What Can I Do About My Terrible Road Rage?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I figured it was time to write in with this question since I just got out of my car shaking with anger for the third time this week. I’m not sure whether my luck is worse than most when it comes to near-accidents and inconsiderate drivers on the road, whether I deal with these instances worse than most, or what.

Obviously, I think I’m a great driver. But everyone thinks that. To me, it feels like I get cut off in traffic all the time, people honk at me when I’m doing perfectly reasonable things and obeying the law, and I’m usually very considerate when it comes to people merging, etc. But I find myself yelling at other cars and drivers multiple times a day, flipping people off, and having strong emotional reactions to other people’s behaviors on the road. I can’t arrive anywhere without feeling anxious and very angry. I’m willing to admit I dish it out, to some extent, but it still feels like the bulk of the injustice is done to me.

I know you can’t help other people (or me) become better at driving, but can you help me figure out how to get from point A to point B without seething and compromising the health and safety of myself and anyone around me? —Driving Me Mad

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Dear Driving,

Oh, so you’re the one who flipped me off yesterday?

I’m kidding. I also would agree with your assessment that, yes, most drivers (myself included) seem to think their driving is just fine and it’s all the other bozos on the road who need to get it together. You’re not the only one muttering, “Hurry up, slowpoke!” … and so on. In that sense you are not alone, especially should you live in (or ever visit) a major metropolitan area such as Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Boston, Seattle, or Washington, D.C., all with notorious commutes.

I could not presume to tell you what, exactly, is at the root of your so-called “road rage,” but I think it’s a good thing you’re addressing it. All of us get irate from time to time, but this sounds like it could be escalating and ought to be curbed somehow, lest you get so distracted you end up in an accident or an altercation with another driver. It also might be affecting your blood pressure, digestive system, and so forth. A surplus of stress always takes its toll.

One facet of your letter has to do with, to my ears, control or lack thereof. We are of course powerless over other drivers, though it’s easy to forget that when we’re sitting in our cars, in our own little bubble of comfort. It can be jarring, even scary, to sense chaos threatening that bubble, with other drivers following very different rules and protocols, or appearing to not give a damn about anyone else. Sometimes it seems every driver (except us, of course) has the attitude of “Me first, out of my way!” So it goes in the age of the selfie.

Combine this with our typical American individualism, our assumption of a right to “do things my way,” and our ever-expanding demand for speed and you get a prevailing ethos of anxious impatience and jitteriness. As one billboard for a smartphone recently declared, “It really is all about you.”

But look a little closer and I think you’ll find that anxiety, even existential dread, is a subtly unacknowledged factor behind much of this. It may sound like a stretch, but hear me out.

Driving is a quintessentially American activity, and our sense of community has shrunk so much that, in a way, our freeways and highways are some of our last shared public spaces. But we seem to have lost, in many ways, even this fleeting sense of “shared” space; all of it seems to have morphed, at least in part, into “my space.” Stop by your local Starbucks and what do you see? Everyone doing their own thing with their personalized headphones, laptops, or smartphone screens, tuning out the world. We crave a comforting bubble within which to operate, free from intrusion, the borders of which are under our control. This may be a kind of bulwark against chaos, a way of self-soothing our era’s growing uncertainty, where the rules of engagement (see our current national election) seem as undefined and disorderly as ever.

At the same time, most people I know feel enormous pressure to perform in a variety of ways: as a student, parent, worker, partner, all or some of the above. Strangely, the need for speed has only ratcheted up the pressure on expectation for faster, more. Some of us have more than one job while juggling big payments and debts. Our economy is now globally competitive. Thus our bubbles of comfort—within our cars, homes, and laptops—may become a way of soothing the terror of not being productive or inventive enough in an ever-more-fierce, demanding, chaotic world.

I’m sensing a deeper fear or resentment against having to make these hazardous journeys, without proper protection, almost like a child being sent into a school full of bullies, without anyone realizing what hazards you’re actually facing.

One senses this on the road, where there is anxiety about feeling blocked or treated as insignificant, or aggressively affronted by a stranger; one Buddhist author I admire, Chögyam Trungpa, said speed is equivalent to aggression. I might tweak that a little to say assertion, as a defense against anyone intruding on “my space,” or the equally unsettling prospect of feeling insignificant or intruded upon (“This is my road, not yours”).

Thus you might develop compassion for the situation as a whole, including your own anxiety—make space “around it,” as it were, as anxiety is basically fear. I often find the outside world becomes a reflection of our own internal state. (Pema Chödrön writes nicely about this in her books.)

