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Passengers! How your Story gets Programmed.

This blog series is all about finding the balance between pursuing your unique path and negotiating the road of life as it exists. While each of us has a distinct story, the laws of nature apply to all of us. This blog is about how your story gets programmed to influence your path.

In the last blog, I introduced the metaphor of the mind-body-vehicle to highlight three Universal truths:

  1. Each of our stories is unique, AND we all have the same basic operating system.
  2. We all have strengths and vulnerabilities, depending on ‘road conditions.’
  3. When the road of life changes or gets stressful, new ‘driving’ skills are needed.

Within this context, how we feel is constantly changing. This is because, as we drive the roads of life, and collect different experiences, we collect passengers.


From the moment you set out on the road of life, you begin to accumulate experiences: birthdays, school days, everyday events, and special events. The road represents the situations and people we encounter, factual events, which occurred.

Passengers can distract us from where we truly want to go.
Passengers can distract us from where we truly want to go.

Over time, we begin to pick up passengers related to the facts we have encountered. Passengers are our internal experiences in the form of beliefs and feelings about the world. They form our expectations about how the world works, how others respond to our needs, even our own capabilities. Passengers are basically our learned reactions from past experience.

So, for example, imagine your mind-body-vehicle is unique and sleek, but quite sensitive, like a vintage sports car. But you find yourself on a life road, which requires heavy lifting, long drives, and consistent performance? You might be more likely to accumulate passengers related to self-doubt or helplessness, which a more hardy vehicle (an SUV) might not.

On the other hand, if you found yourself on a life road that highly valued the unique, sensitive qualities of this vehicle, you might acquire more passengers related to confidence, even entitlement. Can you see how passengers are the result of the interaction between the vehicle (person) and the road (life events)?

PAUSE QUESTION: Do you believe there was a match between your vehicle type and the demands of the road as you grew up? Do you feel there is a match currently? Do you have judgments about the type of vehicle you are?

Passengers are the experiences you have inside yourself; thoughts, beliefs, memories, feelings, physical sensations, impulses, and emotions. Some passengers are benign, which don’t affect us very much. Some are even pleasant, and help us on the road of life at certain times. But some passengers make us feel really vulnerable and uncomfortable.

Auto-Pilot Strategies and Habits

Humans will naturally and automatically do more of what feels good, and less of what feels bad. So we develop strategies to keep the bad feeling passengers outside of our awareness. Strategies are the ways we think and behave to quiet down the passengers. Examples of how we try to quiet down passengers include: negative self talk, spacing out, distraction, over using drugs and drinking, sleeping too much, or perfectionism.

Over time, these strategies become our auto-pilot habits. We become so consumed in quieting down the passengers, we loose sight of where we truly want to go. If we over use our auto-pilot strategies too long or too often, the passengers start getting rowdy! Soon our driving patterns (our actions) can become automatically and unconsciously under the influence of the passengers, rather than the driver, us!

No Exit

Now, here’s the bad news. Just as we cannot delete past experience, once passengers are on your vehicle, they never get off. We simply cannot un-know what we have experienced. Sure, we can distract ourselves or avoid the situations that trigger these passengers.

But some part of you already knows that you simply cannot will yourself to feel, or un feel, a certain way. You may have tried to forget certain parts of your past, or ignored the resulting insecurities. But your own experience tells you, you can’t un-ring a bell. You don’t need me to tell you that you simply cannot just “be more confident,” “not care,” or “like” something by willing it to be so.

Highway Interchanges, Off Ramps, and Transitions

Passengers tend to get particularly unruly when we have a major life transition, or pursue something important. Naturally, when we begin new or uncertain roads, auto-pilot no longer works! Your gonna need new skills to balance mindfully listening to passengers, with effective driving and navigation of facts on the road.

Think about it for a second. There is no more challenging time than the uncertain transition into adulthood. First you have the transition between adolescence and adulthood, with all the decisions about education and career choices. Then you have to decide how to strategize choices about which job to take, or keep.

There are endless decisions about how to balance a job that supports you versus one that moves you toward your goals. Just when you might start to figure that out, you have to start thinking about whether you want to get married and have children.

PAUSE: Take a moment to consider what life transitions and decisions you are faced with right now? When you think about your goals, or allow yourself to be aware that you do not know what they are, do you notice discomfort? What passengers do you struggle with?

In upcoming blogs, you will learn how to identify your passengers and the auto-pilot strategies, which may be inadvertently diverting you from what you truly care about. If you would like to receive updates to guide your self-exploration, knowledge, and skills, subscribe to the Mindful-Mastery blog RSS feed. Or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!


*The Passengers metaphor is adapted from the original Passengers on the Bus metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes,S. 2006).

Passengers! How your Story gets Programmed.

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2015). Passengers! How your Story gets Programmed.. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Nov 2015
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