When I was a freshman in college, I received a call from a family member telling me that my mother was in the hospital. It was a surprise to hear because my mom was young and healthy as far as anyone knew, but I was told that I needed to come home. Although I lived less than two hours away, when I got to the hospital, she was unconscious and she passed away soon after I arrived. She had suffered a severe brain aneurysm and doctors told me there really was never any chance that she would survive.

It was a difficult time, to say the least. I was only 19 years old. Certainly nothing that life changing had ever happened to me before, and it would be a lie if I said it wasn't a struggle to get through each day. Then, six months later, I received another call. It was about my grandmother. She, too, had suffered a fatal brain aneurysm. And just like that, without warning, the two most important people in my life were gone.

It was hard to understand and I had a difficult time getting past the unfairness of it all. Although it's a natural place for people to go when they lose something very important to them, as the days, weeks, and months passed, I was unconsciously letting myself become preoccupied by the unfairness of "life." It seemed like everything even marginally negative that happened after their deaths was interpreted by me as unfair. If I got a parking ticket on campus, it was "unfair" (even though I had parked in a zone where I wasn't supposed to park). If it was raining on a day I had to walk to class, it was "unfair" (even though I was living in a city where rain was common). If I accidentally stubbed my toe, it was "unfair." Having that kind of negative mindset, of course, was adding considerably more stress to my life, but at the time, I couldn't see it.

Fortunately, a few months after her death, I found the strength to go through some of the things my grandmother left behind, and among them I found a small card with the Serenity Prayer written on it: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

Although I didn't share my grandmother's religious beliefs, the message struck me and stayed with me. Instead of immediately going to "that's unfair" in my head whenever something negative happened, I found myself thinking if I had control over it, and if I did, what I could have done to change the outcome. In fact, finding that card led to a series of changes to my mindset that not only changed my mental direction, I suspect it was the impetus underlying many of the personal and professional choices I've made and continue to make on my journey through life.

In the words of author/illustrator Mary Engelbreit, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it,” and that's what I did. Although there may be some truth to the belief that some people are born optimists and some are born pessimists, it's also true that life throws unanticipated challenges at everyone from time to time. And although those challenges may change the way you view the world, that change certainly doesn't need to be permanent. Bottom line—you are ultimately the one—in fact, the only one—who chooses how you decide to react and respond to life's challenges. That includes how long you grieve, how long you brood, how long you stay angry, and how long you choose to be happy.


Why You Should Choose to Get Past the Unfairness of Life

1. Fair is not a useful concept.

If you experience or witness something you see as unfair or unjust and you can do something about it, then you should. Allowing that cannonball to sit in your stomach does you absolutely no good. In fact, it adds unnecessary stress to your life.

However, much of the "unfairness" that happens in the world is not within our control. And if that's the case, how productive is it to dwell on what's fair and unfair? Quoting author Jonathan Lockwood Huie, "'Fair' is not a useful concept. Life is not 'fair.' You can't make life 'fair.' You can get angry. You can complain about life not being 'fair.' You can attempt revenge—perhaps violently. You can inflict great suffering upon yourself in the name of life being 'unfair.' And life is still not 'fair.'"

2. Viewing yourself as a victim tends to keep you in the past and promotes a sense of powerlessness.

We often refer to those who have experienced injustice or a traumatic event as victims. However, some feel that the label, victim, has negative connotations that stigmatize those who are trying to overcome their traumatic experiences. As therapist Shannon Shiefer points out, "No one likes to raise their hand and scream, 'Me! Me! when asked, 'Have you ever been a victim?' However, we are all victims to something in our life."

She's right. Bad things happen every day, but humans can be quite resilient. By stepping out of the victim mindset and viewing yourself as a survivor, you may find it easier to move forward and play an active role in creating a new outlook for yourself. As former journalist and author of Shadows of Heroes Miron Varouhakis writes, "Not only does 'survivor' sound more positive, it also focuses on the future rather than the past .... The word 'survivor' symbolizes empowerment, courage and strength ...."

3. Negative thoughts and emotions inhibit positive change.

Thoughts: When you're perceiving most or all of your experiences in a negative way, it is extremely difficult to move forward in a positive direction. However, negativity is hard to escape. Even if nothing negative is happening in your own lives, tragic, depressing stories are rampant in the media. Death, war, victimization, violence, natural disaster—if you turn on the news, you're guaranteed to get a huge dose of most, if not all of these negative experiences tightly packed into a half-hour segment, often with graphic video footage to keep the visual memory lodged in your brain to replay over and over.

That's not to suggest that you should bury your head in the sand and ignore current events, or pretend that bad things don't happen. They clearly do. People are killed every day in senseless violence. Children get hurt. Tragic accidents happen. Loved ones pass away. However, in reality, what we hear and see on the news and the unfairness that happens in our personal lives are typically outliers in a world of mostly positive, kind, and pleasant interactions.

Just think of the number of times in a day that someone holds a door open for you, helps you with a purchase, smiles at you, says thank you, washes your clothes, gives you a hug or a pat on the back, compliments you, says they love you, picks up something you dropped, drives you somewhere, or any of the hundreds of things that people do for others that they don't have to do. Now compare that to the unfortunate or negative experiences you have in a typical day. Fortunately, for most people, the good greatly outweighs the bad. It's just more common to dwell on the bad than to celebrate the good.

