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Getting in Fights with Strangers

Two strangers  having a fightI saw a video on Facebook. Two drivers, apparently contesting a parking space, were ramming each other’s cars. They were using their vehicles like bumper cars at an amusement park. But there was nothing amusing about the video.

Below the video, people had left thousands of comments.  Many decried the stupidity of the combatants. I don’t think low intelligence had anything to do with it. I saw rage.

And I’ve been there.

I’ve never rammed someone else’s car with my own, but I have felt like it. Wanted to do it. Fantasized about it.

It Takes Two

Scenes like the one caught on video, in which so much physical damage is done, aren’t commonplace. But that’s not because the impulse is rare.

Usually at least one participant manages to grab hold of their last scrap of rational thinking and hold on tight.

Either that, or fear gets in the way. Fear of immediate harm or later punishment.

Statistics don’t favor both opponents letting go of reason and caution at the same time. One normally ends the madness by restraining their behavior.

Even When You Win…

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been involved in unfriendly disputes with strangers before. No matter what the outcome, I always feel like a loser afterwards.

When I let a stranger’s poor behavior influence my own, I lose my sense of being an okay person. For the rest of the day, I’m stuck on a skewer of shame for having participated in something ugly.

Whether you win or lose a rage-fueled contest with a stranger, you lose.

That’s why I feel sorry for the women (both drivers turned out to be women) in the video. They both drove away in cars that were wrecked. But I suspect the damage went deeper than that.

Road Rage

The real culprit in this story is rage.

Rage takes no prisoners. It tries to destroy everything and everyone, including the rager.

I think rage comes from two places:

  1. Chronically suppressed anger

and/or

  1. Childhood emotional injuries that have become triggers.

In my case, I have a trigger. My anger tends to take over when others “assert themselves at my expense.”

I put quotes around that because those words have burned themselves into my psyche, I’ve repeated them to myself so many times trying to figure out my reaction.

There’s something about someone asserting themselves at my expense that takes my anger from zero to sixty in no time flat.

I suspect it has something to do with having had an older sibling who took my toys. It’s that basic.

Emotional Reactivity

When we suffer injustice early in life, a pattern of emotional reactivity can be established in our brains.

Overcoming irrational impulses fired by that trigger takes time and effort, yes. But mostly it takes awareness.

If I physically attack someone because they’re being an a-hole to me, that person is NOT the problem.

The real problem is that I can’t handle myself around people who are acting like a-holes.

Rage steps in, urging me to pillage and burn instead of taking a step back.

I don’t know the stories of those two aggressive drivers on the video. But I know it was rage that made them do what they did.

And I can imagine how they felt afterwards.

The words, “There but for the grace of God go I” come to mind.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."

3 Responses to "Getting in Fights with Strangers"

  • Snowburst
    December 12, 2016 - 9:59 pm Reply

    I’ve had this problem, too. And in my case, I attribute it to both #1 and #2. I have two older siblings; a brother who is 3 years older and a sister who is 8 years older. I don’t think they took my things so much in jealousy, but more rather to enjoy being mean. Often my brother would destroy something if he got his hands on it, so there was no getting it returned, either. Nor would it even get replaced. I started “sharing” my sister’s bedroom when she was 8 years old, and I was made well aware that it was her room, not mine. If my sister decided that I was done with one of my toys, or even my clothes, then they would disappear, no questions asked.

    As well, my mother’s way of dealing with it was to tell me to stop crying. If I didn’t I was either sent to my room, outside in the back yard which was fenced in, (in the 60’s, that wasn’t much of a concern to be left alone that way as far as kid-napping goes) or to make stand in the corner until I stopped crying. Which, by then, often took a long time since I was in a full-on bawling fit by then. I was such a “cry-baby”! My father was in his own world, doing his own thing most of the time. So I had no protection from all of that, either.

    Fast-forward to today, I have not surprisingly not only had a tumultuous adulthood but also I am an easy target for those who like to blame others for the things they themselves do. As it turns out, there are a lot of those on this planet! I am not ashamed of my fights and outbursts and “instinctive” reactions. Except, perhaps, immediately after they happen. But I believe that immediate feeling is due to being shamed in the past, not because I have just done something shameful. So in effect, the past is still haunting and controlling my ill-fated life. I don’t say that, feeling sorry for myself or as an attempt to blame them and allow myself to live a perpetual victim, but as making the connection necessary for being capable of becoming aware of the source of those feelings of shame, rage, and fear.

    I don’t believe these people are “asserting themselves at our expense”, but I do believe that what they are taking is not just our possessions, but our power to assert our own selves to keep that from happening. In other words, our own personal power is being pirated. They are not asserting themselves, but they are taking a very part of our own selves from us. And I think when that happens, it is human nature to turn and take someone else’s power from them to replace what was lost to us. Round and round it goes, until over generations, kids are shooting other kids at school and burning buildings down. I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but in my family, those who have treated me this way have also gotten themselves a huge ego in denial and think in general that they know what the world is like and how to function in it. When in reality, their “you’ve got to lie to get by” philosophy keeps tearing down people, families, and society in general.

    That is my theory, anyway. Not that I think we would do that knowingly, but I think collectively we are all contributing to that effect. I think it is far time for us to all learn to stop; not out of blame and shame, but out of taking each one of us our own responsibility for our own adult selves and creating a social living environment that will foster a safe place to raise our children and a safe place for future generations to do the same.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 13, 2016 - 10:37 am Reply

      Thank you for that incredibly thoughtful comment, Snowburst. It’s good to hear your perspective.

      Just the fact that you’re commenting about this is a welcome reminder that, regardless of the cause or details that go into this experience, I’m not alone in having it.

      Thanks again for taking the time to convey your thoughts so eloquently.

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