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What is it about the spotlight we fear so much?
So many of us claim to want to stand out from the crowd, but when the time comes for the blinding light of attention to shine directly on us, we freeze.
We cower, we sweat, we shake, we choke on our words, forget to breathe, or worse yet, we run away.
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. I’m sure anyone reading this that has experience on an actual stage under a real spotlight could assure me of these exact responses from those in the hot seat, but I’m just speaking of attention in the general sense. The spotlight of acknowledgment we appear to crave, yet shy away from when it counts.
When I was young, I used to get made fun of a lot.
I honestly can’t even remember why anymore. I wasn’t a stand-offish loner or really that weird, but nevertheless, for whatever reason, I would get singled out just for being my goofy self. I didn’t understand why some people found me to be nice and funny while others found me annoying and strange. But, as we learn in our later years, such is life.
I remember the feeling of being stared at and judged, of being looked down on and my opinions dismissed simply because they were mine. I hated it. And I hated the people who made me feel that way when I knew that there wasn’t anything special about them, either. They were just kids picking on kids, trying to get a laugh from whoever happened to be standing there.
Little did they or I know at the time, but those moments of being singled out and put down would shape how I came to interact with the world and the people in it.
Knowing that a few people found me funny at that time, I leaned into that — hard.
I knew that you couldn’t truly hate someone who just made you laugh, so I began shaping the way I spoke and behaved an acted in general and became the funny kid instead of just that kid. I wanted to be seen as someone good for a chuckle, not merely a dismissible loser.
Over time, I made some more friends and was able to essentially camouflage myself against the rest of my peers by being seen as just another kid. Albeit in my young, desperate mind, definitely funnier.
I had to be. What else did I have? It was my only defense against being cast out of normalcy and back into Losersville. Eventually, he attention normally pointed at me started to fade and be aimed elsewhere into the lives of some other unfortunate preteen souls.
Kids don’t realize how much their actions against their peers will shape those people later in life. How could they? Nevertheless, as adults, it’s clear as day just how much the core of who you are was molded in those early years.
That incessant need to be funny, be clever, or be seen as “good” weird instead of “bad” weird, has followed me throughout my entire life. It’s with me to this day. It’s in the things I say, the way I act, and in the things I write about. Those roots have dug their way into every aspect of my life and have guided me to be sitting in this chair right now, typing these words. Not that this article is particularly funny or unique in some way, but the quest of being seen as a “writer” itself has definitely sprung from those early seeds.
I can see how much those lost days influenced my current reality just based on the nature of writing. It allows you to expose just enough of yourself without being directly in the spotlight. Without being literally stared at and judged by people in real life, but still able to be seen as creative. It’s obvious now why I never actually tried doing stand-up comedy. I think I subconsciously knew it was too similar to the days when I would be singled out and made to feel so low. I dreamt of the positive attention and affirmation of my witty nature, but I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t handle the work and rejection that comes with it.
Writer, though? Well, that’s no big deal. You can sit behind a screen, write things people will like, and not have to face the biting rejection of in-person disapproval. You still get to be seen as a “creative” and “artistic” type without actually having to risk that much. I may not have been conscious of these things when I started doing what I’m doing, but it’s pretty obvious the older I get.
Do I regret my decision to be a writer? Not really. I’m good at it and it’s more my speed anyways. All those years of trying to be this extroverted funnyman eventually caught up to me. I realized how much of an introvert I actually was and had just been lying to myself for so long because of the idea of what I thought would be more accepted by others. I can still tap into that side of myself, as by this point it’s a pretty finely tuned and integral part of my personality, but I don’t let it dominate my life like I used to.
Why am I drudging up all this blast-from-the-past harassment?
Should I just back up, throw a “Dear Diary” at the beginning of this article, and tuck it away under my bed?
No, nothing so self-flagellating.
I’m merely trying to expose my own reasons for being wary of attention and being under the spotlight so others might see their own reasons for being afraid of their potential as well.