Finally, there seems to be an almost childlike terror in your message, a fear of loss of control, of frightening or sudden intrusion. I don’t think one has to take a strictly Freudian interpretation toward “They cut me off!” as (literal) castration anxiety. Though perhaps there is a symbolic fear on your part along the lines of feeling disempowered, helpless, that takes the concrete form of anxious agitation and anger on the road.

My therapist’s ears perked up at the phrases “injustice” and “compromising health and safety.” My intuitive mind wants to link these two together and start to speculate on how such a compromise feels imposed upon you, whether you like it or not. I’m sensing a deeper fear or resentment against having to make these hazardous journeys, without proper protection, almost like a child being sent into a school full of bullies, without anyone realizing what hazards you’re actually facing. What, in other words, is the larger or broader emotional context of your life? It can be easier to be angry at faceless drivers than those closest to us, loved ones or family; is it possible these rude drivers (and there are many) are not the only ones you’re resenting? If this is the case, why? What is making you angry or anxious in your other situations—at home, at work, with family, and so on? (Anger is usually the “first line of defense” atop deeper emotions.)

I sense, in other words, a more personal injustice being felt by you, one that is coming out behind the wheel. You might confide in a counselor to release some of whatever angry or hurtful emotions you might possibly be sitting on, maybe communicate them to the right people to help you with whatever feels burdening or imposing. Perhaps a counselor can help you figure out what these emotions are, as sometimes we genuinely don’t know, only that they keep popping up out of nowhere.

Most of all, allow some empathic space for yourself to be human. This is a more common problem than you might think, which is why I’m so glad you wrote in. More often than not we are, for all our hyper-individualization, in the same collective boat, trying to right said boat through choppy waters. Thanks again!

Kind regards,

Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 9 comments
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  • Brent

    Brent

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    Perhaps public transportation would be an option for you?

  • Joanie

    Joanie

    October 21st, 2016 at 2:13 PM

    You might know that you would never really go over the edge but how do you know that another person won’t? I would be scared to death to get out and start mouthing at someone these days because there are many people who would not think twice about pulling out a gun and shooting you. I would love to flip off bad drivers every day but I think about what is really important, me making a point or continuing to live so most of the time I can ignore it and move on.

  • hannah

    hannah

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:45 AM

    Does it not sober you just thinking about the sheer number of people who lose their lives every year because they get mad at another driver?

  • Austin T

    Austin T

    October 25th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    I had a guy just the other day try to run me off the road for what he perceived to be a slight against him but truly I had no idea what on earth he was doing it for. I just think that a car is a dangerous weapon and people are using it for more these days besides just getting from place to place.
    Personally I feel like if you can’t control your anger behind the wheel then you shouldn’t be allowed to or even allow yourself to drive. It is simply too dangerous.

  • daryl

    daryl

    October 26th, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    agree that it is probably much more than the bad drivers which is bringing out this rage inside you

  • Bryan b

    Bryan b

    October 27th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    Pay attention to the things that set you off.

    Is it really the driving that others around you are engaging in or was it a feeling that you just woke up with that day and this is how you express those feelings?

    I think that if you could pinpoint specific things that are likely to set you off then you might have a much clearer idea why this is happening… and what days it could be a good idea to get an Uber.

  • Arolyn Burns LMFT, LPCC

    Arolyn Burns LMFT, LPCC

    October 31st, 2016 at 6:03 PM

    All of the above comments are helpful. Also taking an Anger Management class could help.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 1st, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    Thank you all for your comments. Good suggestions here.

  • David

    David

    November 17th, 2016 at 6:32 PM

    Not to Psychoanalyze you…but it sounds like at the root of your anger issues is a lack of patience and also having to feel in control in situations. If I had to guess you had one or more situations in life that left you powerless, very hurt and maybe other feelings. As a way to cope you said never again and now you don’t take anything off anyone. But unfortunately that way of being can be very dangerous for you or someone else. There are many people out on the road that would follow you someone where and shoot you for flipping them off or for less. So you need to get control of the anger issues. Start your road trips a little earlier perhaps so you dont feel so impatient with drivers. Its also very easy to go around people you dont like to be behind versus taking time and energy to insult them from your car verbally or physically. It is wasted energy that serves no purpose and it doesn’t even make you feel better afterwards. You need to before getting into your car actively think about being a good person and not wasting energy and putting out negative vibes towards someone. Someone jumps in front of you, so what, they are trying to get to work just like you. Don’t take it as they are disrespecting you. They aren’t! Positive thought can go a long way to having a great day. Let some stuff roll off your shoulders and make a point of trying to get to your destination with that as your focus, not the people you have to go around and through to get there.

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