On Friday afternoon, following a particularly stressful day working for a mental health project, I found myself burning out. I wasn’t angry, nor particularly sad, but I felt under pressure and desperate to get home: emotionally exhausted.
About 3 minutes from home, at a roundabout where people often go despite the traffic coming their way, a car pulled out in front of me. I had to break suddenly, my fight-or-flight system throwing adrenaline around my body so I could react quickly.
The Fight or Flight Response
I felt shocked and instantly angry. My heart raced, my hands tensed around the wheel. My thoughts flooded in: “How selfish, they could have killed us both! Why can’t people LOOK when they drive? Some people shouldn’t have driving licenses.”
My usual response would be to lift up my hand in a “what was that?” questioning motion. I’m not someone who uses the ‘traditional’ symbols: I just open my palm to the sky in my exasperation. Then I rein in those thoughts and pull back from the offending car: “I better be careful, this driver is likely to do something else dangerous.”
But this time, as the driver pulled off at my junction, they put their hand up to the rear-view mirror (the universal thanks/sorry movement), and I saw the green P-plate.
Re-framing, or the Paradigm Shift
Instantly, my anger dissipated. I didn’t have to reign those thoughts in; they just weren’t there anymore.
I put my own hand up to the my mirror, hoping they’d see it as “no problem” and left a big gap because I remember feeling that everyone was so close while I was learning to drive. (In fact, I kept the P-plate on my car for well over the recommended two years after passing my test.)
In terms of Friday’s event, nothing actually changed: I nearly had a car crash. I was scared for my safety. I got angry. The driver having a P-plate didn’t miraculously mean I was safer.
So why did those thoughts and feelings dissipate; if nothing physically changed? I’d re-framed the experience.
A Story of Redefinition
When I was growing up, I read a book entitled “NLP for Dummies.” I didn’t remember a lot about NLP as I grew older, except one example about re-framing experience (which a google search cites as being from Stephen Covey):
Some children are disturbing a train carriage of people.
The father appears to be ignoring them.
The author asks the man if he could control his children.
He expresses the frustration/exasperation/anger of people being disturbed, interpreting this man to be insensitive and irresponsible.
But the moment the father shared that the children’s mother had died an hour before:
the entire emotional experience shifted from anger to compassion.
Again, nothing physically changed. The children continued to be loud and disruptive.
The thoughts changed. The characters focused on re-framing the event. The interpretation, the labels of how that father should behave, changed.
I don’t normally experience road rage.
I have conditioned myself to ask “what if?” or “why would I do that?” When someone cut me up in traffic, or drives through a red light… Yes, those first thoughts come up: How dangerous, are they insane; they’re putting everyone at risk.
And then I step back: re-framing the experience. “What could be happening, to make that okay in their eyes?”
Perhaps their mother is dying and they’re rushing to hospital to get those last 5 minutes to say goodbye.
The likelihood of that being true for EVERY bad driving event is pretty much nil. But, the only person actually hurting from my road rage, is me. And if I choose to believe that every ‘bad driver’ has a decent reason, I don’t sit there seething, keeping those uncomfortable, fearful thoughts going. I send out a wave of compassion, and get on with my day.
We can change how we think about events.
It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time. But it’s possible.
For me, the gains are worth the effort.