions to you. This will both help you to stop focusing inward on your anxiety, as well as notice how little other people are actually paying attention to you.

While it may feel as though everyone knows what you are thinking about yourself, in actuality nobody has this ability to read your mind. Once you can see that people really are all caught up in their own situations, it will become easier to imagine that the spotlight is not shining on you and highlighting your flaws.


A 1999 study showed that the spotlight effect was specific to social-evaluative concerns whereas the illusion of transparency was related to more general social anxiety. This suggests that in situations in which you perceive that you are being evaluated, or where there is pressure for others to like you, the spotlight effect may be more of a concern.

A Word From Verywell

If you find yourself grappling with nervousness or shame on a regular basis, talk with a therapist or your doctor to discuss potential treatment options, including talk therapy and medication. With intervention from a trained professional, you can be empowered to manage social anxiety and lead a richer life.  

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jackson B, Compton J, Thornton AL, Dimmock JA. Re-Thinking Anxiety: Using Inoculation Messages to Reduce and Reinterpret Public Speaking Fears. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(1):e0169972. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169972

  2. De caso I, Poerio G, Jefferies E, Smallwood J. That's me in the spotlight: neural basis of individual differences in self-consciousness. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017;12(9):1384-1393. doi:10.1093/scan/nsx076

  3. Vriends N, Bolt OC, Meral Y, Meyer AH, Bögels S, Wilhelm FH. Does self-focused attention in social anxiety depend on self-construal? Evidence from a probe detection paradigm. J Exp Psychopathol. 2019;7(1):18-30. doi:10.5127/jep.041514

  4. Mangolini VI, Andrade LH, Lotufo-neto F, Wang YP. Treatment of anxiety disorders in clinical practice: a critical overview of recent systematic evidence. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2019;74:e1316. doi:10.6061/clinics/2019/e1316

  5. Carlson EN, Oltmanns TF. The Role of Metaperception in Personality Disorders: Do People with Personality Problems Know How Others Experience Their Personality?. J Pers Disord. 2015;29(4):449-67. doi:10.1177/1948550611430166

  6. Brown MA, Stopa L. The spotlight effect and the illusion of transparency in social anxiety. J Anxiety Disord. 2007;21(6):804-19. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.11.006

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.