Anna Piecuch

Column: Let’s talk about mental health


Think back to the last time you felt all eyes were on you. Some people crave this attention, but most likely, in the situation you are recalling, this feeling made you want to shrivel up and disappear. 

For example, you were in the grocery store and thought you didn’t need a cart, because you went in to grab two things. You decided to grab a few more items, and soon had your hands too full. You waddle to the nearest register emerging from the frozen aisle, and realize your arms are failing you, and you drop the array of groceries you held in your hands in front of the other shoppers. You freeze, looking down, and can’t bear to look back up after picking the cereal boxes and Yoplait cups off of the ground.

It’s true that we recall negative experiences from memory far faster than we can recall positive ones, which may affect how you remember  the embarrassing experience. Is this why you were more likely to think of a negative, embarrassing moment instead of a time all eyes were on you for winning an award or scoring a goal, for example?

Why is it that some people get embarrassed more often, or just more easily, than others? Is this really the case, or do we just handle embarrassment differently?

The “spotlight effect” is a belief that people pay more attention to our outward appearance and behavior than they do in reality. Maybe one or two people noticed and asked you if you were okay when you dropped things in the grocery store, but our minds tell us that all the grocery store’s customers and their mothers noticed. 

How can we gain control of this perception to handle the level of embarrassment we feel?

To start, we can work on building comfort with ourselves and our self-image, which we later inevitably use to form our estimation of others’ perceptions of us.

Gilovich et. al (2000) conducted a study in which participants had to wear an embarrassing shirt in public and estimate how many observers would recall the shirt’s obnoxious image. The large majority of participants overestimated how many people would notice they were wearing the strange shirts. They believed more people would see the shirt’s image than actually did because they allowed their own perception of the shirt they wore to influence how much of the public they believed would notice.

This study of anchoring and adjustment performed by Gilovich’s team undoubtedly reflects a common phenomenon: we are good at anchoring a self-assessment and adjusting our estimation of others’ perceptions of us based on it. 

As much as I’m working on managing my self-perception, I’ve found some tips over time that have helped me immensely. I always heard a circulating quote that stated, “The less you care, the happier you’ll be.” It’s true to an extent, for sure, although we should definitely continue to acknowledge what is morally and socially acceptable.

I would say, yes, focus on creating a positive self-perception of yourself before even considering how others see you. But that is not enough.

I recommend, as I’m sure many others would, always valuing yourself above others’ perceptions to such a degree that you don’t care at all about how they perceive you. If you are happy with you, that is the only thing that matters. This has helped me eliminate a hefty amount of perceived embarrassment from my life in recent years.

Like I mentioned, this should be done with respect to what is morally acceptable. There is still a general obligation to be considerate of others, respect commitments and to remain humble without developing too negative of a self-image.

This cannot easily be done, of course, and this is not to invalidate the experiences of many. Lots of individuals suffer with depression and anxiety, and combat mental struggles while doing their very best to develop positive self-images.

Studies conducted by Turk et. al (2001) show that people with social anxiety create negative self-impressions through imagining a self-image from perceived past social experiences. Socially phobic people feel more transparent than they actually are in public; they think everyone sees directly into their thoughts and feelings in the moment. This is known as the “illusion of transparency;” a self-explanatory concept. It goes to show that people who feel anxious inside will likely appear anxious in public.

I have learned how to deal with anxiety, and still continue to. I thought I could shove it away and out of sight, but in reality, the fear and anxiety will never fully disappear. What is in our control is how we react to such internal feelings.

A close friend texted me a poem the other day, comparing life to a play. He has hopes that it will prove to be uplifting for some:

“Life is a play on a stage seen by some, read by others. Though an act may seem like a lifetime and dread may lurk at the corner, but…

  1. It is not stagnant, life is constantly changing, you are constantly turning a chapter, daily. You are in a never ending lesson. 
  2. You get to play your role how you see fit. People came to see you, and they want you. It is your choice what you show them, it is your choice to act the way you believe you need to, feel how you need to feel in the moment.
  3. You are capable, very much so, and brilliant, hence why you’re on stage.
  4. Your actions influence others, so be mindful and kind.”

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