A pleasant commute to work isn’t impossible.
How many times have you been on your commute to work, half asleep, when some asshole suddenly veers into your lane, cutting you off?
What’s your response? Do you hold down your horn for a full 60 seconds? Do you flip the driver the bird, while yelling all the 4-letter expletives that come to mind?
Whatever you do, the whole situation sucks. There’s no denying it. Sure, self-righteous anger can make you feel powerful and superior to others for a time, but if we could live in a world where road rage wasn’t a thing, I don’t think many of us would complain.
But, wait, you say, road rage isn’t my fault. It’s caused by other people — by shitty drivers. There’s nothing I can do about those people. There will always be shitty drivers. Therefore, there’s nothing I can do about my road rage!
If your mood is solely determined by what’s going on around you, then yeah, you’re going to be unhappy. A lot.
The thing is, whether you see the world this way or not is a choice.
What mindfulness teaches us is how we typically react to any situation is conditioned. What this means is that we’ve trained ourselves, or been trained by others, to react angrily to drivers when we perceive them as impeding us, putting us in danger, or anything else we find annoying. Since any training can be unlearned and replaced with something else, your rage on the road is a choice.
There are two parts to re-training our responses to other drivers. First, we need to tell ourselves a different story about why people drive the way they do. We often assume the worst about other drivers, which perpetuates and magnifies our anger.
Second, we need to develop a new habit through practice. This means we need to find the right moment to act differently, and then act differently. This is the part that takes work, but if you want a more pleasant driving experience, it’s worth the effort.
Re-training our minds
If we want to rid ourselves of road rage, I think there are two things we need to do.
First, we need to convince ourselves that our anger isn’t useful. This is a personal journey. Each of us gets angry on the road for different reasons. We make assumptions about the states of minds of other drivers and we take those assumptions to be facts. We need to become aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves about other drivers and question those stories.
What helped me was to acknowledge the commonalities between me and other drivers. They are simply trying to get to their destinations safely and quickly. They are going to impede my progress just like I sometimes impede theirs. And they’re going to make mistakes just like I sometimes do.
Second, we need to become aware of our anger and its triggers. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, and there’s likely nothing we can do about that. But emotions don’t last long, at least, not on their own. For emotions to last longer than a few seconds we need to perpetuate them, like by telling ourselves a story about how people are evil and they’re out to get us.
It’s often the stories we tell ourselves that are the larger hurdle to ending our road rage. The self-righteous indignation we feel toward other drivers can be intoxicating. It makes us feel powerful and superior to them, and these can be difficult feelings to give up.
This is why just knowing intellectually that your anger isn’t useful isn’t going to stop you from losing your mind behind the wheel. This is like expecting yourself to start exercising when you learn it’s good for you. Knowledge generally isn’t enough to make things change.
So, if that’s the case, how do we change?
Mindfully breaking and making a habit
The stories we tell ourselves on the road are habits of mind that are difficult to break. This is where mindfulness becomes extremely useful.
Being mindful is more or less a matter of being acutely aware of what’s going on in your mind. If you want to cultivate this skill, practice mindfulness meditation. Apps like Waking Up or Headspace can get you started.
Knowledge isn’t enough to change your behaviour because road rage is a habit — there is a stimulus, like a driver cutting you off, and then a response, your rage. These two things have happened together so many times that peeling them apart feels virtually impossible. Thankfully, it’s not.
Viktor Frankl sums this up quite nicely:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mindfulness can help you see the space Frankl refers to. Once you see this space, it’s simply a matter of consciously choosing a different response, and then repeating this over and over again until it becomes a habit. Essentially, you’re replacing the habit of road rage with something else.
For example, I spent a couple of months repeating a phrase whenever someone acted in a way that pissed me off. It’s a little embarrassing, but here it is:
I wish you peace on your journey.
It sounds ridiculous, right? But, for me at least, it had two really important effects. First, it reminded me that there was another human in that car and second, that the driver is trying to get to his or her destination as safely and quickly as possible. In other words, the phrase reminded me that the driver is no different than me.
My anger was, and still is, the trigger for me to say this phrase. Essentially, it stops me from perpetuating and magnifying my anger by changing the story I tell myself about other drivers to a more positive one.
The phrase above reminds me of what I already know — that it’s normal for other drivers to make mistakes and for them to impede me on my journey. Reminding myself of this is a way of setting my mind down a new path — a path away from anger.
What I’ve learned is that anger isn’t responsible for road rage. It’s the stories we tell ourselves about other drivers that are responsible. These stories cause us to perpetuate and magnify our anger instead of allowing it to pass.
The work continues
When someone cuts you off, it’s natural to feel anger. And like I said earlier, there’s probably nothing you can do about that. Our emotions tend to happen whether we want them to or not.
The key is what we do once our anger is triggered.
First, you need to create new stories about other drivers. This is a personal journey and you will come to your own conclusions here. You need to convince yourself that your anger isn’t worth it. This is critical. The next step depends on this one.
Second, you need something to remind yourself of those new stories once your anger is triggered. For me, the phrase above reminds me of the new stories I created, which shifts my mind in a positive direction.
Without mindfulness, none of this would have been possible. Without mindfulness, stimulus and response seem inseparable. If stimulus and response are inseparable, change seems impossible.
But, even if you do everything right, change still comes slowly. It took me two months of practice before my road rage subsided. And still to this day I feel it in the back of my mind — a desperate desire to despise other drivers for their poor driving and lack of courtesy.
So, the work continues. But, it’s worth it because I’m calmer and happier every time I get behind the wheel.
I hope you give it a try!
Thanks for reading!