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The Stupid Stories We Tell Ourselves

October 27, 2016

I knew he was going to try to merge in. It was just a question of when. The freeway onramp was two blocks ahead on the right. The other driver had opted to pull up to the stop light in the left lane with a single car in front of him, rather than the right lane where I was currently number two in line for takeoff. Two blocks is plenty of time to merge. . .if you aren’t trying to squeeze in ahead of that one extra car. 

The light turned green and we were off. The lead car in the inside lane got a good jump and I could tell that my victim was anticipating getting to cut off the car in front of me. But, my guy got up to speed quickly and the gap never materialized.

Now it was a waiting game. The onramp was approaching quickly. The other driver REALLY wanted that extra length. I shortened up my following distance as well. If he was coming in I was going to make him PAY!

And there it was, finally, at the last minute, a blinker and a swerve. . .okay, maybe not an ACTUAL swerve, but he shouldn’t have been so greedy. Let him in or totally force him out? I’m a nice guy, so of course I let him in. . .and I was annoyed that he tried to be selfish and was inconsiderate, so I flashed my brights to let him know how annoyed I was.

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that actually happened this morning. Why didn’t I just back off and give him plenty of space? Stupidity, mostly. Mine, not his. In fact, I’ve done the exact same thing as he did. It wasn’t malicious.

I felt way too pleased with myself for punishing him with my blinding headlights. Like I said, stupid. And honestly, I knew it.

As I sat on the train and thought about it, I pulled out my “commuting” book; “Crucial Conversations” and walked right into a chapter about my morning. I’ve enjoyed Crucial Conversations and other titles by VitalSmarts for years. My favorite of their books is Influencer. But, Crucial Conversations is their most popular. I reread it every five years or so. It describes how to deal with high stress conversations. I’ve had a few of those in my life recently.

The section that I read this morning, with some chagrin, was about the stories we tell ourselves. We make decisions and then, because we are not crazy people, we figure out a story that makes our actions okay. Sometimes we consciously tell these stories, more often than not, we don’t even realize we are doing it. I was busy telling myself a “villain” story during my drive to the train this morning.

He is trying to take advantage of me. He’s greedy. He’s rude.

And then, I quickly switched to a “victim” story.

I’m in a hurry, too. Why should I have to wait? What makes his commute more important than mine?

And for good measure, I rounded it out with a “helpless” story.

I had to punish him. I couldn’t let him get away with it. There wasn’t really anything I could do. He’s lucky I didn’t use my horn too!

All of those stories were false, of course.

  • I had plenty of time to get to the train.
  • Even if I was late, a single car length at 40 MPH is less than the blink of an eye.
  • He probably didn’t even consider my POV. Why would he? I’m just one more car on the road.

The truth is, that I could have told myself another story and been just fine. I’ve read Crucial Conversations at least two or three times and I’ve even applied the teachings. No one likes to get cut off in traffic. Sometimes, we don’t even like the idea of another car getting in front of us. We think of it like some huge Grand Prix race and we have to fight for every car length because somewhere at the end, there’s going to be a checkered flag and a trophy. As a result, we become aggressive “us against them” drivers.

It’s stupid.

A long time ago I started telling myself a story when I got cut off. Because, let’s face it, while this driver this morning wasn’t trying to be rude, there are rude drivers on the road. (Like the people who flash their brights simply because you are trying to merge!) In those cases where someone cut in front of me, I told myself to stop and think. And If I stop and think, I can then make up any story I want for that other driver. Sure, I can think they are rude and greedy. But, I can just as easily think they are rushing to the hospital to deliver a baby. I can tell myself that they are possibly hurrying home to help one of their children who has fallen and broken her arm. I can literally tell myself anything. I don’t have to pick the worst stories. I can pick the best. When I do, I say them out loud to make them more true to me. And a funny thing happens. Hearing myself say them, I tend to believe them. Believing them means I don’t have to be angry.

Often, I won’t tell an entire story. I’ll limit it to “They are probably in a hurry.” Just the simple act of saying that makes it true. . .for me. Then I no longer have to be angry, or annoyed, or feel the need to punish them. It doesn’t even matter that it’s a story I’m telling myself. If I am going to let them merge in, my mind cries out for a justification. Any justification will do.

The authors of Crucial Conversations explain the concept much better than I do. Until I reread chapter 6 this morning, I had forgetting where I learned that trick of telling myself a story. And if that guy lines up in lane two tomorrow morning, I hope I’ll tell myself a much better story than I chose this morning.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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