Someone dying too young, senseless crimes and innocent victim’s stories are in the headlines on a daily basis. It appears to be getting more and more difficult to stay positive in a world that seems so out of control.
When bad things happen to good people it can make you question why things seem to be so unfair. Even seeing someone get an advantage over someone else can trigger a reaction that “life’s just not fair”.
If you have been feeling powerless and believing life is unfair, you may already be experiencing the effects of this mindset:
- Maybe you’ve seen something on the news and feel more worried than ever when your children leave the house which leads you to be distracted
- Perhaps you feel frustrated at work after a coworker doesn’t pull their weight which leads you to feel less motivated
Although something might seem unfair and you may have many people who would agree with you, you always have a choice. You can’t predict or control situations but you can decide what to think about them by learning how your mind works, how to manage it and how managing it puts you in control.
This week I’m going to discuss why things seem unfair and how to change that.
Why things seem unfair
Fairness is a primary need for the brain and a sense of fairness can create a strong reward response. Your brain responds to being treated fairly the same way it responds to winning money or eating chocolate.
On the flip side, a sense of unfairness can generate a threat response that can last for days. This threat response is your brain’s way of protecting your survival often preparing you for a fight or flight response.
When you interpret something as fair it gives you a sense of trust however, living in a world that appears unfair will challenge your sense of safety and well-being. Your brain doesn’t care how it filters things because it only wants to keep you safe.
Since your primitive brain often interprets something as unfair in order to protect you, it’s important to understand when this natural assumption occurs. Even in mundane situations your emotions can run high like, for example, if an Uber driver seems to be taking a longer route than expected and you believe you are being taken advantage of.
When your brain is under the influence of unfairness it’s difficult to weigh all sides of an issue or make thoughtful decisions. A longer Uber trip than expected can create a slow simmer of confusion or can even bubble over to anger and anxiety.
In one study they gave two people a sum of money to split between them; one person was to make a proposal about how to split the money and the other person had to decide whether to accept the proposal or not. The catch was that if the second person didn’t accept the proposal then neither of them would get the reward.
When the offer was considered fair in the decision-making person’s mind, such as receiving $5 out of $10, the person’s reward center of their brain lit up but if they were offered $5 out of $20 (the same amount offered as before), the reward center was less activated. This study showed that an offer that is perceived to be fair is more important than the actual amount of money received.
The awareness of your unfairness response is also important because when a sense of continual unfairness goes unchecked, it can lead to chronic complaining or even to depression. Before you know it, the lens you use to see the world has become bleak and life can seem more overwhelming than ever.
That’s when someone with more items in their grocery cart than allowed on the 20 items or less line can become a huge distraction. Or someone cuts in your lane on the parkway and your knee-jerk response is to go ballistic and chase after them.
Although your brain’s primitive response to unfairness may be natural, that doesn’t mean you have no control over it. You absolutely do and this awareness will change more than you realize.
How to change
Since your brain craves fairness but more often sees unfairness in order to protect you, understanding your interpretation of situations as “fair vs unfair” is important. How you see the world will determine how you experience your life.
Having a general belief that things are unfair often creates overwhelm and can lead to a “what’s the use” attitude that can be hard to crawl your way out of. Before you know it life is more challenging, people are difficult and insulting and you just can’t stand what’s going on.
The secret to changing this pattern of thinking is to first get clear about whether the situation is a fact or an opinion. If the situation could be seen differently by different people, then it’s not a fact even though it seems unfair.
When deciding whether something is a fact or an opinion, it’s helpful to know that a fact is often boring and neutral; an opinion is often more dramatic and creates an emotion.
Here’s some examples to help you differentiate:
- I am paid $100,000 a year by my company – fact
- I am underpaid – opinion
- A woman has 40 items in her cart in the 20 items or less line – fact
- She shouldn’t be on that line – opinion
- They gave him $500 and gave me $250 as a gift – fact
- They’re always treating him better than me – opinion
Now that you have the distinction between the situation being a fact or not, here’s what to do:
Not a fact (but seems unfair)
The first step is recognizing that your interpretation of things being “fair” or “unfair” is completely subjective. You may have very strong opinions but it’s important to question whether your belief that something is unfair is actually serving you.
