Helping People Get Over the “Spotlight Effect”

Growing up with 12 siblings, 7 of which are older brothers, being physically active and spending time in an athletic setting was pretty much the norm for me.  There isn’t a gym or field in Wayne county that I haven’t been to.  When working with other people, I have to remind myself that these settings may not be included in their comfort zone.   There aren’t many people who are confident and comfortable exercising in front of others. Whether it is a physical therapy or cardiac rehabilitation patient, or a client of a personal trainer in a gym, many people can be subject to the “spotlight effect”.

Without launching into a lengthy scientific explanation, the spotlight effect is basically the feeling that everyone is looking at you.  Many of the studies that have been conducted have found that by and large we overestimate the degree to which anyone cares!  We have all fallen victim to this.  At some point or other we have found ourselves in a setting where we are less than comfortable or new and we have this sense that people are noticing everything about us, even when they aren’t.  I’m painfully reminded of this now that I have a fourth grade daughter, who I have to remind on a daily basis that all of the other 4th graders are too worried about themselves to care or notice what she is up to.

Unfortunately, this spotlight effect can be a deterrent to exercising in public or returning to an appointment or using a membership.  So, how can we help those people who might be experiencing the spotlight effect?  Here are some ideas.

  • Acknowledge it!  Once you review an individuals history or conduct an initial assessment, try to get an idea of their comfort and confidence in the setting. Let them know it’s easy to feel self-conscious but reinforce the fact that others are probably feeling the same way.  Explain to them that it goes away.
  • Develop a program or plan for them that can be done outside, at home, or in a more familiar setting.
  • Start small.  As people gain confidence they will become more comfortable.  If you can make their first couple of sessions in a more quiet, less busy area that might help.
  • Slowly introduce them to busier areas.  You might be able to start them out in a one-on-one setting and then move to a small group before taking them out and using a high-traffic “gym” type of area.
  • Enlist help. If you can get family or friends who are more active to help, have them join the client.  Having someone with them tends to have a “deflection” effect where the spotlight is shared rather than solely on them.  Similar to going to a party – who wants to go alone, right?
  • Encourage, encourage, encourage.  I can’t stress this enough. Reinforce the fact that what they are doing is not easy and that you applaud them for working hard!

So, for those of you who have lived and loved athletics, exercise, and fitness, remember that for many they may be taking a huge step outside of their comfort zone and they might need just a little extra help understanding that in the end the benefit will far outweigh the nervousness or anxiety they may be feeling at the start.

2 thoughts

  1. New York Times wrote an article at the beginning of the year discussing something very similar but in regards to those that are seen or classified as being “heavy” or “not in shape” and how they feel like people are shamming them for trying to workout. I blogged about it but the link to the article is in the first line of my blog post if you are interested in reading the article. Thanks for sharing your input! This was great!

Leave a Reply