The psychological trick to ending your rage on the road

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Photo: Irish Typepad/Flickr

“Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Remember the last time you were running late and then suddenly were stuck behind someone driving 20 under the speed limit?

Did you begin to swear out loud? Did you honk your horn? Did you speed around them, flip them the bird, and then cut them off just to prove your point?

If you take a step back, you can almost see the hilarity in our behavior behind the wheel. I mean, can you ever imagine acting this way in any other facet of life?

Can you imagine acting like that at work? Or with your friends? Or with your partner?

There’s only one other arena in our lives where we act so insane: online forums. If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen innumerable senseless comments that no one in the right mind would ever make anywhere else.

Well, this is us while driving.

I don’t know what it is about driving that causes us to behave this way, but what I do know is that we are miserable as a result.

I mean, do you know anyone who looks forward to the annoyance, anger, and hatred we often feel while driving?

If you did, you might seriously question their sanity.

I don’t think any of us would honestly say our lives are better off because of the intense negative emotions we feel while, say, driving to work each day. It’s not like those negative emotions somehow put us in a good mood.

And, besides that, our rage makes our passengers miserable and puts our and other people’s lives in jeopardy because our actions are ruled by blind emotion rather than rationality

It’s also completely pointless.

Even if we assume that our honking, swearing, and crude hand gestures are interpreted correctly by the other driver (which is unlikely), do you actually think they’re going to change their behavior?

Let me put it this way: when’s the last time you changed your driving behavior after someone flipped you the bird?

Never ,right? And if we don’t change, that means no one else does, either.

Here’s the bleak summary: road rage makes you and others miserable and benefits nothing.

If we measure the quality of our lives by our moment-to-moment experiences, it’s pretty clear that road rage is adding a net negative value to our lives.

So, how can we free ourselves from this pointless negativity?

I think we need to do at least three things.

1. We need to understand the story we’re telling ourselves about driving;

2. We need to tell ourselves a new story that is more compelling than our current story; and

3. We need to develop a habit that reminds us of the new story as often as possible.

The same old story

What kind of story are you telling yourself when you get behind the wheel of a car?

For me, my old story had two main parts: expectations and judgements. Allow me to explain.

Expectations

Every time I hopped behind the wheel of a car, I had the unspoken expectation that my drive would be free of misfortune, annoyance, and hindrance.

Pretty realistic, right?

Inevitably, my expectations would be shattered by a driver cutting me off, being stuck in slow-moving traffic, or being stopped by a train. And when my expectations were broken, I became frustrated and angry, and sometimes even hateful.

What I wanted was for my journey to be within my control; but what I got was mostly a feeling of helplessness. Then, I rebelled against that helplessness with all the fury I could muster.

Judgements

Whenever I drove, it seemed like all the other drivers were out to get me. I felt like people were impeding my way on purpose and with spite.

As a result, I’d be constantly making judgements. Maybe some of these sound familiar to you:

That guy cut me off because he’s a careless asshole.

That lady is driving slowly because she doesn’t give a damn about anyone else on the road.

Whenever another driver impeded my progress in any way, I saw their actions as having moral implications. My resulting self-righteous outrage was because I felt like I had been wronged and I demanded satisfaction, like in the pistol-fighting sense.

Is your story similar to mine?

What are your expectations when you drive? Do you take offence when people “get in your way”?

Knowing your own story is a key to breaking out of the habit of road rage.

A new, better story

When I started to create a new story about driving, I realized that I had to address both the expectations and judgements of my old story.

The challenge in creating a new story is that I couldn’t lie to myself. I had to tell a true story that nevertheless made me less angry while I drove.

This is my story.

Expectations

Do you ever feel like your anger is the result of traffic not bending to your will?

For me, it can be frustrating how helpless I am on the road. I think, if only I was in control of the situation — of the other drivers, of the traffic lights, of the speed limit — then everything would be better.

The problem is, this is a fantasy. I will never be in control of those things. I will never be able to “fix” whatever I think is broken about my driving experience.

Neither will you.

