Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

When Life's Unfair: How to Deal with Fines for Being Alive

How do you best respond to life's unjust setbacks?

You're minding your own business. You've taken all due precautions. You haven't had a mental lapse. You've been responsible and conscientious. You haven't hurt anyone, or done anything wrong.

You're innocent.

And then, out of the blue, someone at the supermarket abruptly turns into your aisle, sneezes in your face—and you end up with the flu. Or, while dutifully following a traffic signal, you stop at a light that just turned red—and are promptly rear-ended. Or you meticulously plan a family reunion picnic—only to have the occasion ruined by a most unseasonable, never-forecast thunderstorm. Or, jogging at twilight, listening to your iPod, you trip on a barely visible sidewalk crack—and fracture an ankle. Or your broker, who came highly recommended by trustworthy friends, crafts a portfolio of equities, all of which turn out to be duds.

Get the picture?

I've come to view such mishaps, or setbacks, as "fines for being alive." These are fines you can pretty much count on having to pay at some point. Just by virtue of occupying space on planet Earth, from time to time, and without advanced warning, life will deal you a slight, an insult, an undeserved blow of some kind that you can't experience as anything but unjust.

Why do I find this concept so intriguing? Simply because—personally and as a therapist—I've come to believe that discovering how to accept the bad things that gratuitously happen to you—even how to take them in stride—is absolutely crucial if you're to achieve a steady, virtually unshakeable, state of well-being.

Let's face it: There are an abundance of things over which you can exert only limited control. So if you're to overcome the various barriers that temporarily block you from objects of your desire, it's critical to learn how to maintain emotional poise in the face of them. Even though these obstacles may temporarily deter you, you still need to hold onto your composure and doggedly continue to pursue your goals. Sure, your progress may be impeded, but it doesn't really have to end. Although your destination may be reached later than you'd hoped, as long as you don't falter you'll get there all the same. When, through no fault of your own, things just don't seem to be going your way, it's essential that you figure out how not to lose your way.

There are times in our life when we may feel besieged by events seemingly contrived, almost demonically, to overwhelm us. Nonetheless, our capacity for control during these times—our ultimate power—is to expand our space to include such disappointments, challenges, provocations, and demands. And, despite such adversity, to hang tough and resolutely adhere to our life path.

How easy, or difficult, is this to do? In general, I'd say the ability to adapt to life's frustrations varies in proportion to your personal evolution. Adjusting or accommodating to below-the-belt blows of "outrageous fortune" hardly hinges on some inborn personality trait either. For the most part, it simply reflects how much you've been able to learn from painful lessons in your past. And being able to make allowances for, and come to terms with, all that interferes with your desires doesn't really come naturally. It's something that requires conscious cultivation. So when something blatantly unfair happens to you, be ever-mindful of how (between your ears) you process it.

You need to carefully mull over how you're going to respond to anything keenly felt as an injustice. Succumbing to the temptation to react with impulsive anger may offer the immediate consolation of feeling righteous, self-righteous, or morally superior. But the associated cost of taking this low road to "re-empowerment" is that it inevitably sacrifices your inner tranquility and peace of mind. And the more you invest your vital stores of energy in getting back at whatever you perceive as having harmed you, the more likely you are to turn immediate setbacks into chronic limitations and constraints. In which case your choosing (however unwittingly) not to "get on with it," not to move forward in your life's journey, becomes no one's responsibility but your own. Inadvertently, it's you yourself who has blocked the way to your satisfaction and fulfillment.

So, when you're suddenly taken aback by one of life's periodic fines, how can you best respond?

Here are my three "A's" for quickly moving beyond unwelcome obstacles in your path:

  • Assess. Ask yourself just how serious this particular "fine" is. Might you be exaggerating its importance? In the moment, that unwelcome "tariff" (or "life tax") may feel awful, perhaps even catastrophic. But, upon painstaking reflection, is it possibly not that much more than an annoyance, or inconvenience? Finally, how much of your life, if any, do you actually want or need to devote to it?
  • Accept. Just acknowledge that you've been fined for, well, nothing. Remind yourself that it makes little sense to stew over whatever misfortune you've unexpectedly been subject to. Make up your mind not to let it bother you anymore than absolutely necessary.
  • Act. Now that you've decided not to waste your mental and emotional energy by obsessing upon or brooding over your bad luck, or by ruminating about how you might retaliate, what's the best action to take? How can you best cope with this setback? Might you work around it? Do you need temporarily to put something aside to effectively deal with it? Would it help to get a friend, or professional, to assist you?

Or might it suffice simply to let out a single, extended, self-compassionate sigh—and then, life-affirmingly, begin to put it all behind you?

And once you've become proficient in implementing this fairly straightforward problem-resolution procedure, go ahead and give yourself an "A," too.

 

Click here to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today, on a broad variety of topics. I invite readers to join me on Facebook, as well as to follow my psychological and philosophical musings on Twitter.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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