On dancing ’cause nobody’s watching: The Spotlight Effect

“I’m not much of a dancer.” That’s what I say anytime the prospect of dancing comes up. In part it’s a way to discourage the invitation to dance, but it’s also a warning if ever the opportunity to dance simply can’t be avoided, a way to reduce or even decimate expectations regarding my dancing abilities.

I’m just way too self-conscious about it. I’ve even taken classes to give myself more confidence but, though I can occasionally let go if I’m with people with whom I feel completely comfortable, I’m generally stuck in my head the minute it’s time to hit the dance floor.

Thing is, I can’t imagine many people would give a good god damn that I’m a not so great dancer. And then there’s the fact that most people aren’t even looking; they’re focused on their own dancing, or that one guy who’s unusually good, maybe—but me? Why in hell would they be watching me?

Y’know that saying, “Dance like nobody’s watching”? Well, fact is, that’s actually most dancing. ’Cause, really, nobody’s watching. Nobody cares.

There was actually a study that proved this a while back. If I remember correctly (and, no, I’m not looking it up ’cause, know what, look it up yourself), they’d give a study participant one of two T-shirts to wear, either a T-shirt for a really lame musical artist that would be sure to embarrass most people, or a shirt for a super cool band, then they sent the people into a waiting room with a bunch of other randos.

Now, afterwards, they asked the participant wearing the lame shirt how she felt, and she reported feeling embarrassed and self-conscious and even a bit stressed. The one wearing the cool shirt, however, felt really confident and happy. Then they asked the other random people in the waiting room what they thought of the two participants and their respective shirts . . . and no one had even goddamn noticed what either of them was wearing.

Or something like that.

The point is, we think people notice and care about what we wear/look like/do/achieve/think/feel way more than they actually do, but most people are too busy worrying about what you think about their own shirt to notice what you’re wearing.

It’s called the Spotlight Effect, and it leads us to believe that everyone notices those little things we’re self-conscious about, that they’re aware of these things and have passed judgement—always negative—on them and on us.

Bad hair day? Everyone will notice and judge you for that cowlick. Zit? Yes, even the cab driver saw it and thinks it’s super gross and wonders why you haven’t outgrown those things by now. Had to admit you don’t know what kimchi is to that dude you were flirting with? Yeah, he thinks you’re an idiot and you’ll likely die alone.

Funny thing is, if people were actually judging us the way we fear, we’d likely dismiss their opinion out of hand since, well, it’s pretty damn rude to judge someone that way. Think about it, you’re sitting in the waiting room wearing a Justin Bieber T-shirt (also, you’re a 30 year old man) and you are certain that the woman two seats down has noticed and thinks you’re a giant loser. So you feel embarrassed and self-conscious and cross your arms to cover Justin’s smoldering eyes and pouty lips. Now, further imagine that your fears are confirmed: you learn, with certainty, that the woman in question has indeed noticed your shirt and in fact thinks you’re an enormous loser.

What would your reaction be to that news? Do you continue feeling embarrassed, or do you think to yourself, “Wow, that woman’s really incredibly rude, and who is she to judge me, I’m a grown-ass man and she’s an adult, what is this high school, she should really just grow up, and, honestly, why should I care what a rude person like her thinks, her opinion clearly isn’t worth much at all, and certainly has no impact on my life”?

Or, y’know, something like that.

When you’re feeling self-conscious about something, whatever it is, people likely haven’t noticed, and those who have and are judging you for it simply aren’t worth worrying about.

Can’t run a marathon? No one cares. A few pounds overweight? No one cares. Never seen an episode of Game of Thrones? No one cares. And if anyone judges you for any of that, well, who cares?

It’s one of those situations where reminding yourself that no one cares about you or your little insecurities is actually empowering.

So, easy, right? I should be able to dance like nobody’s watching—’cause nobody’s watching . . . But, no, I’m sure that, the next time I’m given the opportunity to dance, I’ll feel self-conscious and mumble, “I’m not much of a dancer.” But I’ll try to be aware of it, to remind myself that there is no spotlight, that everyone else is focused on their own dancing, that no one gives a damn about my dancing. I’ll try. Try to dance ’cause nobody’s watching.

But, in the meantime, I’ll just wear my Justin Bieber T-shirt with pride. ’Cause screw that lady.