I went on a long, long ride yesterday. 110+ miles from Portland to the Oregon Coast. I was out there on the highways and by-ways, mixing up with cars, trucks and RVs. I waved at a few cops along the way and happily got where I was going on-time and in one piece.
But along the way, I got honked at, crowded, jostled and nearly cut-off a few times too.
I’m sure any of you reading this have had your share of run-ins with cars, seemingly aggressive drivers and people that seem to have it out for us runners and cyclists. My question today: do they really hate us or is it just in our minds?
Think about your reaction when a car jams down on the accelerator as they go by you or cuts closed enough that you feel the wind of their side-mirror go by your shoulder. How do you feel? Do you feel angry, mad, scared — or maybe a combination of all three? Those a strong feelings and I’d like us to think about where those powerful feelings come from.
In psychology there is a model that looks at things like this. It lays out four elements: an event, your thinking about the event, your feelings and then your behavior or reaction to the event. Let’s simplify and just refer to this as “Event – Thinking – Feeling – Behavior.” In our case, the event is say a car cutting close to you. The feeling is anger or rage. The behavior could range from yelling at the car to making an angry gesture, but is most likely something anti-social because it is stemming out of your feelings of anger or rage.
But the key element here is really the “thinking” piece of the equation. Why do we feel the anger or the rage? This stems from a thought that the driver “did that on purpose” or “was trying to scare me” or “is an a-hole” or “meant to hit me.” The list could go on and on, but all of these thoughts stem from our own internal thinking that the other person meant your some harm.
I’ve subscribed to this train of thought many times. Those drivers hate us. They don’t want us on their roads. We’re holding them up and that’s why they did that. These are all thoughts come from within and lead to the feelings of anger and rage that we feel when something like this happens.
Our thoughts, however, are within our control. What if we shifted those thoughts in another direction, at least for the sake of discussion. What if we thought “maybe they didn’t see me” or “they might not know how wide their mirrors stick out” or “maybe they don’t know how loud their engine is when they go by a cyclist”. What if they were really in a hurry, but it was because they had a their pregnant wife in the back-seat and were trying to get her to a hospital?
I think you can see where I’m taking this. When we take out the thoughts that the event was somehow personally directed toward you, it deflates the feelings of anger or rage. We start feeling other things: I’m glad they didn’t hit me; that was close, but I’m happy not have had accident; I’m concerned about that driver not knowing the size of their vehicle.” These are still real feelings and represent real concerns, but they are much more muted in their tone. And the result is likely to be much more pro-social behavior as an outcome. Rather than flipping them the bird, maybe you’ll buy a round of drinks at the bar celebrating the fact that you made it safely to your destination.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about the fact that the focus of our thoughts controls our experience and our reality. Try the exercise that I tried yesterday next time you’re out on the road. Take the thoughts of the personal attack out of these events and try to see them in a more neutral way. This will lessen your stress and anxiety. And you may just be a little more happy when you get where you’re going.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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