Our lives today are always guided by what the others perceive of us. Picture this: You change your outfit three times before leaving the house. On your way to work, you stumble upon a tiny rock and save yourself from tripping. You feel the presence of eyes, as though everybody is paying attention to your every move. You sit on your desk, ready to begin your day when you are ushered for a team meeting. Your colleagues and seniors discuss a new project, while a brilliant idea strikes you. Then your mind goes into a tug-of-war, the internal debate of when to raise your hand. However, your tentativeness makes you miss multiple opportunities, and your idea remains unaddressed. As you reach back home and unwind, you spend hours editing your favourite ‘selfie’. Just so you can post it on Instagram along with multiple rounds of consulting several of your closest family and friends before posting a singular picture. In each of these situations, there is a single thought running in your mind: “What will ‘people’ think?”
Psychology suggests the ‘Imaginary Audience’ to describe the phenomenon in which an individual believes that multitudes of people are continually listening to or watching them. This is significantly present in adolescence when individuals may perceive ‘life to be a constant performance’. Researchers such as Fridlund conducted a study and proved that individuals tend to smile more irrespective of the degree of happiness when watching the same video in others’ presence rather than alone. The rise in technology and digital communication has enabled information to travel across the globe with a single click of a button. With this media-saturated society, the ‘imagined audience’ phenomenon has spread away from the physical and verbal realm, and now primarily exists digitally on social media platforms.
Communication on social media platforms, alters the size, cues and composition of the audience, making it ‘imagined’ rather than determining the ‘actual’ audience. Blurring the lines between public and private life for today’s youth social networking sites (SNS) have been claimed as their space, irrespective of the large audience. Studies conducted on ‘Facebook’ suggest that an individual’s friends list’ consists of more acquaintances and strangers than actual friends. Research suggests, interviews conducted with teenagers proved that strangers online is not the concern due to anonymity. However, being watched by close family and friends on SNS is where they fear being evaluated. This involves the risk of revealing intimacy and embarrassment among peers. Another such study conducted with individuals between the ages of 12-18 found that the more the children use social media, the more conscious they are about their imaginary audience.
Similarly, the imagined audience has taken a new dimension through social media platforms. Students go through hours of debate and contemplation before posting a single picture on Instagram and Twitter, with the fear of being evaluated and judged. “How many likes will my picture receive? Does this determine my popularity? Will people think I’m pretty?”
Social anxiety is one such disorder which may lead to similar feelings of being judged or evaluated. Social anxiety or social phobia refers to feelings of fear, anxiety and avoidance of social situations, interfering with one’s daily routine. Feelings of shyness or discomfort do not cause social anxiety. The emotional and behavioural symptoms associated with the disorder include an intense fear of interaction, and being judged, worrying about the embarrassment and physiological symptoms. These symptoms involve sweating, trembling and increased heart rate. There is a strong correlation between the phenomenon of ‘imagined audience’ and the disorder of social anxiety/phobia’ as one feeds into the other. However, feeling an imagined audience’s presence is natural human tendency does not mean the individual suffers from social anxiety.
Do you often feel that you must always put on a ‘show’ to impress others? Do you think you are being watched and evaluated at every step? Here are a couple of ways to overcome the imaginary audience:
Let go of the egotistical belief. The idea of being ‘watched’ stems from an ego which creates a false reality. Remind yourself that the simple truth lies in the fact that people are preoccupied with themselves. Their own ‘imaginary audiences’ to be judging you. Therefore this freeing perspective will allow you to grow individually.
Accept yourself before pleasing others. It is easy to give into people-pleasing behaviour, however, prioritize yourself. Work on your own goals and focus your energy on achieving them before worrying about others. Once you start accepting and loving yourself, the imaginary audience will subsequently diminish.
Question your thoughts. Each time you are in a situation where you feel ‘embarrassed’, take a step back and question your feelings. Ask yourself: ‘In how long the viewer will forget this? What impact has it made on the bigger picture? What would I have thought if I were in their position?” Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and answer questions from their perspective.
As human beings, we are born with a certain sense of ego within us. Natural tendency often causes us to focus and worry more about what other ‘people’ will think, rather than ourselves. Even as adults, are you ever susceptible to this fantasy even during a harmless walk down the street? In today’s world, where each one strives for the ‘perfect image’ we must ironically, reinforce imperfections. Children and teenagers being brought up in our society, grow more insecure and self-conscious in the real and virtual world. The next time you find yourself over-thinking each step in public, or each ‘like’ on social media, regain your self-confidence and remember that this audience is merely imaginary.