You know that road rage emotion? That righteous anger that feels good because you know the other driver is an absolute, f’ing moron behind the wheel?
Yeah. That road rage.
Ever hear the quote, “holding grudges is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person”?
Replace “grudges” with “anger” and…same truth.
I finally realized this one day at a familiar intersection, when a driver cut in front of me.
“Stupid idiot,” I snapped as I braked. I swore, flipped the bird and waved my arm in anger. The stress hormones fired up; my face got red. He was obviously incompetent, deserving of my anger. Yet this time, for some reason, I had a fuzzy feeling that the offending driver—the target of my vitriol—was completely oblivious of their stupidity and the anger I was directing at them. I suddenly imagined them happily listening to music, enjoying their drive to work. Meanwhile, I arrived at work surly.
This particular spot, what I now call “mindfulness intersection,” was a place I dealt with five-days-a-week. So, it wasn’t the first time this scene had played out. I regularly got to deal here with people trying to merge into traffic from their red-lighted stop. I regularly got to get righteously mad.
Only this time, I had a vague awareness that my boiling blood was only hurting me. I wanted to turn the heat of my anger off; or at least turn it down. It wasn’t about wanting to be nice to the other driver; it was simply about me and my well-being.
First step: I set my intention to stop getting angry when drivers tried to merge into traffic from a complete stop. Just say no to anger.
Telling myself not to get angry was a lot harder than actually not getting angry. I had gotten angry at drivers at that intersection for so long it was a habit. Plus, one of my characters felt righteousness in the anger, certain that the offending drivers were intentionally pushing their wants in front of my needs.
The story I had in my head about them was, in my mind, true and accurate and the only possible story: they were jerks and my anger was deserved.
What if they were on their way to the hospital, where a few extra seconds meant life or death?
What if it was my daughter turning, would I want to be swearing at her, or imagine someone else swearing at her?
I winced. My anger, with these alternate storylines, felt cruel and unkind.
“But,” said my righteous voice, “they aren’t on their way to the hospital and it’s not your daughter.”
“How do you know,” the other voice countered. “Besides, the story you’re telling yourself upsets you. You may believe it’s true, but you don’t know. Given that you’re making up stories anyway, why not tell yourself a story that doesn’t anger you?”
It was hard to disagree with that.
So, as I approached the intersection, I told myself new stories. The voice that wanted to feel anger would interject itself: “they’re not going to the hospital;” my body, well-versed in the physiology of anger, would tense. I’d note the responses and work to let them go. When the thoughts and feelings came back—which they did—I’d strive to counter them by again considering different stories about the drivers; stories intended to produce non-angry responses.
In some ways, it felt like a silly trick. But I kept at it, because my emotional experience at the intersection was feeling different.
Visible change rarely happens in an instant. It does, however, happen as the result of many instances put together until, finally, change becomes evident.
Over time, my road rage habit—a habit deeply furrowed into my being—was replaced with other, less damaging responses. Now as I approach the intersection and watch a driver pull out to merge, I don’t fly off in a fury. While my anger isn’t gone completely, it’s a shadow of its prior poison-producing rage.
An added benefit of this practice of “telling different stories” works in other areas of life, both on and off the road. Other places where “different stories” keep me from ingesting poison. Because, at the end of the day, the poison only hurts me.
Addendum: I posted this on 11/10/18. Some folks said they liked it, so it’s out there somewhere, but it ain’t showing up in my published posts, just in the drafts. So, I’m posting it again. Fingers crossed.
For those wondering, it took me well over 6-months of steadily telling myself new stories to “reprogram” my automatic response. And that “mindfulness intersection” has continued to teach me things, even when I think I’ve squeezed every last bit of learning out of it. Stay tuned.