By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
So, I was driving into work today and I took some back roads so to speak. On the way a car in front of me had signaled to turn right and slowed down and then slowed all the way to a stop, without turning, so that they were sitting in the lane in front of me. I did what seemed wise, since no cars were coming and chose to go around them. But, as I went past the driver of this car became very upset at me and laid on his horn. He continued to stay there in the road and fumed at me as I went along up the road.
It got me to wondering, “what the heck was that about?” I reviewed myself and could not think of how I had deeply offended him that would provoke this level of response. I have had my share of irate and rather crazy people on the road. I’ve had a young man get out of his car and threatened to fight me while I was pumping gas at a gas station. I’ve had a water bottle thrown at my car. I’ve had someone spit on my windshield. I’ve had a bike rider bang on my car for getting too close to him I presume. I’ve observed a driver get out of his car and come over to my Dad’s car (he was the driver) and take off his shoe and bang on our car. And I have experienced and observed drivers endanger themselves and others with reckless driving in their rage.
Yes, there was some incident that provoked these folks to rage. But the question is whether the reaction is proportionate to the precipitating cause. Well, you already know the answer to that. There would be nothing to write about if the reaction was in proportion. That is what is so strange to the observer or the recipient of these strange and scary reactions. And so, what I want to try and shed some light on what may be going on inside these folks and then offer some ideas on how to handle it. Because it wasn’t you, it is about them.
- Drugs or Alcohol related
It could very well be that this person is not behaving rationally because they are stoned or under the influence of something.
This is the psychological term for when we project an emotion from one situation onto a different one that follows sometime later. The classic example is the guy who is getting reamed out at work by his boss and he can’t defend himself and just takes it. But he goes home and kicks the dog. So, these folks had something that affected them negatively and they stuffed their emotions. And then you come along and trigger it and boom – out it comes!
- They were already raging. (Emotionally high jacked)
Look, you have no idea about this person’s state of mind or prior experience. Maybe they just broke up with their girlfriend, or found out she has been cheating on them? Maybe they just got fired? Maybe they just stole from a store and so they are really nervous? This time, they haven’t stuffed their feelings. They are just already at level 10 on the 1-10 scale of upset and are emotionally flooded and lacking in self control. It’s like a panic attack, but with the emotion of anger instead of anxiety.
- Your action is perceived by them as threatening
There are lots of people out there who are quite sensitive to any perceived disrespect, or belittling, or suggestion that they are wrong, isn’t there?! This is likely related to internalized shame and they have developed a coping strategy to protect themselves from the stinging pain of having that shame exposed. Often the protective strategy is designed around attacking and shaming the source of the exposure – to end the threat.
- They are crazy.
I know, I’m a mental health counselor, so I’m not supposed to use that pejorative terminology. I’m not judging them, but there are folks who have a psychological illness or condition, and some of them will have symptoms involving irrational reactions and rage.
What Can You Do in These Situations?
Most of the time you won’t be able to distinguish which of the above five you are encountering, meaning you cannot tell whether the person is dangerous or not. And with that in mind, my advice is to not engage them, but to move on. I know it is tempting to defend yourself or to confront them on their behavior. But that would just not be wise. But that would just not be wise. In fact, when encountering someone raging I would encourage you to not make eye contact with them, as this can make it more personal to them.
There is a strong correlation with aggressive driving and getting into more of these road rage type incidents. You may not be driving around raging all the time, but if you have aggressive tendencies you may draw the attention of the raging ones. Some of the behaviors that are known to trigger rage in other drivers include distracted driving while on phones and such, cutting someone off and tailgating.
But what I want you to remember is just what I titled this piece – and that this is about them and not you. Because we can get caught up in someone’s out of proportion reaction and sometimes erroneously think and feel like we caused their upset and end up struggling with guilt or confusion. But even if you did cut them off in traffic, or some other offense, it is very unlikely that you provoked the severe response of rage in the other person. That’s what I want you to get out of this; that reactions of the type we are talking about are not about the current event.
Now, in case as you’ve been reading along, you’ve not only thought about the times that this happened to you but also about the times that you’ve been that super upset individual – I am going to follow up this article with one to address that side of things; on what to do if or when you have out of proportion responses.
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.