Got Transit Rage?

I’m often reminded that no matter how developed our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual muscles may be, there is always more to learn, more muscle to build and keep strong. And living in a city where crowded transit services are the norm provides ample opportunity for this!

For those who aren’t very familiar with Toronto:

  • UNESCO has described Toronto as one of the world’s most diverse cities.
  • It’s a city made up of distinct neighbourhoods with heritage characteristics, the “city within a park”.
  • We also have a revitalizing waterfront and hosted the Pan Am Games in 2016.
  • We’re recognized as the economic capital of Canada and one of the top financial centres of the world.

Sadly, Torontonians are also all familiar – with great chagrin – with the realities of our local transit authority, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Despite efforts in recent years to improve communication with transit riders when there are delays, and despite the achievement of the American Public Transportation Association’s award for Outstanding Public Transit System for 2017 (measured by modernization on a variety of critical points), anyone who relies on the TTC as part of a regular commute is intimately familiar with transit rage.

Transit rage is a real thing. It occurs when someone behaves selfishly or belligerently, and it affects you as the reasonable transit rider, and the person is unaware/unapologetic about it.

It’s enraging when people are hitting you with their backpack that they won’t take off, when they refuse to get out of the way of the subway doors, when they’re trying to shove their way down one end of a full train to the other, more convenient-to-them end.

All it takes is one negative interaction with someone like that, and you can find yourself stewing about it for an hour after.

I get it. After all, I’m one of those reasonable people, like you. Here’s the thing.

Your fellow riders who behave like jerks are beyond your control

Not only is their behaviour beyond your control, but part of the solution following that instance of anger is to have compassion for that person. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, or like I’m suggesting we should all be zen masters. Kind of both.

Because whether they’re having the worst day of their life and being reactionary as a result, or they’re genuinely selfish, entitled and thoughtless, you are not responsible for the decisions or behaviour of anyone other than yourself.

Of course not. You’re your own person, and again, you’re the responsible one.

But why does that single enraging incident that took no more than a moment on the subway continue to reiterate in your mind for hours after? And what can you do about it?

My run-in with Ms. Reactionary

A while ago, I was riding a crowded subway and unaware that I was about to have a transit incident..  

The moment the subway pulled out of the station, a woman stood up from a seat, wanting to get to the door and asking people to move. The issue was that there was nowhere to move on this crowded train, and in those situations, most people wait until the train arrives at their stop before pushing their way out the door. I politely let her know I would be getting off next as well.

Instead of assuaging this woman—let’s call her Ms. Reactionary—it only seemed to increase her stress. Ms. Reactionary physically forced her way past me and a man standing nearby, exclaiming, “ExCUSE me!”, shoving us into other people so she could be the first person at the door of this subway. Which was nowhere near the station. I was perplexed but shrugged and responded, “Okay.”

And then the actual issue started.

Ms. Reactionary sprung into tantrum mode, aggressively nodding her head and loudly exclaiming, “YEAH! UH-HUH! THAT’S RIGHT!!!”. To each pronouncement, I responded with a steady (but mystified) “Sure” or “Okay”.

I soon decided I was done interacting with Ms. Reactionary, so redirected my attention to the conversation I had been having with a friend, who was looking baffled and later pointed out that everyone she could see around us also had bewildered expressions.

The whole incident took place over the course of a minute or two, with Ms. Reactionary darting off the subway in a huff at the following stop.

Everyone saw my perplexed but calm responses to Ms. Reactionary. What they didn’t see is how I internally engaged in this incident, which progressed from a straightforward interaction, to surprise at an unprovoked and unfair reaction, to a choice.

My choices in the moment:

  1. I could perceive the outburst as an attack, and then counterattack or shrink away.
  2. Or I could recognize the reaction had nothing to do with me, and see it as an opportunity to practice my self-development.

I chose the latter.

But I haven’t always been able to do that.

I’ve previously shared that I survived a tumultuous childhood in which I learned that everything bad that could possibly happen to me—whether miniscule or life-altering—was my fault and my burden to bear. Boundaries only applied to my abusers. I have learned in adulthood how to set healthy boundaries (as I’ve discussed in another post), how to stand up for myself, and how to value and respect myself.

The ability to remain calm and observant with Ms. Reactionary while not taking on any attack or negativity that were not my responsibility is one that I have continued to hone.

How to deal with transit (or other commuting) rage

Let’s look at what this incident looked like for me internally, so that I was able to handle the situation (mostly) like a zen master.

Step 1: Recognize that it’s not about you

I recognized Ms. Reactionary’s outburst was clearly more about her than it was about me.

  • Maybe she was having the worst day of her life.
  • Maybe she has a mental health issue.
  • Maybe she is just like that.

It doesn’t matter. I didn’t need to know, because all I needed to know is that she was in a very negative space.

It’s not relevant why. That’s her responsibility.

Step 2: Know what your healthy boundaries are

I recognized that I could both stand in my power and remain engaged – not shutting down and out, not bristling up.

And so I held my ground calmly and didn’t take on any of her emotions, while I also recognized her personhood by maintaining eye contact.

It was a balance.

  • One the one hand, it was important to me not to shut down or bristle. I wanted to stand in my power and respond with a couple acknowledging words like, “Okay” and “Sure”.
  • On the other hand, it was important not to take on any of her emotions, regardless of how she was behaving. So I had a limit on how much I would interact before deciding I was done with it. As long as I was not in physical danger, there was no need to take further direct action with her.

If you’re doing the work on yourself to improve your personal boundaries, you’ll be able to figure out what this balance looks like for you.

Step 3: Send love and let it go

What no one else knew is that as she blasted out of the subway doors at the station, I actively sent love her way.

  • I sent her love because we all need love.
  • Because the fruit of her behaviour revealed the lack of love in her being in that moment.
  • Because I had been given a glance into the chaos of her emotions.
  • Because she needed love.

After I sent her love, and talked it through with my friend, I let the incident go. It was not going to serve me to continue to send energy to the incident. No stewing about it, no more thinking about it. This can take some mental self-discipline, but if you’ve been reading my articles you’ll know I’ve provided tools on how to develop that mental muscle.

This other piece I’ve written describes exactly how to send love to anyone (jerk or saint)

In short, what could have been a mildly distressing transit incident was instead an opportunity to have gratitude for my own personal progress, and to actively choose love in moments when it’s easier to choose anger. I encourage you to find ways of incorporating this practice into your life.

In a future post, I will discuss what it means to be the master of your own thoughts and to make active choices.

In the interim, remember that although we can’t always choose our circumstances, we can as adults absolutely choose how to respond within them. We can stand in the power of choice.

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