A Lesson From Road Rage

Recently, I became confused at a confusing intersection that was under construction and momentarily drove the wrong way. I immediately realized it and corrected. I held up traffic for about 2 seconds. Nevertheless, the traffic cop gave me an angry “WTF are you doing?” look, and a woman in the opposite lane— unaffected by my mistake — shook her head at me with contempt.

I spontaneously raged inside my car as I drove away, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! I MADE A FUCKING MISTAKE! FUCK YOU!”, over and over until it was out of my system. It felt good and self-affirming. I’d made a simple mistake and was scolded and mocked for it. Fuck you is right.

Then I started laughing at myself, at the situation, and made a choice to let it go, happy that I was able to bring myself back to sanity in less than a minute.

But why was I was so triggered?

Was there a time in my childhood when I was humiliated for mistakes I’d made? I couldn’t think of a specific incident, but it felt true. I’d always been terrified of looking foolish, of not knowing how to do something, not understanding. Somewhere along the way I’d internalized that making mistakes brings mockery, scorn, and pain.

How that must limit me in life! If I’m terrified of making mistakes, I’m not likely to take the big risks that, yes, might lead to failure— but also to success! All because of the possibility of humiliation.

Then I thought about the power I gave the traffic cop and woman to affect me. Yes, they’d taken an unwarranted opportunity to discharge their frustration onto me; but it was my choice to take it on. Instead of reacting, I could have smiled back at their twisted faces and went about my day.

Easier said than done, of course. Our internal paradigms run deep. They’re imprinted in our nervous systems. Changing them takes effort and awareness, and a willingness to confront any unresolved pain from our past.

Driving along, I started feeling grateful for the incident. I’d been shown something about myself, given an opportunity to change and grow. I consciously and sincerely thanked the traffic cop and the woman. They’d given me a gift.

I also took a moment to feel grateful for myself, for the work I’ve done, and continue to do, that allows me to step back in these moments of stress, take responsibility for my reaction, shift my perspective, and make a change.