Shy people: Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance & Compliments

The words you hear don’t line up with the way you see yourself

Celine Lai
Aug 21, 2019 · 10 min read
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Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

One reason compliments can feel uncomfortable is because the words you hear don’t line up with the way you see yourself. Referred to as cognitive dissonance, it’s the phrase psychologists use to describe the inconsistencies.

Let’s say a co-worker says, “You’re so smart. You always say just the right things in your reports.”

If you don’t view yourself as a smart, competent person, hearing those words might send you into a tailspin. You’ll be left wondering whether you lack insight or the other person lacks judgement.

Quite often, this is why people respond to compliments with a justification. Saying something like, “Well I just got lucky this time,” might help relieve a little bit of the anxiety that gets stirred up when someone’s description of you doesn’t match the way you describe yourself.


Cognitive dissonance or discomfort with two or more elements of knowledge is closely allied with lack of self-esteem or thinking and feeling that one is not worthwhile or that one is flawed.

With lack of self-esteem you out-rightly reject a compliment and with cognitive dissonance you wonder and stew over a compliment, worrying over whether it is true or if there is an ulterior motive for it.

Shy people or introverts, such as myself, may also not engage with friendly people when meeting them face to face, because of cognitive dissonance.

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Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

This morning before work, I stopped at a city pharmacy to buy my medication, and the Pharmacist seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I was taken aback by his handsome beaming face and his eyes resting on me, with the utmost attention (even though he was a stranger).

How can I help you? How are you?” he asked me, and if I could be a cat with flattened ears, I would have.

I totally ignored the poor guy’s query of my welfare and with my stoniest of faces solemnly intoned that I had a script for warfarin, which I placed on the counter, while looking down at the counter or some place even further down.

He did not mind and I launched into a stodgy dialogue about getting more than one bottle at once (as my script allowed for three) and to my alarm, the nice Pharmacist said that he would just see how many tablets he had, to work out if he could fill that request.

“Oh no!” I thought with dismay, “this will cost me a fortune!”

I encountered his smiling countenance with a demand “How much will each bottle cost?”

At his advice that one bottle would cost $14.00 AUD (Australian Dollars) I looked disapproving. “I might just get one bottle then” I said.

“How much do you usually pay for them?” he had the wit to ask me, and I replied that at Chemist Warehouse I usually paid around $8 for a bottle.

Let me see what I can do” he said nicely, then after a few moments told me that he could do around $10 for each bottle and that was the least he could charge.

Instead of saying thank you, I smiled and muttered “That will be okay, I will take 2 bottles, I’ll just look around and then come back for them.”

He may have been glad to see the back of me. Belatedly while in my office, I looked back and was aghast at my stand-offish behaviour.

Why didn’t I engage in a pleasant friendly conversation to start the day off well for us both?

Wouldn’t a friendly “I am well, thank you, how are you?” be appropriate.

Here’s the rub.

I am so used to feeling “invisible” in terms of having to look after myself virtually since I was around ten years old and being over-looked in the workplaces, and being shoved aside and ignored in the community and public places, and even on-line; that I have become suspicious of people’s intentions when they are nice to me.

Cognitive dissonance fired up:

The Pharmacist asked “How are you?” and I heard “What do you want?”

( I couldn’t believe that he would actually be interested in me as a person )

Sure, I had been feeling a little extra withdrawn lately (as introverts can do) and sure, it was a cold late Winter’s day and I was thinking about my cosy bed rather than going to spend eight hours in a glass office.

However, the relaxed and receptive me, open to a genuinely friendly conversation and interaction had gone temporarily A.W.O.L

Absent With Out Leave

Who granted me “leave” to be absent from a friendly supportive interaction, which, sadly, I did not regard as “normal?”

Me. And I knew that there was a dose of irrational thinking and a pinch of low self-esteem in the mix also, because in the aftermath I began to fret big time that my friendly Pharmacist would now have a low opinion of Chinese people in general.

Now, I was born of Chinese parents in Malaya, but have lived in Western Australia for 53 years since I was a baby, as an adoptee.

Those who have worked with me and who like me, kindly say that they NEVER think of me as Asian let alone as Chinese.

Heck, I don’t even think of myself as Chinese or Asian!

I’m a Human Being, the Same as you. 😃 😃

Welllll ……. I’ll put it this way. Society has a way of putting you in your place.

Yes, it’s all very well for people to say “Life is what you make of it, you choose what happens to you,” yadda yadda… even I have written here on Medium that life is about making the best of things.

BUT, nobody is an island, and humanity is set up so that we “bounce off each other” and by that I mean, we influence each other hugely; within our families and immediate community as we grow up, and rippling out to impacts from interactions and observations while being a “worker” and / or a “member of a family / suburb / community / State / Country / certain groups” and of the Human Race.

We fulfil nominated roles and tend to compartmentalise ourselves and lock ourselves into expectations and into wrongs and rights.

We are brain-washed into trying to fulfil set ways of desirable behaviour, and that can make us renounce our true inner Selves; and attempt to please others in order to gain approval or not feel threatened.

The point is that although I am as Australian as I’ll ever be, someone will (probably) ALWAYS treat me as Asian, because I look Asian, as I learned at a young age and wrote a poem about.

So in my mind, I am the ghost of an Asian person, and my personal conscience makes me accept the mantle of “being Asian” even while my inner Self screams “No that is not who I am.”

My imagination created the vista of the man in the pharmacy telling the world “Oh I met a crummy Asian girl this morning, she was so serious and even though I asked her how she was, she just ignored me. That’s Asians for you.”

