- When we react to something with such vitriol that the punishment does not fit the crime, our inner wounds have been triggered
- Left unaddressed, extreme emotional reactions can be a hindrance, and even dangerous.
- Even a small amount of empathy can help us not to take things personally, and to realize that misunderstandings are unavoidable.
On my afternoon commute home this week, I was stopped and watching for an opening to cross at a local intersection. Another motorist, on a motorcycle, slowed down and went into the breakdown lane, causing some confusion for me about whether he was turning, proceeding to go straight, or stopping along the shoulder. As I had already entered the intersection, I mistook his hand in the air as being a “go ahead” for me to cross — a simple miscommunication among two motorists inundated with stimuli as they navigated the endless twists and turns of our highways and road system.
Both of us were probably going less than 20 mph, and I passed easily in front of him. However, he perceived my action as a slight, as I ended up passing in front of him, or “cutting him off,” before he could make the turn. He proceeded to yell obscenities at me, following closely behind my car as I proceeded down a residential area. He passed me on the left, yelling through my window and putting his hands out as if to strike my car. I chose not to accelerate, allowing him to pass me, realizing that clearly we had a misunderstanding, and that it had apparently been my fault.
As I allowed him to pass, he went in front of my car and slowed down, forcing me to slow my speed. He turned his torso backwards and continued to yell and throw his hands up. I put my hands up several times, as much of an “OK, my bad” as it was a “What the heck? Let it go.” I slowed down a lot, allowing him to stay in front of me, as he kept screaming, curse words echoing in the air. People outside of their homes paused to watch this bizarre episode of road rage. He gunned his accelerator, and raced down the street in an act of defiance, nearly missing small children and animals who were playing outside. I assumed that was it — a typical display of road rage that was now over.
However, I pulled into my driveway and cut the engine just as he passed me again, continuing at a high speed in the opposite direction. He didn’t live on my street, and had clearly followed me home to punish me for what I had done. I waited until I could hear his engine fade away before opening my car door and attempting to make a beeline into my house.
As I came around the back of my car, he passed me again, this time noticing me and slowing down right in front of my home to continue to scream at me. Instinctively, I put my hands where he could see them in front of me, and attempted to explain what happened: “I thought you waved me on,” I reasoned, yelling over his revving engine and his endless stream of expletives. Unable to get many words in, I put my hand up to demonstrate what I thought had been a hand movement of his, not really knowing how else to navigate this situation. Should I apologize? I thought to myself. Maybe that will calm him down. This seemed to escalate him further, as then I heard a stream of insults hurdled at me across my driveway about how “stupid” I was to misunderstand him: I “must be an idiot.” Frozen in fear, I continued to attempt to explain, even attempting to apologize and take ownership for the mishap. He continued to scream expletives until my 6’1″ male partner opened the front door to see what the yelling was about, at which point he revved his engine and drove away. I heard the distinct sound of him passing my house yet again as I shut and locked my back door behind me. “That was crazy,” I said out loud to the air.
With obvious exceptions, most situations can usually be understood as a misunderstanding, one in which a little empathy for others could take us a long way. But this is difficult to do when we ourselves are emotionally charged and we become activated. Instead, we react as if the offender has maliciously and purposefully singled us out for this exact action. It becomes personal. Much like the bar patron who physically assaults someone who accidentally spills beer on his shoe, the motorcyclist’s response was out of proportion to the offending behavior. Instead of a person who made a mistake, it becomes personal: They did this to me. It becomes a personal attack, one which must be met with anger in order to restore their dignity.
This biker’s reaction left me shaken for several hours after the sound of his engine finally faded for good. I’m grateful that it did not go further than a couple minutes of yelling, but it shows how quickly a situation can escalate to a dangerous level during an average daily occurrence.
All drivers understand that being cut off in traffic is aggravating, and can feel disrespectful. Most of us throw our hands up, our words audible only to our dashboard bobbleheads. Or perhaps you do not experience road rage, but someone forgetting to take out the trash or leaving their socks on the floor sends you into a tailspin. Regardless of the reason, our inner child is provoked — the one who had to deal with disrespect without any resolution.
When something happens that provokes a chest-tightening, blood-pressure-elevating event, take a moment to breathe, and remember that everyone is dealing with things in their life that are stressful that might not have anything to do with you. Perhaps this biker just received devastating news, and was ready to go off on anyone. Or maybe the driver who cut you off is late to a medical appointment they can not afford to reschedule. A small amount of empathy for others will allow us to not take things personally, and decrease the level of emotion within us.
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Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., & Fernandez, X. D. (2015). Why Seemingly Trivial Events Sometimes Evoke Strong Emotional Reactions: The Role of Social Exchange Rule Violations. The Journal of social psychology, 155(6), 559–575. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2015.1084985. Accessed 4/16/2022.
Previously Published on Psychology Today and is republished on Medium.
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