I’m sure you know by now that your drives rarely go without a hitch; but what else do you know? You know that people drive a little chaotically. You know that the traffic lights aren’t going to turn green just as you reach them. You know there is a risk of being stopped by a train whenever you cross a train track.

Does it matter if you acknowledge that your drive will probably not be as smooth as physically possible?

For me, changing my expectation of my driving experience has helped me to deal with unpleasant situations as they arise, which is basically every time I drive. I realized that it made no sense to continue to have an unrealistic expectation about driving that was broken every time I got behind the wheel. It just didn’t seem wise.

My advice: consciously change your expectations of driving to something more realistic.

Judgements

Have you ever noticed that the judgements we make about other people on the road are simply guesses? And, have you noticed that when we do make those guesses, we tend to assume that people are being malicious?

The fact is, we have no idea why other people behave the way they do on the road.

But, we do have a clue as to why we tend to judge other people so critically. Research has shown (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/23/511164613/do-you-suffer-from-illusions-of-moral-superiority) that we tend to exaggerate our own superiority compared to others, especially when it comes to moral superiority. And we get a boost of self-esteem whenever we perceive ourselves as better than others.

This bias in thinking we are superior to others makes it easy for us to feel like we are “in the right” and that other drivers are “in the wrong.”

When we rage on the road, we are allowing this bias to determine how we see the world, which in turn causes us to feel anger and hatred toward others that’s often, let’s face it, unjustified.

For example, let’s re-imagine the examples given above:

That guy cut me off because he’s in a rush and stressed out just like I am. Also, that kind of driving puts him at a higher risk of making a mistake and causing an accident, and, whether he hurts himself or someone else, he will have to live with those consequences. It is likely his behavior will ultimately cause him suffering of one form or another.

That lady is driving slowly because she’s elderly and uncomfortable behind the wheel. She is driving to the pharmacy to pick up her medication only because she has no one else in her life to run this errand for her. She is scared to be out on the road, which is why she’s driving slowly.

The key to these stories is compassion. When you put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re judging, you realize quickly that they are simply being human. Sometimes humans rush. Sometimes humans are scared. Sometimes humans make mistakes.

But that’s not just other people; that’s us, too.

So, this is my new story about driving:

My journey is going to be messy. Other people are going to act aggressively, drive too slowly, and make mistakes. And I’m going to do all those things, too. In the end, we’re all just trying to make it safely to our destination.

Isn’t it interesting that we all have this common goal, yet we perceive each other as enemies?

That’s just not necessary.

My advice: create a new story about your driving experience. Remember, you don’t have to lie to yourself. Most drivers on the road are good people, they’re just focused on themselves, which can sometimes cause them to behave chaotically. But, you’re no different.

The habit

Once we have created a new story to tell ourselves about driving, we need something to remind us of that story at the right time.

This is going to sound both hilarious and ridiculous, but it worked for me… Whenever someone behaves in a way that makes me angry, I say:

I wish you peace on your journey.

Insane, right?

Well, not so fast. This sentence has several benefits.

First, it is a reminder that they, like us, are on a journey. We are each using the road for this shared purpose, which broadens the me-focused story we usually tell ourselves. People aren’t on the road just to screw us over.

Second, it is a reminder that there is an actual person in the car, with similar hopes, dreams, and fears that we have. This humanizes, rather than villainizes, the driver. It opens up a space for us to feel compassion for them.

Third, it reminds us that there can be devastating consequences to driving, either for us or for others, or both. In the end, we all want a peaceful journey, even if we sometimes don’t drive like it.

In conclusion

These simple steps have completely changed my driving experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get angry, but it almost always passes away quickly.

My drives these days consist mostly of wishing people well, which sounds hokey (and kind of is!), but it does tend to put me in a good mood. Compared to the alternative, I’ll take a bit of hokey-ness any day!

I should say that this doesn’t mean I don’t care about getting to my destination in a reasonable amount of time. What these steps have helped me do is remove much of the negative emotion that typically accompanied my driving. Afterall, being angry on the road doesn’t magically get us to our destinations any faster.

So, give these steps a try and let me know what you think!

I promise, they can completely transform your driving experience.

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