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Using the Car as Perfect Personal Space

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Being alone in a car provides a perfect opportunity for personal therapy. It is a great place to retreat from the world and to get into one’s feelings. No one is there to intrude or criticize. We can think or say anything we like. We can listen to ourselves and not worry whether someone else is listening. We can create bright, witty dialogue and enjoy our fantasies. No matter what may be going on in the traffic around us, there is something protective and soothing about a car as personal sanctuary.

Each of us needs some space in which to relax and indulge in private thought and fantasy. For many, it is the car in motion. We all know people who go for a ride in order to relax. Some of us seek the privacy of a parked car in a deserted spot, perhaps, to have a good cry; perhaps to shout obscenities at someone who has wronged us.

As a psychotherapist, I try to create a safe, comfortable space in which my patients may want to talk. In the quiet of my office, however, I hear repeated anecdotes about how the car is used as a very meaningful place to deal with troubled feelings. A car in motion can serve an individual quite well--he or she can find amusement or recreation; it is a place to prepare for a busy day, to unwind from an endless variety of daily tensions (including traffic); it is a convenient spot to have a snack or an extended lunch, to look after details of grooming, to discuss business, whether or not one has a car-phone, and to repair the damage to self-esteem that we all suffer.

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The car as personal space is especially critical for those who have trouble finding it in other places. Without realizing it, people develop a relaxed “at home” feeling inside their cars and take on challenging questions: When will I hear from him again? Why am I not moving ahead in my work? Why won’t she talk to me anymore? What will the doctor tell mom? During the long commute each day and despite the thickening and sometimes sickening flow of traffic, we manage, mostly, to keep clear-headed and do our mental homework (carwork).

When you next glance at the driver in the next lane and see someone deep in thought, he or she may be in that very special place of working out something troubling, at the moment seeming entirely out of touch with what is happening around them. As automobiles become more efficient and driving requires less conscious effort and attention, it becomes easier to spend more time in one’s thought.

Sometimes, the quiet soul-searching of the lone driver becomes a little more animated. He or she can be seen talking aloud and gesturing with much feeling to imagined friends and lovers. Angry eruptions, shouting and crying occur frequently. Many patients have told me of experiencing rather violent emotional outbursts when driving alone. Needing extra time, some prefer to wait until they are on the long daily commute to try to deal with a troubling problem. However, it is not easy to drive when we are emotionally overwrought.

Though not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we may drive just a little too heavily under the influence of ourselves. A comfortable, private space becomes a vehicle for spacing-out. Hiding within the quiet privacy of rolled-up windows, we may get dangerously close to disconnecting totally from what is going on outside. We withdraw into our own inner space, getting so caught up within ourselves--our worries, fears, fantasies--that we forget what we are doing or where we are. It is nothing short of amazing that despite retreating into our private inner worlds, we arrive at our destinations in one piece. And that the other drivers do, too--mostly.

There is a fine line between using the car as personal sanctuary for healthy reasons and using the car for personal indulgence that can be dangerous. A young man I know liked to suck his thumb in the privacy of his car. But in trying to hide it from fellow drivers, he moved the sun visor to a spot that almost blocked his view of traffic. Another man told me about his occasional feelings of elation and invincibility when driving his pick-up truck. He waited for drivers to try to pass him, so he could challenge them with his game of pushing out front and daring the other driver to move ahead. Then there was the sports car enthusiast who liked to indulge in freeway-hunting of single women also driving sports cars. He had a remarkable record of freeway pickups.

There are also people who become frightened in the process of driving. It can be in response to something that other drivers do to them, but mostly it comes from something disturbing within. One woman, for example, knew that she absolutely had to have her wits about her in order to make a left turn on a busy street. If she was upset about anything at all, she could not concentrate well enough to make her turn at exactly the right time.

Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is the automobile as vital to people’s lives as it is in Southern California. We spend lots of time in our cars. We are slowly learning how to adapt to being in these cars and getting something useful out of our time and effort in them. The largest task here is to know more about ourselves as individual drivers. There is a vast world yet to be explored of what goes on in the mind of the person behind the wheel. Freud said that the dream is the “royal road” to the unconscious. Maybe we’d be better off figuring out our dreams before turning on the ignition and taking to the road.


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