Road rage is all in your head

Two cars arrive at a stop sign at the same time.  Both start into the intersection.  One driver speeds through, while the other jams on the brakes, avoiding a collision.  This driver feels insulted, offended, diminished.  Who the hell does that other driver think he is?  He nearly killed me!

This scenario, and countless others involving merge lanes, contested parking spaces, and aggressive rush hour traffic, are set-ups for road rage.  The aggrieved party feels a flash of anger and hostility, and may swear aloud within the confines of his vehicle.  He may “give the finger” in a way the other driver may or may not see.  He may grumble to passengers about the lousy drivers in his town.  Sometimes the response is louder and more direct: yelling at the other driver, or even giving chase.  At the extreme, enraged parties physically retaliate with weapons, or by using their cars as battering rams.

What’s going on?  In a practical sense, the initial harm is often trivial.  A moment’s delay at a stop sign would be ignored under other circumstances.  The real trigger is what the behavior says about the perpetrator’s attitude — or more precisely, how it was interpreted by the “victim.”  Did the aggressive driver proclaim his time was more valuable?  Did he disregard or disrespect the other driver?  Was it a power play, a demonstration that “I can do whatever I want, and you’re powerless to stop me?”  Was it contemptuous?  “I don’t have to wait for the likes of you, you’re beneath my consideration.”

Actually, the offended driver doesn’t know.  One reason road rage is so prevalent is that the outsides of motor vehicles are inscrutable.  We can’t read the nonverbal cues of other drivers.  A car with a mean, aggressive driver who couldn’t care less whether you live or die looks very much like a car with a driver who honestly thought it was his turn to enter the intersection, and who would be mortified to know you were offended or frightened as a result of his actions.  While you were cursing and giving the finger, he may have been wincing and muttering “Oops, I’m sorry!”  But that was inside his own car.  You didn’t know.

Road rage, therefore, is nearly always self-generated.  It’s all in your head.  Do you tend to think of others as mean-spirited opportunists, ready to take advantage of you, disdainful of your wants and needs?  Or do you give strangers the benefit of the doubt, assume they meant no harm and didn’t aim to insult or diminish you?

Either attitude is contagious.  I recently visited a country with polite drivers.  I never felt stressed even if it wasn’t clear whose turn it was at an intersection.  It didn’t matter; we were all content to defer to the others.  In contrast, when traffic is dog-eat-dog, and when our self-worth rises or falls with our ability to cut through it efficiently, then everyone else is a rival and an obstacle.

None of this is unique to road rage.  Yesterday I was in a supermarket express checkout line, “15 items or less.”  (Um, “fewer.”)  Ahead of me another shopper was packing up three bags of groceries.  I stood there steaming as she slowly ended her cellphone call and took her good old time to pay the $63 she owed.  I rehearsed angry comments in my head: “I guess even people who can’t count still need to eat.”  I didn’t actually say anything.

Later I wondered what exactly irritated me so much.  I could have been equally delayed, yet completely untroubled, by any number of things.  It wasn’t the wait itself, it was my perception of the perpetrator’s attitude.  Apparently the supermarket’s rules didn’t apply to her.  She was self-important and inconsiderate.  Looming even larger psychologically was her attitude toward me.  I imagined she didn’t care about me at all.  My inconvenience was not her concern.  I felt disrespected, not taken into account.

These situations happen all the time.  A patient of mine recently shared how angry he feels when his teenage kids fail to turn off lights after he’s reminded them repeatedly.  We agreed it’s not the trivial increase in his electricity bill that bugs him.  It’s his perception of their laziness, their disrespect towards him and his values, perhaps their willful defiance.

In all these settings, indeed throughout our lives, we react to interpersonal transactions taking place in our own heads.  Occasionally our perceptions of contempt and disdain are accurate.  Sometimes brats, narcissists, and sociopaths really do put themselves first, and either don’t care about us or actively seek to hurt us.  But more often we’ve concocted a story.  We’ve been insulted, pushed around, treated like dirt.  And in response we self-righteously strike back.

How can we escape this hall of mirrors?  Most simply, we can remind ourselves that our assumptions about others may be mistaken.  We may recognize that we tend to assume the worst in people, and take this bias into account.   There’s no need to assume evil intent when sheer stupidity — or momentary confusion or misunderstanding — can account for the behavior.

More psychoanalytically, we may reflect on our unconscious wish for care-taking and nurturance from others, and the anger that results when real life inevitably falls short of this yearning.  Such insight may spare us from projecting our own anger onto anonymous others.  And more philosophically, with years of meditation and discipline we could learn to detach our egos.  Slights from others have no effect upon the Self.  I believe this is one small aspect of Buddhist enlightenment, but don’t quote me.

