Dear Therapist: My Co-workers Think I’m Rude, and I’m Not Sure How to Change

My supervisor isn’t allowed to give me more details for the sake of anonymity, and I don’t know how to change without changing my entire personality.

A snake wraps around a man
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I recently received some feedback at work, and I'm having trouble adjusting to it. Apparently, some of the things I do at work come off as belittling or arrogant to some of the people I work with. However, I wasn't given any information regarding what exactly I said or did to cause those feelings.

I don't want to do this to anyone, and had no idea that what I was doing was coming off this way. But I feel like without specific feedback, I can't effectively change. I asked for more information, but my supervisor (in the name of anonymity) couldn't tell me much more. As a result, I feel kind of helpless. I want to improve and be a better co-worker, but short of shutting down my personality, I don't really know what to do.

Please help me if you can.

Richmond, Virginia

Dear Anonymous,

This may sound strange, but congratulations! Your supervisor has given you the starting point for what could turn out to be the most helpful conversation not just of your career, but of your life.

Let me explain what I mean by asking you to imagine that this happened not at work, but in a marriage. As you know, in any relationship, feedback is essential. Of course, it’s human nature to prefer positive feedback, but in the strongest relationships, both positive and negative feedback—when delivered with good intentions and compassion—are welcomed, because they help us see what we’re doing right and learn how we might grow. Moreover, so-called negative feedback is actually a sign that the person values you enough to want to fix any issues.

That said, depending on how we were given feedback growing up, rather than feeling grateful that our partner wants us to stick around, what we may feel is paralyzing shame. Instead of hearing, “This will make our relationship stronger,” we may hear, “You’re a terrible, unlovable person.” Instead of hearing, “Our relationship is worth improving,” we may hear, “I want a divorce.” And when we hear it that way, we start to feel defensive or terrified or helpless. And then we think, “I don’t do that—I’m not arrogant,” or “Short of shutting down my personality, I don’t really know what to do.”

What you heard at work wasn’t criticism, but an invitation. Your supervisor wasn’t saying, “I don’t value you,” but “I value many things about you, and this issue is getting in the way, so I’m giving you the opportunity to address it.” It’s true that in a marriage, you’d get more specific details than your supervisor is permitted to share, but you can nevertheless draw on other experiences to help you think through this.

Here’s how. First, you can begin by trying to figure out what you’re doing that other people perceive as arrogant or belittling. Arrogance isn’t an inborn trait, but one that’s developed later as a way to shield ourselves from negative feelings we have. Instead of acknowledging that deep down we feel stupid or incompetent or not good enough, we project those feelings onto others. Ask yourself: Do you become impatient or short with your colleagues if they don’t understand something the first time you explain it to them? Do you tout your achievements and fail to praise others because you envy (or believe they’re less deserving of) the recognition they get? Do you feel contempt if they choose to go with another idea—one that you consider not as smart as yours? You may not share your feelings directly, but body language is powerful: sighs, grimaces, eye rolls, interruptions, “friendly jokes” at the expense of others, not giving your full attention to people “under” you by glancing at your phone while they’re making a presentation, and so on. Think about whether there are moments when you feel entitled—I’m smarter than that person; I’m more important; I know better—and how that attitude might be communicated in subtle ways.

If you don’t recognize any of these habits in yourself, ask a trusted family member or friend for feedback. You can say, “Hey, I’ve heard that sometimes I can be perceived as belittling or arrogant at work, and I want to know why. I’d really appreciate your honesty—have you ever felt that way with me, or seen me act that way with others?” And if you’re still friendly with any exes, they’d be excellent sources of information, too.

You can also do some research on arrogance and see if anything resonates. Remember that most of it won’t—you clearly have compassion and are open to changing. But something might, even in a small way, and adjusting that behavior could be helpful in setting concrete goals: I’m going to find the good in my co-workers’ ideas and present my thoughts without judgment today. I’m going to give each co-worker at least one genuine compliment every week. (This will require you to pay closer attention to what they’re doing right, not wrong.)

Finally, when one person perceives another as being arrogant or belittling, often the missing ingredient is empathy. When working with couples, sometimes I’ll say, “Before you speak, ask yourself, What is this going to feel like to the person I’m speaking to?” Even without the specific details, your supervisor is asking you to do just that.

It’s clear from your letter that you want to treat people kindly, so if you can look for whatever truth there might be in what your supervisor told you—without beating yourself up—you’ll learn something important about yourself, something that goes well beyond who you are at work. We all have blind spots, and like it or not, people tend to be pretty consistent across settings. For instance, whatever a patient does with her therapist—avoid difficult topics, elide the truth, position herself as a victim, feel easily injured or misunderstood—nine times out of 10, she does the same thing with others. And while most of us try to be our most professional, appealing selves in our workplaces, our habits and tendencies eventually become apparent. The co-worker who leaves a mess in the kitchen, or hogs the office supplies, or interrupts people during meetings probably does some version of that at home. And, in your case, if you’re inadvertently doing something that leaves people feeling belittled, now is a great time to figure out what that is. If you do, you’ll find that you’re a better person for it—at work, and everywhere else.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.