Back Seat Driver

Posted by Leonard Citron
May 24, 2020

Holidays are supposed to be fun, right? Getting away from it all, to discover a new locale is said to broaden our mind. When you get out of New York City, however, you sometimes find yourself somewhere that necessitates the use of a car. Perhaps nowhere more so than the city of stars, Los Angeles, home to ‘carmageddon’, where residents spend an estimated 4 days of each year stuck in traffic, with no real effective alternative for getting around.

On a recent trip there with a friend, we 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 remedy the frustration and anxiety that comes with jousting with other cars to push into the right lane. Nor did it help with calming the nerves of my traveling companion. I found my anger going from 0-60 in under three seconds, while our powerful car was crawling along in traffic.

Upon landing in LA, neither of us was keen to take the wheel and be the first to navigate the 405 from LAX. We begrudgingly flipped for it with a coin toss. My heart simultaneously sunk and palpitated when I lost. I cautiously headed to 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 taking out a pupil for the first time, coupled with a GPS Navigation System that had a less than calming voice to bark out instructions. I was treated to a constant commentary of what I was doing, how close I was to other cars, how fast they were going, which lane I was in, which lane I should be in, which mirror to check, and on, and on.

My therapist powers failed me and I snapped. I pulled over and exclaimed dramatically “Right, you drive!” As we took off with him at the helm, I was surprised, and admittedly comforted, to realize that my friend was in-fact exactly the same as both driver and passenger. The 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 driver or passenger. He was anxious being in a new city, known for horrible traffic, not having driven for a while and with someone also as inexperienced. The way he dealt with his anxiety was by verbalizing his thoughts. My anger 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, try and 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.

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