One of the worst over-thinking traps I tend to fall into involves giving compliments to strangers. See, my view of justice requires giving credit where credit's due to the good as much as to the bad. The more important a quality is to me, the more necessary it becomes for me to acknowledge that quality in another person. Since personal beauty and style are quite high on my list of values, I am an avid compliment-giver. Cute shoes, nice dress, great cufflinks, whatever. Comments like these used to roll off my tongue with ease. Until one day when I started thinking...
I was riding the elevator to my office with a woman who had on a fabulous headband. "I love your headband!" I piped up with my usual alacrity. The woman slowly turned her eyes toward me, looked me up and down, and cautiously drawled "Thhaaanks."
Now, technically she did say "thanks," and maybe that was all there was to it, but what I heard was "I'd really rather not be complimented by a girl with no makeup on who couldn't even be bothered to straighten her hair this morning. Please don't suggest that we have anything in common as human beings."
Ever since, the urge to give a compliment has a triggered a cascade of self-criticism. I see a nice pair of shoes and my brain goes "Oooh, cute shoes. I should tell her. Wait, do I have cute shoes on? What if I say I like her shoes, but she thinks my shoes are gross and wishes I didn't like hers? Maybe my shoes are ok, but what about my outfit? Her shoes are pretty funky, but my outfit is pretty conservative. Maybe she will think her shoes are boring because I look boring. But then I have weird earrings, so maybe she will think her shoes are too weird because my earrings are too weird. Maybe I look fat today and she won't want to be seen talking to a fat girl. Oh my God, what if she's actually an alien and my entire standard of beauty doesn't apply to her? What if...."
And so on, until I realize that I've been standing on the street corner for ten minutes, the cute shoes are long gone, and I look like a crazy person talking to myself (the kind of crazy person you *definitely* would not want complimenting your shoes.)
Yesterday, while studying in a coffee shop, a very nice but somewhat awkward young woman came up to me and complimented my vest. She wasn't exactly badly dressed, but she was far from my fashion ideal. She asked where I had purchased it, and I was forced to publicly admit that I had gotten it from a pile of crap my mom gave me and that it had probably been purchased at T.J. Maxx during the 90s. I had to say this in front of two other women who were very skinny and wearing a lot of makeup and who obviously did not get their clothes from their parents' garage. I think they lingered for almost an hour just so they could make me feel inferior by contrast.
So even though the compliment was very nice and seemed like exactly the kind of compliment I would give, the entire experience was traumatic and made me never want to give or receive compliments ever again.