I have a confession to make.

I’m feeling rather ashamed about it, but today I showed someone my middle finger – in the heat of a small attack of anger. In case you’re not familiar with this particular gesture then the picture on the left demonstrates it and there’s an educational piece on it on Wikipedia.

I imagine you’re probably wondering what on Earth could someone do to trigger this reaction in me. If not, then skip this next bit.

The Incident

I was returning home after my morning run around the park (Mona calls it a ‘jog‘ which sounds far too leisurely so I prefer to think of it as a ‘run‘). To get home means crossing a well-marked pedestrian crossing over a 4-lane road. This road is in a residential area by the side of one of the most popular parks in the city, has many stop lights and crossings and yet, in my estimation, drivers still drive faster than is safe.

I was already on the crossing but slowed down when I saw a car coming towards me a little faster than I felt comfortable with. Once I was sure he was slowing down I carried on and indeed he stopped. Then he had the audacity to honk his horn and when I looked at him he put two fingers towards his eyes in an unmistakable message to me:

Look where you’re going, IDIOT!

And my reaction, I’m sad to say, was to show him my middle finger in an equally unmistakable message to him:

No! YOU look where you’re going, ASSHOLE.

I completed the gesture with a suitable face expression and went on my way feeling somewhat shaken yet confident he had learned his lesson and would, from now on, drive much more carefully.

I don’t remember ever using that gesture before and my first attempt this morning was actually to raise my  ring finger. I quickly realised my mistake and changed it to the middle one, but I suspect the full impact of the gesture might have been lost on the driver. Even so, I was feeling quite smug and righteous as I carried on across the street.

For a moment, as he pulled away from the crossing, I thought he was slowing down and I started to prepare to march over and continue my driving lesson with him.

I knew I was right and he was wrong. I knew he was a bad and irresponsible driver and it was my duty to teach him a lesson and save all the children and stray dogs who cross this road from idiots like this. The picture flashed across my mind of a physical confrontation and I was ready for it.

But he drove away, perhaps put off by my height and presumed athleticism – an easy mistake to make given I was in running gear and very sweaty at this point. More likely he drove off because of the small child sitting on the back seat of the car. Or maybe I mistook his face expression as he came skidding to a halt at the crossing (before the offending horn and two fingers in the eye gesture). At first I thought it was anger directed at me but on reflection it was terror.

The Power of Anger

The anger I felt was strong and lasted a few seconds and for those few seconds I was full of passion, my brain was frantic and adrenaline gave me an energy boost. My thoughts were full of judgement about the driver, his obvious recklessness and his arrogance at trying to teach me a lesson about how to be a good pedestrian.

Even though the thoughts were ugly, the anger felt great!

For a moment.

A few minutes later I felt terrible – and this feeling stayed with me for some time. In this reflective period that followed the incident I did manage to connect deeper to what was going on for me and even what might have been going on for the driver. At the same time I could so easily see how things might have turned nasty. I saw how anger gave me a false sense of power and invincibility and, allowed to boil over, could easily have turned to violence.

And I see the value of that anger in preparing me for possible danger and alerting my body to fight or flight at a very instinctive level.

Rewind

I would have liked this incident to have gone a little different.

By the time I reached home I had calmed down, connected with my needs and started to wonder what had been going on …

For myself:

I would have liked to see immediately through the anger and judgements about the driver to my concern and fear when I saw how fast he was driving. I wish I had acknowledged my need for ease and safety – wanting to be able to cross the street without having to concentrate too much or take risks with my life.

I would have liked to have found a way to communicate this in a different, more self responsible way, even if only in my internal dialogue, and avoided the impulse to teach him a lesson or punish him with my anger.

For the driver:

When I saw his gesture to me I was triggered and thinking he was trying to educate me.  I would have liked to have seen his gesture as an expression of his own vulnerability and needs. Possibly he wanted more ease in driving around the city and not wanting to look out for people crossing the street. Possibly he was afraid when he saw me on the road because he values life and imagined he might harm me. Possibly he was terrified because he was transporting his kid and needs safety and protection for his child.

It is not important whether these guesses are accurate or not or even if I had a chance to talk to him (which seems unlikely). More important is my own internal processing in the heat of difficult moments. Can I develop the deep habit of reaching out to others even when they appear to be aggressive and I’m getting triggered? Can I consistently see other people’s actions as expressions of their needs and reach out to that with empathy?

Now I connect with the value of that anger this morning while feeling deep gratitude that my years of learning NVC helped me control it, learn from it and recover quickly from it.

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