Back Seat Driver!
by Leonard Citron, M.A.
A little perspective goes a long way toward reducing frustration
Holidays are supposed to be fun, right? To get away from everything, to explore some place new is said to broaden our mind. But getting away from it all, can have a downside. For example, when you get out of New York City, you may often find yourself somewhere that necessitates the use of a car. This is certainly the case in the city of stars, Los Angeles, home to ‘carmageddon’ where residents are estimated to spend 4 days of each year stuck in traffic.
On a recent trip there a friend and I tried to sweeten this bitter reality by renting a plush car – a sexy sports car with swanky interior that screamed “I belong here!” It did little, however, to alleviate the stress caused by sitting in traffic forever, or to remedy the frustration and anxiety that comes with jousting with other cars just to change lanes. Nor did it help with calming my nerves or those of my travelling companion. I found my anger going from 0-60 in under three seconds, while our powerful car crawled along with the rest of traffic.
Neither of us was anxious to take the wheel and be the first to navigate the 405 from LAX. We begrudgingly flipped a coin to decide who would drive. My heart simultaneously sank and palpitated when I lost. I cautiously settled into the driver’s seat, and we were off on our way. What followed next was like the merging of a hyper-sensitive and critical driving instructor with a new pupil, coupled with a GPS Navigation System that had a less than calming voice barking out instructions. I was treated to a constant commentary of how close I was to other cars, how fast they were going, how fast I was going, which lane I was in, which lane I should be in, and on, and on.
My therapist powers failed me and I snapped. I pulled over and exclaimed dramatically “All right, you drive!” As we took off with my travelling companion at the wheel, I was surprised, and admittedly comforted, to realize that my friend was, in fact, exactly the same as either a driver or as a passenger. His commentary continued, as he critiqued and questioned his own driving; was he in the right lane, how fast were we going in comparison to the other drivers, did I see that other guy?
I had, until that point, interpreted his behavior as him being critical of my driving. Suddenly it became clear that he was not being a critical back seat driver; he was anxious, as a driver or as a passenger. He was anxious, not having driven for a while and with someone also as inexperienced, being in a new city known for horrible traffic. The way he dealt with his anxiety was by verbalizing his thoughts. I found that my anger quickly dissipated and I turned to him and apologized for losing my cool.
This reminded me that it’s important to be aware of the inferences we make regarding others’ behavior. I assumed my buddy was being critical, that hurt and angered me, when in fact that was never the case – he was only dealing with his own anxiety. If I had not accepted my first inference and addressed his commentary, if instead of assuming it was all about me, I had put myself in his seat, and asked myself what may be at the root of his behavior, a mini-explosion could have been avoided.
Have you ever asked the question ‘what did you mean by that’?
Depending who you ask, you will often get several different answers. People may infer multiple different things from the same behavior. We develop automatic thoughts, based on experiences, sometimes correct, sometimes not. You have nothing to lose by allowing yourself to entertain other possibilities. It is not always about us; in fact I would go so far as to say that for others, it rarely is. Often others’ behavior is a result of what’s going on for them, things that are not obvious to us.
By testing our inferences and challenging them, we are able to confirm if they are actual facts, enabling us to approach situations from a much more level-headed and empathetic place, and thereby possibly prevent many mini-explosions.
Before you lash out, give this a try: put yourself in the back seat, in someone else’s shoes. Doing so, recognizing that it’s not necessarily about you, can instantly take the pressure off, making you less defensive and leaving you a more empathetic and understanding friend.
Source: Albert Ellis Institute
Many people working on addiction recovery are challenged by habitual ways of thinking that lead to misunderstandings, false conclusions and unnecessary upsets. SMART Recovery incorporates Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) skills for challenging and changing these unhelpful thinking patterns.
To learn more about the power of “Interpretations and Evaluations” vs “Facts” visit SMART Recovery Tools. Additional information about common Cognitive Distortions such as “jumping to conclusions” can be found in SMART Recovery’s Articles & Essays.