In my life, I am the driver. My husband has been my passenger for over thirty years now Every time we’re driving and someone honks their horn, my husband says, “Why are they honking? You didn’t do anything wrong!”
“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” I reply. “So I really don’t care why they’re honking. It has nothing to do with me.”
In other words, when I drive, I tend not to take things personally. Interestingly, my practice doing this on the road translates very well into how not to take things personally in my life. So, here are the five things driving has taught me about how not to take things personally:
1. I realize a person’s reaction to something I do on the road has more to do with them–where they are in their mind and in their life–than it has to do with me.
People make mistakes on the road around me all the time. Unless they are actively putting me in immediate danger, I won’t honk my horn at them. I’ll hit my brake to let someone get in front of me; I’ll slow down if someone near me is driving erratically; if there’s a stop light and all the cars around me are already slowing down, I’ll slow down fast enough to let folks trying to pull out of shopping center parking lots in front of me. I use drive time to cultivate patience. If I find myself getting frustrated to the point of hitting my horn, I pull over and get a beverage. I will not let traffic turn me into an angry, frustrated person. This is a conscious choice, but it is not something everyone practices, and so when they are critical of me on the road, that is their decision and has very little to do with me.
2. I focus on the knowledge that every one of us fighting a battle no one sees.
When someone on the road acts aggressively, honking or cutting me off, I imagine they might be trying to get to the hospital to visit a sick relative. They might be rushing to their second or third job. They might be hurrying to pick up a sick child. Some people are so over-scheduled that getting stuck at even one stoplight can throw off their whole afternoon and lead to extreme anger and frustration. And, now I have yet another new perspective, because my teen-aged daughter has started driving. She’s new at it. She doesn’t always know where she’s going. She drives a little too slow sometimes. I have managed to develop even more patience and compassion for other drivers by imagining all of them are 16-year-old girls who have no idea where they’re going half the time. So, when someone cuts too close in front of me, I breathe “sixteen-year-old girl” and it goes a long way in preventing me from taking it personally.
3. I understand that the other person might be trying to communicate something to help me, not hurt me, and that what might be interpreted as a sign of criticism is really their way of showing kindness.
When I lived in New York City, if I was driving and someone flashed their high beams at me, I got out of the way. It was an act of extreme aggression and almost violent anger. When I moved to Florida, someone flashed their high beams at me and I was terrified. I pulled over immediately, and it made me late to a meeting. I told a co-worker what had happened, and he asked for the whole story. I told him I was trying to merge into the driver’s lane, and he flashed his high beams at me, so I turned into a gas station to get away from him. My co-worker laughed. Evidently, at least in my part of Florida, flashing one’s high beams means “Go ahead, I see you and I’m letting you get in front of me.” That driver wasn’t threatening me. He was being nice. It was my perspective that was skewed–rightfully so, given my prior experiences–but I was still the one misinterpreting.
4. Instead of dwelling on criticisms, I try to figure out what I can learn from them. I cannot let my mistakes define me; I can only work to incorporate what I’ve learned for the future.
Realistically, I know I make mistakes on the road. I don’t know how soon a lane is ending, or an exit comes up on me faster than expected and I have to merge quickly. Sometimes, people get angry and frustrated because of that. I understand. But instead of letting their anger rattle me, I take a deep breath and promise myself I will do better next time. Trust me, I remember every place between St. Petersburg and Miami where I’ve messed up during a drive. I know when the lane merges, I know how fast the exit comes up, I know where the construction is, I know where the lane changes are. I know the timing of the lights and how they differ at different times of the day. I have used every less-than-stellar experience on the road to learn something, so I can do better next time, and then I let the interaction go.
5. I realize that how I see myself is my choice; I cannot let the opinions or actions of others determine my sense of confidence or self-esteem.
When someone honks at me on the road and I choose to believe they are not honking at me, this may make me seem arrogant or ignorant. I prefer to be interpreted as confident in my driving abilities. However, I can’t control how other people choose to view me. I can only control how I choose to view myself. Of course, I try to do the right thing. I try to drive in such a way that people feel safe in my car, and that other drivers feel safe around me. But I fully acknowledge that when I allow people to merge in front of me, it might anger the people behind me who feel I am letting those merging folks cut the line. People might interpret me as too lenient, too yielding, too accommodating. I might frustrate them by staying still longer than they think I should, or stopping sooner than I have to. And that’s fine. It is what it is. I’m not going to change who I am, or what I do because of it, but I will fully acknowledge that they can interpret me as they choose. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s my opinion of myself that ultimately matters–and that allows me not to take things too personally.
In the end, I think, the main way to sum up how driving has allowed me to learn to take things less personally is that on the road I have a very solid sense of my abilities and my weaknesses. I have a lot of confidence. I have a highly cultivated sense of self-worth. I realize that I am the master of my own narrative. I can come home from a day on the road telling horror stories of anger, impatience, frustration, and disgust, or I can tell stories of meditation, prayer, joy, patience and valuing every breath. I think it’s clear which stories I choose to tell, and it’s all because I choose not to take interactions on the road personally. After all, everything’s not all about me–even if, ultimately, I am the one driving my life.