Meyer’s AP Psychology textbook defines the spotlight effect as “overestimating others’ noticing and evaluating our appearance, performance, and blunders (as if we presume a spotlight shines on us).” Learning this in psychology class confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for a long time: that no one actually cares what we do as much as we think they do.
That thought often crosses my mind when I’m at some event or another—homecoming, for example, my freshman year. I won’t pretend I wasn’t nervous coming in to ninth grade—I’d just come from a tiny Catholic school in Florissant where I’d spent the past nine years. I was new to Crossroads, new to high school, and new to U City. I cared just as much as the next guy about what other people thought of me, and of course I was constantly worrying about how I was presenting myself. How I was going to make friends. But when I went to that first homecoming and watched all the other terrified freshmen huddled in clumps in the corner of the gym, staring awkwardly at each other, silently daring someone to make the first move, all I could picture was the scene that would almost certainly occur at some point in the future.
Someday, these terrified freshmen were going to have kids, and someday those kids were going to turn fourteen and head off to their first high school dance. And they were going to say to their parental figure, “Hey, Dad, what was your first high school dance like?”
And Dad was going to have to tell them, “Well, I stood around for two hours listening to outdated Top 40 music and then went home because I was too scared of making a fool of myself to do anything else.”
Remember that thing you did when you were in middle school? You know the thing I’m talking about. The one that haunts you when you’re lying in bed on a weeknight with a bad case of insomnia, watching the numbers on your alarm clock tick past midnight and calculating the exact amount of sleep you’re going to get if you fall asleep right this second. And then, suddenly, uninvited, it hits you: that one really embarrassing thing you did that one time that you’ve never been able to forget. It invades your head like a war flashback. Maybe you called a teacher mom, maybe you tripped on the way up to the front of the room to make your AP US presentation, maybe you laughed so hard you fell out of your chair. You’re sure everyone else remembers, too, right?
Guess what? They don’t.
While that horrible, awful, embarrassing thing you did was busy burning itself into your cerebral cortex for all of eternity, chances are your classmates thought about it for maybe fifteen minutes. And then they probably started thinking about what they were going to have for lunch that day, or their unfinished math homework, or the conversation they had with their best friend last night. Even more likely: they started thinking about that embarrassing thing they did yesterday that they’re absolutely positive everyone is going to remember for the rest of forever.
You see what I’m getting at here?
Here’s the secret to having fun: every single person on this planet is way too wrapped up in their own life and their own relationships and their own problems and, frankly, their own self-image to even have time to worry about something some other person did that might have looked kind of dumb this one time. It’s as simple as that. And we forget it every day. Even if we’re not aware of it, somewhere in the back of our minds we’re constantly laboring under the delusion that we are the center of the universe.
The cover of TIME Magazine once called us “The Me Generation.” It seems a favorite pastime of the Baby Boomers is to point to selfies and Twitter and the outfit of the day hashtag on Instagram and label us—the “Millennials”—narcissistic, shallow, and self-obsessed. I think what we’re witnessing is a revolution.
We’re not supposed to like ourselves. That’s what half the American economic system is based on. How many ads do you see every day that make you feel bad about yourself? Probably hundreds—and you don’t even realize it because you’ve been trained to believe that feeling bad about yourself is normal.
That’s why the older generation laughs at teenage girls who take pictures of their outfits every day and then write meticulously crafted blog posts about them. That’s why they scoff every time a twentysomething pulls out their iPhone to take a selfie. That’s why they complain about how “entitled” we are, loudly and disgustedly claiming that only in this generation does every kid get a trophy just for showing up.
We are not supposed to be happy with who we are. The system that’s been created can’t survive when we’re confident and content and proud of ourselves. We are supposed to be relentless, unforgiving perfectionists, always striving to do better, our own worst enemies.
But despite all that, we’re figuring out that that’s no way to go through life.
This is a generation of self-love. We are slowly but surely learning to celebrate ourselves. But more importantly, we are learning to forgive ourselves. We aren’t just saying “I’m a great person despite my mistakes,” we’re saying, “I am a great person, and I wouldn’t be whole without my mistakes.” We’re saying, “Every part of me deserves love just the way it is.”
We’re saying, “I accept myself, flaws and all.”
Once you’ve said that to yourself, and really believed it, nothing and no one in this world can take it away from you.
And once you’ve learned that there’s nothing stopping you from having fun, life really starts to open up.
Eighteen years old is a prime time in your life to feel powerless. In fact, the opposite is true: we have so much power that the world is afraid of us. They are afraid of how unashamed we are.
So the next time you’re at a dance, remember that a) the world profits on you feeling bad about yourself and b) no one really cares what you do anyway, and make the biggest fool of yourself you possibly can.
And as Kevin Gnapoor so famously says in Tina Fey’s cinematic masterpiece Mean Girls, “Don’t let the haters stop you from doing your thang.”