Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

It's Just Not Fair

Marty could hardly believe his ears.

He had devoted the past 23 years of his career to the company. He'd uprooted his family six times, willing to go where he was needed most. His performance reviews had been good, and he'd been promoted up the ladder. Retirement was only 6 years away.

He'd had to work many extra long hours since they announced the merger, getting things in order for the planning meetings they'd have with their new colleagues. When the V.P. of Operations called him in, he expected an "Atta boy!" for his hard work and an update on their next steps.

Instead he heard, "Marty, I'm sorry, but your position is being eliminated. You know, downsizing."

It just wasn't fair.

I last saw Sharon at the park, pushing her 4-year-old and 6-year-old daughters in the swings. They looked just like her...blonde, creamy skin, beautiful smile, and dancing blue eyes. They laughed with glee as she gave them wings in the March breeze.

We later sat on the bench and talked about the struggles she'd had. Breast cancer three years ago; she thought she'd beat it. Then the news a few months before...the malignancy was back, and it had spread. She was so tired of the trips to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston for cancer treatments. And she was very worried about her children. But she had strong faith. Despite the disappointing news from recent testing, she believed she would be here for her children.

My heart sank when I read her obituary. Four weeks later in my clinical office, her husband echoed my own sentiments. He sobbed, "It's just not fair."

Is Life Fair?

If you're human, and I know you are, life and the people in it have handed you some raw deals.

You've invested yourself and your resources, then someone has short-circuited your ability to reap the benefits. It doesn't feel fair.

You've made a habit of treating people with respect, balancing their interests with yours. Then they stab you in the back. It doesn't seem fair. ("After all I've done...")

A good person in your life (maybe you) experienced tragedy that was no fault of their own. You call into question life's fairness.

These are normal reactions. However, continuing to dwell on the injustice of the experience will only keep you stuck. With every repetitive thought about fairness, you fan the flames of your anger. It's easy to get hooked on the endless pursuit of justice in a quest to even the score. Getting stuck in this mode prevents you from being able to move on, multiplying the impact of the original injury.

Four Myths About Fairness

Misunderstandings about how life really works make you especially vulnerable to becoming caught in the fairness trap. Have you bought into any of these four myths? As you read them, you may say, "Of course not!" But dig a little deeper. If you did not believe them at some level, would you have experienced the reaction you did when they were violated?

MYTH #1: Do unto others the way you'd have them do unto you, and they will.

TRUTH: The Golden Rule is not a rule. Surely enough, when you treat others with respect and kindness, this significantly increases the probability that you will be treated the same way in return. But your actions fall far short of guaranteeing reciprocity.

All people have choices. Some people lack strength of character. Other people respond negatively when they find themselves in a difficult situation. Whatever the circumstances, it is foolhardy to expect that you'll be liked, respected, and treated fairly by all you encounter.

MYTH #2: Bad things don't happen to good people.

TRUTH: There is no need for, "What did I do to deserve this?" Underneath that is the assumption, "I must have done something bad, because something bad happened to me."

As Rabbi Harold Kushner accurately reminded us in his best-seller over 10 years ago, bad things do happen to good people. Conversely, good things often happen to bad people. The book of Matthew in the New Testament addresses this: "The rain falls on the just and the unjust." Further, Jesus reminded his followers, "In this world you WILL (emphasis mine) have tribulations; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome.


The good news is, when you have strength of character, you have spiritual and emotional resources to help you weather any storm. When the winds of difficulty blow, you have a decided advantage over those who have spent their lives in meaningless or evil pursuits.

MYTH #3: When you invest, you can expect a return.

TRUTH: No one invests hoping to lose. However, there are no guarantees.

I've seen hundreds of people stay in horrible personal situations because they've been there so long, invested so much. They hope against hope that one day, things will turn around. It's a gamble with odds akin to those enjoyed by the addicted gambler who feeds the machine over and over, believing that this time the payoff will come.

Only a few years ago, many invested their life savings in tech stocks, only to see their stock values plummet. Employees at Enron, WorldCom, and other companies saw the value of the stocks they had earned in years of hard work evaporate in the face of greed and vice at the top.

When a person or financial investment fails to pay the expected dividends, it's easy to get stuck in the anger of, "It's just not fair." True, it's not fair. But if it's where you find yourself, you must come to terms with the harsh realities and get moving. Gather the resources you have left and begin to rebuild.

MYTH #4: The world is fair.

TRUTH: Get real. We live in a world that very often is not fair. One day as I was teaching this concept in a seminar, a participant quipped, "The only fair in life is a carnival."

Fairness is certainly a value to implement in your own choices of how to relate to the people in your life. However, an unrealistic expectation that fairness on this earth is one of your inalienable rights will only bring you a string of disappointments. It will rob you of momentum, causing you to be stymied by the negative energy born of anger and bitterness.

In Conclusion, Remember...

Getting bogged down in the fairness issue only lengthens the time it takes you to recover from what happened.

Treating others well and doing good in the world does not guarantee that you'll receive good in return, but it certainly increases the probability. It's worth it.

When tough times strike, it's a waste of energy to bemoan their unfairness. Move into action, working through your own emotional upheaval, learning about yourself, growing through the experience, and ultimately, managing to bring something good from it.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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