Who would have thought that filling a script would place the burden of representing Australian Asians upon me?

Rescue Remedy

Fortunately, I rescued myself by reflecting greatly, as introverts tend to do.

There’s a flower essence called “Rescue Remedy” which when applied, may alleviate anxiety and stress. It’s available at Chemist Warehouse but no, I’m not rushing out there to buy some, in order to avoid my nice Pharmacist, whom I confess, will not be seeing me for quite some time (while I assuage my guilty conscience and dive into resolving my cognitive dissonance).

Once bitten, twice shy : said when you are frightened to do something again because you had an unpleasant experience doing it the first time.

Today I was twice shy! 😢 😿 Twice I rejected niceness toward me, because I was frightened that it was not real.

The Universe has a way of presenting information and options to you.

Back at the office, later that day, I espied a friendly I.T. guy that I like and who likes me, working on the office jigsaw puzzle. It’s a communal jigsaw in the kitchen area, and together the team of puzzlers put them together.

The first thing he said as I rushed up to the jigsaw puzzle to see how much of it had been completed, was “Hi Celine, how are you?

This said with a beautiful smile and shining eyes, all for me !! Cue the camera to pan out.

Celine completely ignores his query about her welfare, and says anxiously, “Have YOU done a lot of the jigsaw?”

He gives a gentle lopsided smile, “Not really, I’m just having a look at it while I have my morning tea.”

Thinking about myself only, or mainly, as shy / introvert people may unconsciously do, I said “I’m terrible at jigsaw puzzles, I can only do them if there are like only twenty large pieces and certainly none of those with all the pieces all the same!”

In fact, the more outraged I was becoming, thinking back to those impossible jigsaws I had seen when all the pieces were the exact same shape and had huge numbers of puzzle pieces of the same homogeneous colour.

While fuming over this offence of jigsaw puzzles, I marched off.

Low self-esteem and Cognitive Dissonance, you bet!

The friendly Information Technology guy (whom I’ve known for nine years) asked “How are you? and I heard nothing, at least, I thought “Why is he asking me that?”

Rub-a-dub-dub! Two compliments (pleasantries) ignored… a Day!

My self-image of myself as an unlike-able person has arisen from decades of next to no appreciation or acknowledgement of me as a unique person and not enough appreciation and encouragement of my innate talents / skills and interests (at least that is how I view my 55 years on Earth to date).

When someone is genuinely interested in my welfare, or heaven forbid, gives me a compliment, my impulse is to “duck for cover”.

Interpret this as my ruminating or puzzling over why on Earth would someone be interested in just me?

Interpret this as my remembering my parents and adults congratulating and complimenting me on my academic studies and nothing else, as a teenager and University student and graduate.

I wanted to be a ballerina but nobody cared about what I wanted.

I wanted a bride doll but I never got it, even though my sister who was the same age as me, but not adopted, got the Doll of her dreams.

That doll was a musical doll and I’ll never forget her in her beautiful bell shaped black dress, with her face with its large dark eyes, surrounded by golden “bangs”, as she gracefully turned around to the delightful music.

I would sneak into my sister’s room when she was out and spend HOURS escaping from my abusive brothers, in that room of sanctuary for me.

If I could have swapped places with that Doll (my substitute for the Bride Doll that I badly wanted), I would have!

The point is that some of us reject people being nice to us or complimenting us, because we are not used to it, and what’s more, we are suspicious of people’s intentions.

The way to tackle low self-esteem and cognitive dissonance, I have found, is to set myself up in the first place for a new default way of Be-ing.

I have decided to adopt the following Creed of Me.

My Creed

Every Morning.

From now on, I am internalising that I am a likeable person and that I look great and approachable, and that means people (even strangers) may actually want to talk to me and be interested in my welfare.

From now on, I will be aware that I don’t have to do anything especially, but just be me; and that, as a consequence, some people may be friendly and pleasant toward me.

From now on, when someone genuinely asks me “How are you?”, I won’t let the “Other Me” chew over thoughts like “What does he really mean?” or “Why would she say that to me?”

From NOW, if I hear a compliment or a pleasantry directly made to me, I will choose to hear it as that.

It’s time to take the plunge, one-two-three, set yourself FREE.

Relax, don’t bear the World on your shoulders. Stop looking at others as ogres and stop looking at yourself as a “Has Been … “ or as a “No hoper.”

Discern if it really is only shyness or if it is “putting yourself down” when you ignore people asking you, “How are you?”

“I’m shy”:

Sure you can use this as your “Get out of Jail free” card, implying that others will know that you’re just being shy if you don’t talk to them.

But answer me this. Do you really hear what is being said? If not, then it’s time to start.

How Are You?

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Celine Lai

Written by

Trustworthy and practical, writing articles that teach you to “Honour yourself through Self-care”. Peaceful Biologist.

Thirty over Fifty

This is a forum for the “30%” of Medium writers, aged 50 years and over, to add their voices. No political stories/articles accepted, please read the Submission Guidelines. Readers & Followers of all ages are welcome to read, clap, and share Stories published here!

Celine Lai

Written by

Trustworthy and practical, writing articles that teach you to “Honour yourself through Self-care”. Peaceful Biologist.

Thirty over Fifty

This is a forum for the “30%” of Medium writers, aged 50 years and over, to add their voices. No political stories/articles accepted, please read the Submission Guidelines. Readers & Followers of all ages are welcome to read, clap, and share Stories published here!

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