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Road Rage

By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.

Dr. Elayne Savage is a communication coachThe driver comes from out of nowhere and cuts you off. Or slows to a crawl. Or tailgates. How dare they! Words or gestures are exchanged. Then it starts getting out of hand.

Before you know it you’re becoming outraged, then enraged, then road raged.
You’re taking it personally and retaliating because you feel “dissed.”

We all know what it feels like to be “dissed.” Disrespect, however, is only one form of rejection. There are many colorations of rejection – many of them starting with “dis.”

For example, getting “dissed might mean feeling “dismissed,” “discounted,“ “discredited,” or “disregarded,” or “It might” mean feeling discarded,” ”disposable,” or “displaced,” ” It could even mean feeling dishonored” or “disenfranchised.”

For most of us, these feelings evoke powerful emotions, resulting in a rageful reaction. Raging on the road carries the same intensity as any other kind of rage. AND it comes equipped with a built in weapon — your automobile.

Rage is an emotion beyond anger. It is “anger with a history:” Anger is a response to something happening in the present. Rage is rooted in the past, where overwhelming feelings are attached to early life experiences.

A distressing event in the present becomes unbearable when it reminds us of painful experiences from the past. Before we know it, we’re overreacting and feeling out-of-control. Old injustices stockpile into a repository of rage, just waiting to be disgorged.

Rage is overwhelming. It throws us off-center. By considering rage in a larger context we can step back, gain some perspective, take a breath, and consider our options.

Road Rage as Metaphor
Let’s look at how road rage reflects past situations where you were especially sensitive or felt vulnerable. Let’s say you endured childhood injustices such as feeling “cut off,” “squeezed out,” “kept waiting,” “pushed around,” “bumped” or “edged out.” These negative experiences collect in your memory. When a similar event happens in the present, the stockpile ignites and you overreact. So, road rage (or air rage or sports and game rage) is often rage against those past injustices.

For example, how do you feel when a driver suddenly drifts into your lane without a warning or signal? Does it feel like they are in your face, invading your personal space? Does it offend you? How do you react? Do you fume? Do you start to retaliate? Is there anything familiar about your situation now and experiences in the past?

Childhood Memories Get Triggered
Perhaps the incident triggers a not-so-pleasant childhood memory. Suddenly you find yourself back in grade school, remembering how the class bully used to taunt you, or push in front of you in the lunch line. You probably hated that feeling of helplessness. Maybe you yearned to defend your territory but didn’t know how. Maybe you still cringe at the indignity of feeling victimized.

Now, on the road, that clueless person cuts in front of you and those old feelings are triggered. Revenge fantasies appear out of nowhere, “They are really going to be so sorry they did that.”

Are You Turning into the Bully You Detest?
It is amazing what a cloak of anonymity your car provides. Before you know it you are turning into the bully you detest. But bullies often are really feeling less than powerful. In fact, they may be inadequate at that moment.

The tendency for most of us to is to protect ourselves when we feel vulnerable, scared or hurt. We do this by taking a tough stance. We begin to engage in rageful or bullying behavior. We puff ourselves up. We act out our rage on the offending driver who doesn’t understand that we are retaliating against all the bullies from our childhood. We may even seek out an unsuspecting person to bully back.

It happens so fast. Something gets triggered. We get confused and can’t sort out our feelings. We lose control. Before we know it, we’re behaving badly. How can this be happening? We see ourselves as kind and considerate. How can we be behaving so outrageously on the road?

Road rage may be bigger than a specific incident Road rage may be a reflection of the outrageous times in which we live. But that’s another article. Meanwhile here are some ways to stay calm and in control of the situation.

Here are some tips for dealing with road rage:

  • If you are being raged at on the road, don’t bite the bait, don’t engage. A confrontation is only going to be a lose-lose situation for you. You might get hurt.

  • The next time someone cuts you off, remind yourself there’s a difference between an aggressive driver and an inconsiderate or careless driver. Most likely the act is not intentional.

  • Put the incident in perspective by remembering the “metaphor concept”. Ask yourself what old experiences and feelings this incident is re-creating for you.

  • Take a breather. Ten slow breaths can work wonders.

  • Most importantly, don’t take it personally! Chances are the other driver’s careless mistakes are not directed at you.

© Elayne Savage, Ph.D.


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    "Elayne Savage, Ph.D., is a professional speaker, workplace coach, psychotherapist, and the author of BREATHING ROOM-CREATING SPACE TO BE A COUPLE and DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! THE ART OF DEALING WITH REJECTION. She lives in Berkeley, CA and can be contacted through her website"

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