I used to be such an angry driver.
On highways, I was a tailgater, always trying to “push” people out of my way. I lived in the fast lane, speeding 15-20 miles over the speed limit, in a rush to get to wherever I was going.
If you were unlucky enough to get in my way and you didn’t move, I’d give you the finger. Or when I got pulled up next to you to pass, I’d be sure to scowl at you – I wanted to see just who it was that was blocking. And then I’d flip you the bird as I sped by.
If I ever got cut off, I took it personally – just another opportunity for me to road rage. I couldn’t wait to get around you so I could cuss you out.
I remember the tension in my stomach as I raced and wove through traffic. I remember the anger I felt whenever someone got in my way and I had to slow. Man, I hated when things didn’t go my way.
But my road raging wasn’t limited just to highway driving.
On residential and side streets, I rarely obeyed the usual 25 MPH signs and instead raced from one stop sign to the next – never actually coming to a complete stop.
This poor behavior continued from Maryland where I terrorized motorists and some of my own passengers for 20 years straight on to Portland, where I moved at the end of 2004.
I had a short commute to work from my condo in the Northwest Hills to the Rose Garden Arena where I worked. Each day I took off down NW Everett, a congested city street that often featured lots of pedestrians on the sidewalks.
There are traffic lights every few blocks, which helped make a short commute into a long and frustrating one for me.
“I only live 2 miles from work,” I thought, “Why does it sometimes take me 15 minutes to get there?”
Each day, I ran late. Each day, I looked for an edge around traffic, to beat the next light, so I wouldn’t be late for work.
I thought to myself, “I’m going to show these Portlanders how we drive on the East Coast.” Can you believe that? I actually thought I was going to continue my aggressive driving in Portland and change the way an entire city drove!
But Portland is different. Here, drivers yield to pedestrians at every opportunity. If you’re standing on a street corner like you want to cross the street, drivers will stop for you – crosswalk or not – and let you cross.
It was a moment just like this one that woke me up.
I was driving into work one morning, running late as usual, and traffic was stopped.
“What the fuck!” I screamed at no one. I peered ahead – there was no light. I didn’t see an accident. Both lanes were jammed and there was nowhere to go. Man I was pissed off.
Then I saw what the problem was. There were people slowly crossing the street at a crosswalk. The few cars in front of me had stopped to let them cross.
Then it dawned on me: “If you don’t slow down, you’re going to kill somebody.”
Curing Road Rage On Residential Streets
This was the moment where my change began.
First, I back tracked and thought, “Why am I always running late?”
You see, on an average day it would take me about 10-12 minutes to get to work. So, if it was a quarter til nine – I had to be to work at 9am – I knew that gave me a few more minutes to get something done….like unload the dishwasher, put clothes in the laundry, take out the trash, you name it.
I was so bent on “maximum efficiency” with my time that I put myself in a position to have to rush. I put myself in a position where any unplanned delays could make me late for work.
And I hated being late. Besides it being a mark against me, I just hated the embarrassment of walking into the office late with no good reason for it.
I soon realized that my desire to “get one more thing done” was what was causing me to risk being late each day. My need for efficiency was causing me undue stress behind the wheel and putting others at risk for a fender bender or worse.
I had to let it go. Gradually, I stopped trying to be “perfect” before leaving for work. If I a had a few extra minutes to spare, I simply let the dishes sit and instead drove to work.
What a relief it was to me physically and mentally to not have to worry if I caught every light. I had time to spare.
If someone was crossing the street, I understood. I stopped and let them cross.
Curing Road Rage On Highways
My road rage on highways was a different story and took a lot more work.
While I stopped rushing around so much and gave myself a buffer of time to get where I had to be, I still had an underlying anger that rose up whenever someone cut me off or got in my way.
At the time in 2005, I was seeing pyschiatrist Dr. Manfield and he gave me the clue I needed.
At the end of one of our sessions, I asked him, “Why do I get so mad when someone cuts me off in traffic?”
I’ll never forget his animated response. He stood up and shook his finger at me, saying with raised voice, “Because the message you get is that YOU DON’T COUNT!”
Oh, man. The child inside still gets a little emotional reliving that scene.
At the time, I’m sure we were discovering that a lot of my issues stemmed from being given up for adoption and from having an overbearing Mother who constantly shut down my voice and my creativity.
I knew that, but I went looking for a strategy that would help me deal with the anger I felt when someone cut me off.
I found a book about changing your mind talk to change your life.
The premise was simple: Once you are aware of the “story” you are telling yourself, you create other positive stories to replace the negative one.
In my case, instead of reacting with anger shouting, “You cut me off!”I began to come up with other things to tell myself like:
- Maybe he didn’t see me
- Maybe he his wife is about to give birth
- Maybe he’s got an emergency
And my all-time favorite:
- Maybe he’s just an asshole like I used to be and hasn’t realized it yet
These were all plausible reasons for why someone would cut me off and I’m guessing you can probably add several more.
Now that I had some new things to tell my mind, it was time to practice.
Slowly, I reached a point where getting cut off didn’t “hurt” me anymore. I stopped taking it personally and realized whatever was going on in the other driver’s car had nothing to do with me.
This practice continues to this day. I still have to do the work of telling myself, “Maybe he didn’t see me” each time I get cut off.
One day I hope to get to the point where I am clear of any emotion whatsoever when someone cuts me off. I am well on my way and still marvel at how friends have no reaction when they get cut off in traffic.
They are a good reminder for me to do the same.
I’ve also rode with others who haven’t dealt with the issue yet, and I see how scary it feels to be a passenger.
An ex-girlfriend when I was in my 20s once told me how she was scared to ride with me because I tailgated and swore and got so upset when I got cut off by another driver.
Even though I dismissed her feelings at the time, I now know how she felt. I now know how I felt, being the one holding all this rage inside.
These days, I like to leave early. I don’t have to be so efficient. I’ve learned that’s just me trying to be perfect – which is another story altogether.
When someone’s an idiot on the road, I don’t glare or give them the finger as I pass by; I just shake my head and try to laugh.
I’m still dealing with the hurt beneath the anger that’s at the root of my road rage, so my cognitive practice continues.
I drive slower now. I’m more courteous. I feel better in my body and the roads are a tiny bit safer because there’s one less asshole driver out there.
I hope you find this story helpful.