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.)