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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Normalization


 

People sometimes ask why I frequently use road rage examples when describing the ABC model of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Generally, I respond with anecdotes from my earlier years of working for a criminal justice diversion program.

 

In 2011, after having earned a graduate degree in counseling, I worked with criminal offenders – many of whom were incarcerated for road rage incidents. I taught about how when Activating events occur and people Believe something unproductive about these events, their irrational assumptions are what cause unpleasant Consequences (e.g., rage, hostility, aggression, etc.).

 

However, in actuality, I suppose I use road rage to illustrate the ABC model for an additional reason. Given my lifelong experience with road rage, aggression of this particular self-disturbed behavior seems normal—the usual, average, or typical state or condition.

 

Coming from a mental health care provider, I suspect my response could use some explanation. To better comprehend my reply, it may be helpful to understand the process of normalization.

 

According to one source, “Normalization refers to social processes through which ideas and actions come to be seen as ‘normal’ and become taken-for-granted or ‘natural’ in everyday life.” Since childhood, I’ve experienced many instances of road rage to the point by which such unproductive behavior once seemed normal to me.

 

Consider the following personal anecdotes. I recall that when I was in elementary school my mother engaged in many road rage events. For instance, I once witnessed her physically confront a man in the middle of an intersection.

 

As well, on the way to class one morning, a woman made the unfortunate mistake of flying the bird to my mom after cutting us off in traffic. My mom chased the woman to her place of business, got out of the car and gave chase inside the establishment, and had to be physically subdued by the woman’s male coworker.

 

When in adolescence, I could barely hold back my friend who was on anabolic steroids at the time, as he sought to physically batter another student who spat on his car. During that same period of time, I may or may not have been in the vehicle when a separate friend sent metal projectiles flying through the air when another motorist sideswiped the vehicle in which we rode.

 

Also in high school, I physically restrained my five-foot-tall girlfriend as she attempted to physically assault a man who she perceived as having driven disrespectfully when he passed us. Around that same time, I had a rifle pointed directly at my face after my buddy chased a man through traffic and the man was able to make it to his house in time to retrieve the firearm.

 

In early adulthood, I was the aggressor in more road rage incidents than I care to describe herein. I’ve had knifes and bats pulled on me, firearms waved at me, and I may or may not have engaged in mutual combat in intersections and on the sides of roadways. I’m not proud of this fact.

 

However, to me, road rage incidents were normal for the longest time. I had plenty of evidence to support irrationally demanding beliefs which pertained to how others should, must, or ought to have behaved when driving.

 

When people violated the rigidly prescribed commands of my mother, friends, or I, there were sometimes severe consequences for disregarded demands. This included anything from the honk of a horn to shots from a gun.

 

I irrationally believed that such behavior was normal. According to one source, “Normalization hence takes place when new norms and ideas of social order, strategically constructed in discourse, become – or are strategically assumed to become – part and parcel of mainstream or common thinking.”

 

This process is not to be confused with the normalization principle in psychology, which posits that people with disabilities should have the same opportunities as everyone else. Rather, normalization of maladaptive behavior behind a steering wheel deprives others of opportunities not to be aggressed upon.

 

What I’d learned up to around 25-years-old was that it was normal to drive erratically and use violence on roadways as a means of enforcing one’s own irrational beliefs. I thought this experience was part and parcel of common thinking for people like my family members, friends, and I.

 

It took many years for me to realize that it was only a matter of time before others or I would inevitably end up in the most unfavorable circumstances society had to offer. Without a significant change in my behavior, I was headed for a hospital, prison, or the grave.

 

When working for the criminal justice diversion program, I observed a number of people who hadn’t reached this realization in time. At first, teaching principles of REBT after the fact of incarceration for the consequences of self-disturbed beliefs seemed silly to me.

 

However, I found that the people within whom I worked in correctional facilities were attentive to the psychoeducational lessons I taught. Oddly, it’s been people in the free world – many who have never experienced being in a holding cell or prison pod – who’ve rejected my attempts at changing their mindsets.

 

For context regarding this matter, consider that I work with the processes of the mind (software) and not the brain (hardware). Therefore, I function from an ignorance-informed perspective concerning matters of the brain’s sectors and physiological activity.

 

When thinking of road rage, I consider what I’ve heard about the “reptilian brain,” which as I understand refers to a now-abandoned theory of Paul MacLean. Regarding this matter, one source states:

 

In MacLean’s triune brain model, the basal ganglia are referred to as the reptilian or primal brain, as this structure is in control of our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns, which ensure our survival and that of our species. The primal brain is also in charge of, what are often referred to as, the four Fs: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and… Reproduction (well, we won’t use that other f-word here!).

 

Although this scientific theory has apparently been set aside for other models of brain functioning, I still hear of mental health clinicians and clients referring to the basal ganglia and brain stem as relating to a reptilian brain. A person may shrug and say, “Oh well, I was in my reptile brain” when behaving undesirably in a stressful situation.

 

The notion is that during instances of intense stress, the brain activates the mind and body’s fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (FFFF) stress response. Therefore, the conscious mind is no longer capable of regulating emotions or altering behavior.

 

This proposition suggests an unconscious drive for survival, which has apparently been normalized. Herein, I’m unprepared to defend or reject this assertion. Rather, I will address why I use REBT in my personal and professional life to deal with activating events during which heightened stress is present.

 

To be as charitable as possible to the reptilian brain theory, I’ll use the elegant solution technique – granting the premise that there is such a thing as a reptile brain component that disallows an individual from thinking rationally. Somehow, we are all merely servants of our emotions.

