Updated: Feb 10, 2020
Do you ever get the feeling life is just happening around you? Perhaps it feels like you’re in the backseat, along for the ride.
Or maybe you feel like it’s a roller coaster, and you’re hanging on for dear life.
In either case, there’s a distinct sense that you are NOT in the driver’s seat. Which is terrifying—I mean, this isn’t an Uber ride after a night of drinking. This is your life.
My brain has a few tricks up its sleeve for getting my attention when there’s a dangerous lack of control over my life. The main one is to bombard me relentlessly with dream symbolism: I’m in a car, but not in the driver’s seat. Or, I get on an airplane and shortly after takeoff it starts to go down. (Those are especially fun. Did I mention I’m an anxious flyer? Thanks, brain!) Or, I’m on a tram that turns into a roller coaster and I’m not strapped in correctly.
Alright, already! I get it. Sheesh.
But in all honesty, I owe a lot to this particular dream symbolism. It’s the reason I became interested in the science of dreaming in the first place, and it’s helped me heal from a lot of past trauma. In fact, the me-in-a-car-but-not-driving symbolism is the first recurring dream symbolism I can remember, dating back to about the age of 5. Why on earth would a 5-year-old need to be in control of a car, you ask? You obviously didn’t know me as a child.
A little background. My parents divorced when I was 4. My mom got primary custody, and we shuttled back and forth from my Dad’s house every other weekend. During that time, it was me and my big sister a lot, since my mom worked full time to support us. My sister is 4.5 years older than me, so I really saw her as a second mom.
The problem was that she was 9 years old at the time, hardly old enough to be responsible for helping raise a young child. Not that my mom ever left me alone with her at that age—we were day care kids—but at that time, I looked to my big sister a lot for support. But her parents were going through a divorce, too. And she was old enough to have some understanding of what a raw deal that was, and some of that anger and frustration got directed toward me.
FYI, my sister and I have done a lot of growing and healing since then. I no longer blame her for the way she treated me. Do you know why? Because I now know that she was far too young to be put in the driver’s seat of my life.
But even at 5 years old, part of me knew this. And I have this recurring dream symbolism to thank for that: My mom is driving, but has to leave my sister and me to go to work or a social event. It was assumed that my sister would drive me home. But, wait—she’s only 10 years old! That’s far too young for all that responsibility. Even my 5-year-old brain knew that. So I buckled in and held on for dear life, praying we’d get home safely.
Following the success of this particular symbol, my brain has since used the car dream like it was going out of style: I’ve dreamt I was in the back seat and couldn’t reach the pedals, but still had to steer. I’ve also dreamt I put on cruise control so I could take a nap in the back. I’ve dreamt my cat is driving and I’m afraid she’s going to escape (that was during my Warhol phase apparently). I’ve dreamt I let my friend drive, who ends up doing donuts in a soccer field and gets us arrested. Wait—no, that actually happened when I was in high school.
So what does this symbolism mean? To me, it’s obvious: It’s communicating an innate desire to be in control of one’s journey. And it’s not all that original, either. We have sayings like, “along for the ride,” “backseat driver,” and “Jesus, take the wheel,” all of which express a lack, excessive need, or surrendering of control. And, much like driving a car, navigating through life requires a delicate balance of the need to control: If we excessively crave control, our journey is rife with anxiety and fear. If we completely relinquish it, there’s no guarantee we will safely get to our destination.
This is not to say we must be in the driver’s seat at all times. There are going to be times in your life when you have to give up control. The untimely death of a loved one, for instance, often requires we let someone else drive for a little while. This is where trust comes in: If you don’t trust the person behind the wheel, then you’re in for a shitty ride.
This true whether it’s your 10-year-old sister, your cat, or your stoner high school friend. But it’s especially true if it’s you—without self-trust, you end up being the backseat driver of your own life.
So how do we get you back in the driver’s seat? For me, it came down to forgiveness. I had to forgive my sister for being a shitty 10-year-old driver. I had to forgive my mom and dad for putting her behind the wheel in the first place. And I had to forgive myself for vacillating between falling asleep at the wheel and being a backseat driver for most of my life.
Somewhere in the midst of all this forgiveness, a funny thing happens: You end up taking responsibility for your journey. After all, it’s up to you to make sure you get where you’re going.
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