Since your brain will always find you proof of your belief, it’s imperative that you become more aware of what you are thinking. Believing in the unfairness of things will keep you stuck in victim mode, feeling frustrated and finding other things that match your belief.
Up until now your brain has been offering you thoughts that you’ve been unconscious of and you’ve been experiencing the effects of those thoughts without realizing the cause. It’s like you’ve been getting dressed in a dark closet every day, not realizing what you are wearing until you walk into the light.
The power of being aware of this is that you get to choose for yourself what you want to believe is fair or not, instead of leaving it up to your primitive, protective brain. Describing something as fair or unfair is just the meaning your brain assigns without consideration for how the meaning will affect you.
In the example of the Uber driver, your fairness-seeking brain may interpret the Uber driver as taking unfair advantage of you by taking a longer route so that he can charge you more. Before you know it, you have a story running in your mind about how women are treated unfairly, how this would never happen to a man and that the driver should be fired.
In order to not get caught in the drama of your mind in a “fair vs unfair” situation, I suggest that you pause and ask a powerful question, giving your logical mind a chance to step in. The powerful question to ask when something is not a fact but seems unfair is:
How can I see this differently?
When you ask a powerful question your brain goes to work finding an answer. By choosing to feel curious as opposed to agitated or angry, you switch on the more rational part of the brain.
If your protective brain thinks the Uber driver is trying to take advantage of you, you could pause and choose a thought like “He may know a better way than I do.” Assuming the worst in many situations won’t serve you in the short-term or in the long-term; it only gives your brain instructions to interpret more things as unfair.
Asking “How can I see this differently” gives your brain the opportunity to look for other options. This can change everything because when you change the cause, you change the effect.
It’s a fact (but I don’t like it)
As author Byron Katie explains “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.” Believing in the unfairness of a fact is much less effective than you realize because it puts you in a space of focusing on problems rather than focusing on solutions.
If the situation is a fact and not just an opinion, then you have different options. What you think and feel fuels your actions and those actions create your results therefore, it’s paramount that you understand exactly how your current thoughts will be experienced by you.
If for example you read a story about the mistreatment of animals and the fact is that “Police discovered an illegal puppy mill and are bringing the dogs to a shelter” then you have a decision to make:
- If you think “This is so horrible and unfair”, you will most likely feel sad and either complain to others, look for similar stories or spin in upset; the result – you actually wind up being unfair to yourself by spinning in negativity
- OR you could choose to think “I can do something about this” which will make you feel determined and then you could take action by learning about animal shelters in your area, volunteering your time at one or making a monetary donation; the result – you do something
When you label something as unfair you actually disempower yourself from taking action. The truth is that you may be aware of something challenging your sense of fairness but you always have a choice as to what to think, feel and do about it.
Whether it’s something that happened to you directly or not, there is a much more powerful way to make change possible. Sadness and anger are always options but not as powerful as when you choose to feel emotions like determined and motivated.
The next time your knee-jerk response is to label something as unfair, think twice. There may be something you are missing that could make a difference.
- While it’s common to see situations as unfair and unjust there is also another option that will give you completely different results.
- The awareness of your unfairness response is important because when a sense of continual unfairness goes unchecked, it can lead to chronic complaining or even to depression.
- The secret to changing this pattern of thinking is to first get clear about whether the situation is a fact or an opinion.
- If the situation is an opinion then in order to not get caught in the drama of your mind in a “fair vs unfair” situation, I suggest that you pause and ask a powerful question like “How can I see this differently?”
- The truth is that you may be aware of something challenging your sense of fairness but you always have a choice as to what you can think, feel and do about it.
If you’d like some help dealing with things that seem unfair, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can get to work together.