Meanwhile, on that long road to enlightenment it doesn’t hurt to drive defensively.  And take a few deep breaths.

7 comments to Road rage is all in your head

  • Anon

    I have been cut off by people going 50 plus mph in a 30mph zone – passing me in a made-up lane. I’m not usually prone to road rage, but a couple of times those have been near-misse, and I usually swear when that happens. Cars are inherently dangerous, and I wonder if an unconscious fear of physical harm lies under some of that rage.

    • Yes, I think you’re right. Sometimes “the best defense is a strong offense.” When feeling vulnerable, especially physically, many people react with anger.

      However, I still think this has something to do with assumptions about the other driver. Compare your reaction in these situations:

      1. Being cut off by someone going 50+ mph in a 30 mph zone, passing in a made-up lane
      2. An ambulance with lights and siren similarly speeding in a made-up lane and cutting you off
      3. A boulder speeding down a hill, nearly striking you on a hiking trail

      All three are life-threatening and scary. But only the first evokes anger, yes? The writer Samuel Johnson once observed that even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. Road rage seems to result from the conclusion that one has been kicked. Thanks for writing.

  • Okay, not quoting you, but… I think you’re in good company with Jung, who made the assumption that Buddhist meditation means absolute detachment. I don’t think so. I think it includes feeling emotions to the hilt, even when based on a delusive thought that I garner when cut off in traffic. The practice of Buddhism, as I understand it, is to let it all be while watching our human folly (to speak uncharitably about what we humans habitually do). Suzuki Roshi said the best way to tame a wild animal is to enlarge its corral. Figuring out how to live WITH our folly seems to be the best game in town. “Damn! That a—hole just cut me off!” Prescription: Feel the juicy anger (élan vital) coursing through my veins. Consider that the stories (delusions) I create about the other, whom I don’t really know, are likely fictions. Perhaps in other more possible, accommodating circumstances, practice the courage to mention and inquire. Be a different person than the one I assume I am who might not inquire or “confront.” As Robert Downey, Jr. barked as his Sherlock: “Food for thought!”

    • What I don’t know about Buddhism could fill volumes.

      Yes, perhaps the best way to tame our wild emotions, road rage and such, is not to channel them into imperfect expression: harsh words, violent retaliation. We create more trouble for ourselves with tight corrals. Instead, feel the juicy feelings, but in safety. We can always reflect later — food for thought is more digestible in a calm state. Thanks for writing.

  • Abu

    Hi Steven,

    may I ask what you recommend related to anger from road rage in the following situations? There is a certain point on my way home where I know people disrespect the law and cut you off every single time. On top of this, they are very aggressive to people obeying the law because it impairs their ability to do what they want.
    Similarily, on one particular intersection I need to turn left and give way to traffin on both ways – and it is a very busy street (I live in a country where nobody stops to let you in). If it takes more than a few seconds to wait to find a gap, usually the drivers behind start honking and flashing just to make you move faster. This is very dangerous as the anger I feel sometimes can make me do stupid manouvers, like cutting in front of the oncoming traffic.

    As I see it, I have two options: if I take the shortest path towards home then I need to pass these two situations every single day – and my anxiety grows and so does my anger as I feel disrespected by others. If I go around these points, the distance increases but also the quality of roads suffers – albeit I no longer feel the anger but instead I feel like a coward – not being able to face my fears and control my anger!

    So, from two evils, I can’t seem to know which is best 🙂

    • Hi Abu,

      I don’t have completely satisfying advice for you. It would be nice if the world rewarded courtesy and punished rudeness, but we don’t live in that world. We live in the world we have.

      For the past year or two, I’ve taken a slightly longer but more pleasant route to work. The added time hardly matters at all, and I feel more relaxed to start my day. You could likewise avoid the situations you describe. Perhaps instead of feeling like a coward, you could see yourself as “leaving the rat race to the rats”, i.e. deciding it’s just not worth the aggravation to battle with rude people. It’s not cowardice to make a smart choice for yourself. Conversely, if this option seems worse to you, you’ll have to learn to sharpen your reflexes (find the openings in traffic), without becoming rude yourself. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which of these “two evils” is best. Take care.

  • Manuel

    What I personally do, is always think there is something missing or a misunderstanding. Move out of the way and step back. The most frequent situation is me driving in the blind spot of the car in front and assume that he did not see me and move away instead of thinking that he is doing it on purpose for some mysterious reasons.My kids, i tell them always, it is a misunderstanding until proved otherwise. By the time you prove what it was, the primitive brain in me is gone by focusing on rational thinking. it is actually a right versus left brain reaction and the right always win because it is rational, attentive, give solutions, deal better with unpredictability, no preconceptions…

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