When you’re that young, it doesn’t feel good to stand out too much. Not in the same way it might later on in life when it feels more empowering than overwhelming to be a distinct individual. When you’re young, you want to fit in, be accepted, and feel safe and supported among your peer group. You may not be able to articulate that desire or even be fully aware of it, but it’s there.
You don’t realize how much more potential you have as your own person because you got all the validation you felt you needed by fitting in with others.
Fast forward to adulthood, and what do we do? We shy away from the bright lights of opportunity and potential without even realizing we’re doing it.
Although those are primarily more concerned with people who assume everyone is always thinking about them negatively, I can imagine those people would most likely see a spotlight moment as more of a death sentence than an opportunity for growth.
We have a bad habit of sabotaging ourselves and blaming some external circumstance so we’re let off the hook for our fear of change and our reluctance to step into our true nature.
Have you ever made an excuse to not do something you know would be beneficial to you simply because it would mean an end to your comfort? I’m sure you’ve at least seen someone who has.
People do it all the time. It’s easy to spot when you’re on the outside. You see a perfect opportunity for someone you know to evolve in some fundamental way and they side-step the spotlight with excuses because that light is simply too bright for them.
It’s lonely in that light. Ask a comic. But being on a stage isn’t the only place that light exists.
Maybe it’s a new job opportunity you’re scared of because it means moving to a new city. Or stepping up to be the one people look to in a crisis. Sometimes situations call for a leader and there just isn’t anyone standing out as a dependable source of comfort and direction. Sometimes that spotlight is empty, and you know that you have to be the one to step into it.
Those moments are scary, and for good reason. They’re real. They expose you to the world and to yourself. They show you who you really are under the pressure of being truly seen.
It’s easy to shy away from moments like that. It almost feels like the natural option. Everyone else is standing outside the light, aren’t they? It’s safe here in the static of the crowd, and that light will strip you naked.
I don’t say this as if every big moment in your life has to be some epic Shakespearean monologue bellowed into the shadowed audience of the people in your life. For the most part, no one gives a shit what you do with yourself.
If anything, people secretly like seeing failure. It means they don’t have to feel as bad for not stepping up themselves.
Oh, they failed? Okay, good, I’m not going to try either because being a failure looks like it suuucks.
No, I say this because we all have areas of our lives where we aren’t measuring up simply because we’re scared of the attention. We don’t like the feeling of being singled out or looked down upon as incompetent, so we don’t even try. Forget the fact that struggle and failure is what builds character and keeps you humble on your way to real personal evolution. No, being looked at feels itchy so let’s not even try on that cactus sweater. Into the trash it goes.
Just think about your own life.
In what areas are you avoiding the spotlight? Where in your daily life are you admittedly not looking into that area because you know how hard it is to step into that role?
Are you shirking an opportunity for advancement at work because of the responsibility it entails?
Are you not sending out a resume to that one company because they might reject you?
Are you not submitting your art into that contest because you don’t want to feel like a worthless time-waster if you’re rejected?
Are you not stepping into the role of leader when it comes to your family? Your children? Maybe your friend group who can’t seem to figure out how to get eight adults together for dinner or a vacation?
Someone’s got to be that person. Someone always has to be the one to step up. And sometimes that person has to be you.
Many of these spotlight moments aren’t even ones that expose who you are but are merely ones that take you out of the comfort zone of what you’re used to. They’re not all life or death.
They’re not all shithead kids pointing and laughing and daring you to change their mind about you.
I’m aware of the fact that for me, that’s how it feels to be in the spotlight of any given situation. Like I’m being singled out and exposed all over again. I’m aware of this, but over time I’ve also developed the tools handle it.
Tools like responsibility, discipline, and staying true to myself in all of my absurdist, weirdo glory.
Despite the origins of what shaped my knack for serving reluctant chuckles with a hefty side of eye-rolls, it’s still a fundamental part of who I am that was merely inflated by my pre-teen survival instinct. Trading it for the burden of normalcy would be a psychological death for me, which I would in turn most likely want to trade for a literal one.
I know any childhood anxieties I may feel about stepping into that spotlight are merely my excuse for not being who I know I am when it counts.
That being said, what’s yours?
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. — Marianne Williamson