The psychology behind passive aggressive notes on car windscreens – and what to do instead
All drivers feel anger and frustration from time to time. But parking rage is perhaps one of the most common experiences for people who drive. Some of us indulge our feelings and go to the trouble of finding a piece of paper and a pen in order to leave a note (usually in the biggest capitals we can aesthetically fit on the piece of paper). An anonymous note of course. They always are. It’s an old practice that is a hardcopy equivalent of the more modern anonymous venomous comments on the internet.
But are these messages justified? We might answer anywhere from probably, maybe, more often than not, to yes. Of course, it might feel justified in that it’s possible the driver could have done a better job at parking on that particular occasion. But regardless, we should still not leave them these notes. Let me explain why.
WHY WE SHOULDN’T LEAVE A NOTE
Consequences for us
When we experience strong emotions such as anger, frustration, or rage, it’s because whatever triggered us means something very specific to us. Not everyone has immediate access to this information, as this very specific thing has its roots in traumatic experiences we had in our past. But whatever its roots, it is inherently connected with what we are about to do next.
In psychology, we call this subsequent behaviour a “maladaptive coping mechanism”. It’s called this because it is developmentally primitive; the behaviour didn’t evolve over time and although it might temporarily make us feel better, it’s harmful in the long term.
Leaving an anonymous passive aggressive note on a stranger’s car windscreen is a hostile act, and when we express our anger in this way, we communicate to others that we have lost control of ourselves. This is because we have shown an inability to retain control of our emotions. We are filled with thoughts of entitlement or self-righteousness, and we have lost control of our behaviour. Thus, we indulge to our urge to retaliate, hit back and hurt someone else in any way we can because we are displeased or feel that we have been wronged.
We do this anonymously because we are (at least to a point) aware that what we are doing isn’t necessarily the best choice we could have make and we are afraid of potential consequences. So we make sure we cannot be held accountable for our action. Like a child, mature enough to know that they are doing something wrong but cheeky enough to make sure they don’t get caught.
In summary, a trivial reason triggered our unaddressed trauma, caused us disproportional emotional distress towards the current situation, alongside strong physical reactions (tensed muscles, increased and rapid heart rate, etc.). This resulted in us reengaging our undeveloped coping mechanisms that further fuel our body’s stress response. In other words, even if we feel like we let some steam off, it actually came back to us in buckets.
Consequences for the receiver
When we leave such a note for someone else, we do not just harm ourselves. We give negativity more oxygen and pass our toxic stress to another person, which can trigger their own trauma.
Even if some might laugh it off, it can still activate their nervous system. For example, it can make them feel anxious, experience increased palpitations, tensed body muscles, an inability to relax for some time afterwards, and it might make them feel ashamed and leave them ruminating on what they have done. And to make things worse, there is no way to redemption. They cannot make it right; they don’t even have the chance to apologise because they do not know who left the note.
WHAT WE CAN DO INSTEAD
Triggering each other trauma’s is a back and forward exchange of toxicity that makes us all feel unsafe – no matter if we left or received the note. This is not a nice world to live in. We can do better, which is why we can work towards learning different ways to address these parking situations. Here’s how:
Step 1: Become aware
Acknowledging our behaviour and that there is something much bigger than what we originally think was behind it is the first difficult step. However, we can start by becoming more curious about ourselves and ask questions about why we think, feel and behave the way we do in these circumstances. This will motivate us to reach out for the relevant information, become more informed and start understanding ourselves better.
Step 2: Notice & breathe
Once we understand that our emotions and thoughts drive our behaviour, we can begin to pay more attention to them so we don’t get dragged down or pulled along by them. When we feel strong emotions we can stop and ask – why am I feeling this way, what triggered me and why am I feeling triggered by it, what thoughts am I having and how do they make me want to respond?
Then we can help ourselves release all the built up energy and tension we are feeling by closing our eyes and taking a few deep breaths or by engaging in progressive muscle relaxation (i.e., tensing and relaxing our muscles in our toes and progressively working our way up to our neck and head whilst taking deep breaths).
Step 3: Tap into our empathy
We can think of parking as a community activity in which we are all involved. Sometimes we too have a bad day, a reason to be in a rush, or just not at the peak of our abilities at every single moment. This is a human experience that we can all relate to.
Remembering this can help activate our empathy so we can be more understanding of the situation. We are more likely now to see it as an opportunity to participate positively and be supportive by letting go.
Step 4: Problem solve & move on with your life
If the other person’s parking is affecting our ability to park nearby or get our car out, we can just focus on the problem at hand and figure out a solution with an “even keel” mind. Can we park a bit further away? If we need to leave, can we order a taxi and return to pick up our car later?
This way we do not engage mentally or emotionally with the reason why we cannot do what we had in mind to do, which would only aggravate us. Instead, we diffuse the situation by finding a solution to the situation we now have in front of us and move on with our day to do whatever we were planning to.
Leaving a passive aggressive note is easy but damaging to everyone. Instead, a better choice is to turn to ourselves when triggered and use it as an opportunity to learn. We can give ourselves the time and space to take control of ourselves, self-regulate and make a different (wiser, more mature, and more civilised) choice about how to respond.
If we do this every time we are triggered by something, then we are working towards healing, growing up and becoming more resilient. And at the same time, we make our world a bit kinder and safer for everyone, including those who may do things differently to us.
NB: BESIDES PARKING RAGE, THESE 4 STEPS CAN ALSO BE APPLIED TO ANY SITUATION IN LIFE WHEN WE FEEL TRIGGERED.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.
Click here to book an online session or in person with Dr Patapia Tzotzoli at My Psychology Clinic.