Imagine yourself driving to work one sunny morning. It’s been a good morning and you’re content (in your own peaceful thoughts). Then the car in the next lane aggressively moves into your lane ahead of you and the driver suddenly brakes! You break hard to avoid contact as the articles on your console (sunglasses, phone) fall to the floor. How do you react? Do you get angry or do you brush it off?
Every day, our interpretation and reaction to external events impacts the way we feel. You see, it’s not the actual event that causes us to feel a certain way, it’s how we interpret it. Imagine all of us walking (or driving) around with a big filter over our heads. Everything that enters into our experience has to go through this filter. The filter is made up of our beliefs, past experiences, knowledge, personality, influences, where we live, etc.
When I experience something, my filter interprets what I just experienced. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this interpretation happens though what are called automatic thoughts. Sometimes, my automatic thoughts allow me to experience something fully and productively, and other times my automatic thoughts are twisted so they impact me negatively. Through CBT, people learn to identify and impact these automatic thoughts to help them experience life in a healthy way and feel better.
Dr. Christian Conte (www.drchristianconte.com) provides a tool for changing the way we react and he uses the driving example (above). Dr. Conte suggests using a physical (or visual) reminder to remain in control. As your driving, your peace of mind is your power and you control it. You want to keep control of your power. Imagine that while driving, you hold this power in your steering wheel. So now, you physically have a grip on it when the car cuts you off and slams on the breaks. You have two options.
One option is to let your anger take over. You can curse loudly at the driver, waving your fist and honking your horn. You may think about how “bleeping” inconsiderate the driver is and how you can’t believe anyone would do that. In this case, you have handed over control of your power (your peace of mind) to the external event. You have tossed your steering wheel into the other car! You will probably carry anger for the rest of your drive. In fact, you may take it with you when you get to work, and even when you get home and tell the story at the dinner table. The anger still effects you all day long!
Your second option is to look at your steering wheel recalling that it holds your power (your peace of mind) and you don’t want to let go. Acknowledge that the other driver did something dangerous, but not on purpose. There are many possible reasons (maybe he didn’t see you, maybe he is in a hurry, maybe he is just a bad driver). Whatever the reason, the driver isn’t out to ruin your day. By holding onto your power, you can see the situation for what it is and not as a personal attack. You can react productively, and quickly return to your content state of mind.
CBT provides many tools to help us feel better. Give this one a try next time you’re behind the wheel!
Licensed Professional Counselor Intern
Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC