One of the very first lessons we learn as children is that life isn’t always fair. And yet, most of us cling to the belief that people generally get what they deserve.
This belief influences our expectations and can cause us to view the world as a series of transactions: Put a dollar in the machine, you should get a soda. Work hard, you should get a promotion. Treat others with kindness, you should get the same in return.
These expectations aren’t necessarily unreasonable—but they often go unmet. Sometimes, you put a dollar in the machine…and it jams. You work hard…and the promotion goes to someone else. You’re kind to others…and you still have to put up with the jerk down the hall.
When there’s a gap between what is and what we believe should be, we tend to get angry: “I don’t deserve this!” But dwelling on unfairness doesn’t actually make life more fair—it does, however, make it difficult to think rationally and keeps us focused on problems instead of solutions. We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we react. Here’s how to respond with resilience when your expectations aren’t met and life just doesn’t feel fair:
Expectation #1. Relationships should be “even.”
We carry our beliefs about fairness into our relationships: Calls should be returned. Favors should be repaid. In other words, our efforts should be reciprocated. But even the healthiest relationships are rarely 50/50. Having to even every score is exhausting at best and blinds us to what is working in the relationship.
Try this: Make a DEAL.
Sometimes, we create relationship “debts” by assuming we know what’s going on when we really don’t. Make an effort to gather information about others’ motivations, intentions, or situation before reacting. For example, imagine that your friend never makes plans with you—you’re always the initiator. Before you lash out, ask yourself: “What assumptions am I making? Have I clearly communicated my expectations?” You may think that they don’t care about your friendship, when in reality they’re going through a tough time and appreciate it when you reach out.
When you’re ready to talk to the other person about how you feel, meQuilibrium Co-founder and Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., recommends using the DEAL model to avoid miscommunication:
Expectation #2: Good things should happen to good people.
We create rules that enforce order and reject chaos, Shatté says, such as “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people,” because we need to believe that the world is safe. But unfortunately, bad things—some trivial, some tragic; some personal, some global—do happen to good people, which disrupts our sense of safety.
Try this: Make peace with the unpredictable.
While it’s true that uncertainty comes with risk, it can also bring joy to our lives in the form of serendipity, coincidence, and surprise—and research shows that when dealing with the unknown, people tend to overestimate the risks and negative consequences. So, rather than letting fear be your compass, practice making peace with the unpredictable by keeping a list of positive experiences that you couldn’t have planned for, like a chance encounter with an old friend.
Expectation #3: Everyone should follow the same rules.
According to neuroscientists, we react to unfairness the same way we react to danger: We shift into fight-or-flight mode as the part of the brain that controls fear and anger is activated. In fact, psychologists believe that even when we fight for fairness for others, we’re motivated, to some degree, by self-interest. Why? Because human beings are social animals and our capacity to cooperate is necessary for our survival as a species. When someone breaks the “rules” or gets something they don’t deserve, it threatens our ability to work together—which puts us all at risk.
Try this: Stay cool.
Conflicts are rarely solved by angry confrontations. The next time someone violates one of your “shoulds,” use emotion control to clear your head so you don’t inadvertently inflame an already tough situation. Run through a checklist in your head: What “rule” was broken, and why is it important to you? Was the offense intentional? Is this particular violation worth your time and energy, or are you better off letting it go? After this check-in, you may realize an unfair situation is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, like when someone cuts you in line at the grocery store. Other times you’ll still feel strongly that an injustice has occurred that requires you to act, like if you see someone hit a parked car and then drive off. Either way, you’re better off addressing the issue with a calm and clear mind.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and a long-time media expert on health and well-being. She was one of the early contributors to meQuilibrium, and her work has been featured on Dr. Oz, Oprah magazine, Prevention, and MindBodyGreen, among others. Find her on Twitter @TerriT.