Last week, I told a friend that I had stumbled and dropped a bag of groceries in a store's parking lot earlier that day. She appeared mortified and said she would feel angry with herself if she did something like that because it's such an embarrassing experience. Honestly, that was the last thing on my mind--I just didn't want the frozen yogurt to melt.

We've all had the experience of worrying how something we said or did was perceived by others. What about those self-conscious moments when we don't contribute to a conversation for fear of sounding stupid, or when we can't think about anything but the glass of water we just knocked over at the restaurant?

The spotlight effect.

Social psychologists call this the spotlight effect, here's how it works.

When we think about how other people see us, we are anchoring their viewpoint of us to our own. Since we are all the center of our own world, it's difficult to separate from our self-conscious fears to accurately evaluate how much we're noticed by others.

Getting caught up in the spotlight effect is damaging since it will stop you from being your best self. After all, how can you focus on the important things in life when imaginary opinions and events are replaying themselves over and over in your head? It's bound to hold you back from saying and doing the things you need to do for your small business. When you think that you're in the spotlight and everyone is judging you, you'll be more likely to view things as risky, and less likely to think outside the box or challenge the status quo.

Entrepreneurs must be willing to take emotional risks, and this phenomenon prevents too many promising entrepreneurs from becoming successful leaders.

Imagine someone else in the same situation.

You may believe that being overly self-conscious is something you can't change about yourself, but that's not true. Psychologists say that there are self-distancing techniques you can use to minimize your anxiety. For instance, ask yourself what your reaction would be if someone else in a meeting asked what you may believe is a dumb question. (It's funny how most questions seem dumb only if we consider asking them ourselves.) Would you dwell on it all day or dismiss it quickly? Doing this often will help you to put things in perspective.

Stop obsessing.

The next time you worry that everyone is paying attention to something you did, ask yourself if it's only because you're obsessing about it. Just because you feel self-conscious doesn't mean anyone else is focused on you--they're too busy thinking about themselves.

Label your behavior differently.

So, you worked up the courage to approach that new prospect, and they brushed you off. You may perceive this as an epic failure, but is it really? If it happens every time, you have a problem; if it happens some of the time, it's just the cost of doing business, so don't take it personally.

Remove the labels you put on your perceived mishaps and failures. The ability to learn from true mistakes and let everything else go is a character trait of a good leader, so work on developing it the best you can.

Give the ego a rest.

Most people who see themselves in the beam of imaginary spotlights aren't actually conceited, but there is an element of self-importance going on. Don't diminish your importance, just remember that all eyes are typically not focused on you. Relax, if you don't act overly embarrassed or self-conscious--or if you don't apologize for something that doesn't merit an apology--it's likely that no one will notice the things about you that are causing your discomfort.

Add a touch of humor.

So, if you go to work with one brown shoe and one black shoe, people may notice this. Instead of sitting on your feet all day, make a joke of it. Once you get a situation out in the open, your self-consciousness about it will diminish.

Look at the flip side of the spotlight.

Given that people aren't paying attention to you as much as you may have believed, odds are they may not be as quick to notice something you do want them to notice. When you shave the beard or get a new haircut, don't be offended if others don't jump to compliment you right away. They're too busy showing off their new outfit.

Published on: Mar 26, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.