I'm an educated professional woman. I was a “sensitive” and “lonely” only child who was often praised for being “intelligent”. Being very outspoken (I didn't think of myself as rude) was also a kind of confidence-mask to hide my hidden feeling of inferiority due to my obesity (I was a fat child). However, in my late teens I realized that my actions were quite “precocious” and tried to interact with more socially acceptable behaviour – to be more myself, stop being outspoken if it hurt others, and to control my rudeness.
The problem is twofold. One is that I can't seem to control my anger and humiliation when I feel that I have been insulted. For example, if I think that a shopkeeper is not attending to me, I feel rising anger and often talk sharply (which my husband generally points out sounds very rude). I have tried very hard all these years to control the anger and felt that I had reached a point where I was just assertive about my rights and not rude. I tread on eggshells with other people and really try to watch what and why I say things. However, my interactions with people prove that the problem still exists. In my workforce I have often been called aggressive and arrogant, though I tried to be pleasant while maintaining my competency and principles. My husband says that I sound very aggressive and not assertive when I talk to others. And he MUST be right because I still seem to be rubbing people the wrong way; they often react badly, get angry, defensive, offended and find me rude and egotistical, generally leaving me mystified with their reactions.
The problem is that I want to change my behaviour but don't know what I'm doing wrong. Most often I feel that I was just demanding my rights courteously. I often ask my husband to tell me when my behaviour sounds aggressive, but when he does, I generally feel that I was in the right and not wrong. However, so many people can't be wrong. So I guess I must be. Secondly, I feel intensely humiliated over the littlest things. Feeling insulted just makes me cry and cry and get uncontrollably angry, where I say just anything to hurt the other person. However, this situation seldom arises in the workplace or personal relationships. It happens mainly during passing encounters with policemen, shopkeepers, strangers, authority figures, etc. I feel that my anger stems generally from my fear and helplessness to control the situation. But getting angry of course just worsens the problem.
I tried improving from several self-help books but the problem still exists. I guess that I have a low self esteem and fear being disliked by others. So what's the solution to 1) becoming a pleasant and likable human being (more or less), and at the same time being honest, assertive and comfortable with my own self and 2) stop feeling so humiliated and out of control of my emotions in even passing “slights”? Please tell me how I can change my behaviour to appear less aggressive to others - especially when I don't even realize at what point I start sounding aggressive.
I have a long standing friend who has battled the same problem as you, all his life. People have always reacted to him as if he was arrogant and aggressive. Sometimes, he has acted with incredible generosity -- and was resented for it.
Like you, he has a loving partner who is loyal to him. Like you, he is a high achiever.
So, let me tell you how he has improved his situation.
First, over time, with the help of friends, he noted that people reacted defensively to him even before he spoke. It was the way he held his body, the expression on his face. He studied others who projected a different message, then stood in front of a mirror, or recruited the help of his friends, and did some amateur acting: trying to school his body and face to copy his 'models'.
Then he had a bright idea. He approached some of the people who had found him most objectionable: a cousin, some of his work colleagues, a neighbor. He recruited them as helpers: asked them to give him a reminder whenever they saw him as looking aggressive and 'superior'. He would then thank them for the feedback.
This had the fortunate side-effect of converting enemies into friends.
Like you, he didn't FEEL he was aggressive or disdainful. He didn't feel he looked like that, it was just the way he was. But, over time, the new ways of holding his facial and bodily muscles became habitual. Now, he only slips back onto the old postures when he is down, or angry, or has the flu or something. Old habits do come back -- but he knows he can send them away again.
Once he had the nonverbal signals under control, he started on tones of voice and the content of his speech. He used exactly the same techniques.
You already have an excellent helper in your husband. He and you have already done an analysis of what in your communication may be causing the problem. So, become an actress, and practice doing it differently, with him as Director. Then, when you are ready, approach some of the people with whom you have had a long history of misunderstandings, and ask them to help.
Some may decline. If so, this is THEIR problem, not yours. But most people are flattered by such a request, and will be delighted to give you a little reminder when you project the wrong message.
Old habits ALWAYS feel right, even when they are wrong. New habits always feel wrong. This is just a matter of plugging away. Socrates advised:
SEEM THE MAN YOU WISH TO BE
This works. However it feels like from inside, act in a way that gets the response you want. Ignore the feelings, go for the effect. Before long, the feelings will catch up with reality.
You mentioned a second problem: you get very angry at small slights. You would be greatly helped in dealing with this if you read a copy of my book Anger and Anxiety: Be in charge of your emotions and control phobias. You can look at the first chapter here. You can buy an electronic copy here. If you want a paperback, go to http://www.zumayapublications.com/.
The kind of anger pattern you described seems to be due to an unreasonable sense of entitlement. You ARE entitled to being treated with dignity and courtesy. But you are not entitled to any more than other people. If you were my client, that would be the issue we'd work on.
Find a psychologist near you who is competent at cognitive therapy. That is the right tool for this. If you can't find a suitable person, you might want to work with me via email.
Others have beaten similar problems. Therefore you can too.