How to respond to “It’s not fair”

Believing that life is fair is, to some, a sign of immaturity. By the time we’re 25, that line of thinking goes, we should expect the worst from life and not believe in fairy tales or stories with morals any more. Sure, it’s an important lesson to learn; someone will always get more candy than you and that’s just how it is. But when faced with the shit that life throws at us, often we adults fall back into its comfort anyway:

  • “I didn’t get that promotion, Jo did, and they’ve only been in the company a year and do shoddy work. It’s not fair!”
  • “It’s not fair that IT gets to work from home and I can’t.”
  • “There’s no justice in the world. Why did my mother die at 65 when so many terrible people live to be 80?”
  • “I can’t believe they’re suing me for illegally downloading Xaiver Naidoo songs. That’s not fair!”

What do you say to this? The kneejerk reaction, “Life’s not fair!” only hurts the affected person more. There are better ways to handle it. Why? Pretty simple: You’re not helping the situation. If what you mean is, “Stop whining to me about it,” there are better ways to say that. If what you mean is, “That’s how it is and you will either have to accept it or change,” that is also something you can say explicitly instead of falling back on the typical retort.

We aren’t children; we don’t have to just accept that he gets more candy than I do. We often have the power to change our situations or ourselves. So instead I ask, “What are you going to do about it?” when someone comes at me with “It isn’t fair!” Granted, this isn’t usually the first time they’re whining to me about that particular thing, because I will be sympathetic and listen the first time. This phrase is the constructive version of “Stop whining to me about it,” and it works because the person will either realize that they should do something about it (and I will happily brainstorm about that with them) or they will stop talking to me about it because I have removed the reward of sympathetic listening from the situation.

Sometimes the situation can’t be changed: Health problems. Disasters. A giant zit right before your hot date. In this case people often turn it around and point out that it could be even worse. My grandma’s favorite line was, “Well, at least it’s not a broken leg!” Grandma, how does that help me? If I twist my ankle but someone else broke their leg, my ankle doesn’t hurt any less and it still needs medical care. Sometimes what the other person needs to hear right then is a sympathetic, “Well, that sucks.” If you can’t get that far, then, “I’m so glad it isn’t worse,” is a much more caring way to put it.

What about first-world problems? “My phone is broken!” Well, at least it’s not your leg! Seriously, though, same thing: It sucks that that happened, *even if* there are much worse things going on in the world. Yes, it’s great when people have enough self-awareness to realize that their problem is pretty insignificant in comparison, but it’s not necessarily your job to make them see that. Fall back instead on, “That sucks! What are you going to do about it?”

Going further than that in any of these cases depends on your closeness with and relationship to the person. Someone I care about will eventually get, “You keep talking about this but nothing’s changing. How long are you willing to live with this if nothing changes?” or “You keep talking about this but nothing’s changing. Maybe it’s time to let it go,” or as a last resort, “You keep talking about this but nothing’s changing. It’s frustrating for me to hear about it all the time, and I’d like to take the topic off the table for a while.”

In short, if you’re tired of hearing about life not being fair, redirect towards action instead of always lending a sympathetic ear.

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