 

With this understanding, anyone who cuts me off, flies the bird, or offends me in any way whatsoever will remain subject to whatever unconscious motivation my reptilian brain produces. I may run someone into a concrete median or I may ram a car with my vehicle.

 

There’s simply nothing I can do about my behavior. After all, if people can’t control themselves, the process of normalization would suggest that road rage is the usual, average, or typical behavior when driving. Better yet, I could even support this claim with data:


 

I regret to inform you that there’s nothing you can do about road rage, because this sort of behavior is no longer considered phenomenological. Rather, it’s the norm. Thank you for reading this blogpost. Take care.

 

For the REBT practitioners who come across this entry, I imagine you wondering if I’ve lost my mind. For everyone else, this is not how the elegant solution actually works.

 

In actuality, I’d use the elegant solution for the motorist who believes that there is danger on a highway. Rather than disputing the belief, I’d grant the premise – okay, highways are dangerous. Then, I’d invite the client to imagine how dangerous a drive on a highway could be.

 

Together, we’d explore self-disturbing beliefs about why the individual believes highways must be safe and whether or not it’s truly awful to be exposed to potentially dangerous events. I’d then assess levels of low frustration tolerance and challenge beliefs about unnecessary global evaluations.

 

However, I wouldn’t embolden unhealthy beliefs regarding the idea that people simply have no control over their beliefs, emotions, bodily sensations, or behavior. Even if I were to take at face value the aforementioned road rage statistics, it would be foolish and untrue to assert that people don’t retain some degree of control over themselves.

 

Still, I imagine the reptilian brain argument is something like what I experience with traumatic brain injury (TBI). This condition undoubtedly impacts my ability to effectively use rational thinking during some instances, though not all the time.

 

If a person transiently experiences reptile brain states of consciousness, whereby the person has diminished capacity along the level one may experience with TBI, then there are steps which may be taken in order to mitigate the impact of impairment. In particular, the buildup to a road rage episode is a crucial moment for the employment of REBT techniques.

 

This is what I used to teach my incarcerated clients. Consider that it’s one thing to be startled when on the roadway. A semi-trailer truck veers into your lane and you’re instinctively frightened. The driver in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes and you’re immediately surprised.

 

This is a normal action-consequence connection. Personally, I think society could use more information about primary core emotions related to joy, fear, anger, sorrow, and disgust. Let’s normalize dialogue about emotional experience!

 

Nevertheless, and just as I taught my caseload in correctional facilities, we have the ability to influence and even change secondary and tertiary emotional states. This process occurs when beliefs are introduced to primary emotions.

 

For example, you’re driving along the highway and suddenly a car transitions into the lane in front of you, and immediately slows to a near stop. You honk your horn when surprised and out the driver’s side window comes a fully extended arm, as the motorist flies the bird.

 

You then believe, “This son of a bitch has some nerve! He shouldn’t stop on the highway. Asshole! I’m gonna teach him a lesson!” With the introduction of unhelpful beliefs, you’ve transitioned from surprise to being enraged.

 

As you pull up beside the driver, honking as though you’re making money with each press of the horn, and yelling at the motorist, he displays a pistol. You then believe, “Oh shit, I’m gonna die! Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! I can’t take this! This is awful!”

 

You then transition from being enraged to being terrified. Thankfully, the driver speeds off. However, you then tell yourself, “I won’t stand for this! There’s no telling how many people he’s done this to. I won’t let him get away with treating me like this!”

 

You then give chase as you transition from terror to a furious disposition. Your heart is racing seemingly faster than your car, your hands tightly grip the steering wheel, and your legs are numb – as though they are no longer attached to your body.

 

As you fly down the highway, placing other motorists in danger, your sole focus is on the driver you irrationally believe shouldn’t have wronged you. Eventually, you catch up to the car and perform a precision immobilization technique maneuver on the vehicle.

 

The car immediately flips over and tumbles side-over-side. In what appears to happen in slow motion, you observe a tiny body – something like the size of a toddler – being ejected from the backseat of the rolling vehicle.

 

Is this behavior something you want to be normalized?

 

The entire belief-consequence connection could’ve been avoided past the point of initial surprise when the driver in front of you suddenly slammed on the brakes. You could’ve used the ABC model to dispute irrational beliefs before the process of self-disturbance unfolded. As well, you could’ve practiced unconditional acceptance.

 

I learned of REBT a decade after I’d already experienced multiple road rage incidents for almost a quarter of a century. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured from my actions.

 

Although rage, hostility, aggression, and violence were commonplace during the first portion of my life, I didn’t have to foolishly accept those self-disturbed conditions as that which was normal. Even if it was normalized by the people with whom I maintained contact, it wasn’t the sort of experience I needed to carry forth into middle adulthood.

 

Now, rather than denying individuals of personal agency and personal ownership, I teach the principles of REBT while encouraging people to consider the consequences of their self-disturbing beliefs. Even if there is a reptilian brain, we can redirect the path of beliefs which lead to a FFFF stress response.

 

This is precisely the approach I take regarding my TBI condition. Is it a perfect solution to all instances of self-disturbance? No. I’m a fallible human being and as such, I’ll never achieve perfection.

 

Nonetheless, I don’t throw up my hands and pass off personal agency, responsibility, and accountability to a supposed reptile brain. As such, I don’t want to continue the normalization of road rage that relates to my “lived experience” (for those of you who place meaning in such a concept).

 

Maybe you’ve grown up under similar circumstances as me. Maybe you’re one self-disturbed incident away from watching a toddler being ejected from a vehicle – all because you blame your actions on an outdated theory.

 

Is this how you want to live for the remainder of your life? Or, would you like to know more about how to effect change over your behavior when driving, rather than attributing your behavior on an inner crocodile?

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

 

References:

 

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