Emotions: The emotions that people typically feel when something unjust or unfair occurs can be a double-edged sword. If they are controlled and channeled properly, they can lead to positive change. If not, they can worsen an already bad situation. Although anger initially causes a surge in someone's energy level, impulsive, anger-driven actions rarely are productive or produce positive results. As author and blogger Lori Deschene notes, taking a stand against an injustice "doesn’t require us to act with aggression. It requires calm, careful planning and acting ...."

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't feel anger or even outrage over some of the unfortunate, sometimes horrific injustices that happen in your life and in our world. To the contrary, those feelings are normal reactions in those circumstances. But it's your responsibility to control those powerful and potentially dangerous emotions, and it's your choice as to the direction you take to create change. In short, if you allow the negativity and unfairness that happens in the world to capture your attention, consume your thoughts, and control your emotions, you're likely to find it difficult, if not impossible to feel good about the world and your part in it.

Ways to Move Past the Unfairness in Life

As Deschene points out, those who don't allow the unfairness of life to make them chronically bitter, angry, or miserable are not "better" than others. They aren't oblivious to unfairness nor are they people who haven't experienced injustice, hardship, or unfairness in their lives. They're also not people who sit idly by and accept whatever happens without taking a stand. They simply adopt and practice a mindset that helps them avoid being pulled down and consumed by life's challenges. It's not always easy, and for most people, it takes practice. However, anyone who chooses to do it can do it.

Here are three ways to make that happen:

1. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself if it's worth the energy you're putting into it.

For most, it's human nature to have an immediate and negative reaction to something that seems unfair. However, sometimes when that "unfairness" is put into perspective, it's often something not worth stressing yourself out over. If someone cuts the line at the movie concession stand, that's not fair. Maybe you say something, maybe you don't. Maybe if you say something, the person has a snarky response which makes you even more upset. But at the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if that person, who was either really distracted or just plain rude, is worth the energy that you're putting into the experience. Why let someone you have no investment in interfere with your enjoyment of the movie you're getting ready to watch? When you consider the big picture (no pun intended), a rational, unemotional mind would probably say no.

2. Be conscious of what you can and can't control.

Staying with the line cutter as an example, you have no control over the choice that person made. The only thing you have control over is how you decide to respond. So often, the situations that people get most upset about and stress out over are situations that they have no control over; for example, what someone else did or didn't do. However, the reality is, you have no control over what someone else does or doesn't do. And if you have no control over it, it is a complete waste of good energy to ruminate over it. That doesn't make the situation any more or less fair or just. It's just the way it is. The only thing you have control over is how you respond. So before you expend a lot of energy, ask yourself if this is something you have control over.

As Deschene writes, "We can’t change mistreatment that happened in the past. We can address mistreatment that’s happening now. We can’t change someone else’s decision or behavior if they aren’t willing to change. We can change how we respond to them (and choose to help educate and positively influence them). We can’t change that tragedies have occurred, in our own lives or in places across the globe. We can support causes that seek to prevent future tragedies, or even spearhead our own. And we can’t guarantee specific outcomes for our actions, but we can increase our odds of making a difference by being clear-headed, patient, and consistent. Sometimes there will be unfair things that we simply need to accept, and it might feel instinctive to fight that. We’re only human, and we will sometimes give in to our emotional responses. What’s important is that we try to move beyond them so we don’t let the things we can’t control take control of us."

3. Consciously monitor negative thoughts and emotions, and turn them into positive actions.

When something negative happens, it's very common for people to start engaging in negative self-talk. "That was unfair." "She was mean." "I was supposed to be there." "I could have been more careful." And all of those things may well be 100 percent true, but they all keep you trapped in the past. They're thoughts and feelings about what happened, and as noted above, there is absolutely nothing that you can do, think, or feel that is going to change something that has already happened.

To bring about positive change, your focus needs to be on the present and the future. To do that, you have to make a concerted effort to monitor your thoughts and feelings. Analyze your self-talk and ask yourself:

  • Is this thought (or feeling) positive or negative?
  • Is it something I have control over?
  • Is it something that happened in the past?
  • Is there something I can do now or in the future that might produce a change?

If the answers are negative, no, yes, and/or no, then stop the thought and change it. Many cognitive psychologists suggest that you actually visualize a STOP sign and tell yourself, "This is not productive" as a way to facilitate this process. It's also important to remember that this is a process and it takes practice. As author and educator Kendra Cherry writes, "Being a positive thinker is not about ignoring reality in favor of aspirational thoughts. It is more about taking a proactive approach to your life. Instead of feeling hopeless or overwhelmed, positive thinking allows you to tackle life's challenges by looking for effective ways to resolve conflict and come up with creative solutions to problems."

Cherry goes on to say that staying positive is not necessarily easy, but the impact that it will have on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being will be "well-worth it." She adds, "It takes practice; lots of practice. This is not a step-by-step process that you can complete and be done with. Instead, it involves a lifelong commitment to looking inside yourself and being willing to challenge negative thoughts and make positive changes." In fact, some of the strongest and most productive movements against injustice have been when people have channeled their anger, sadness, and disappointment into positive action.

Being positive and taking positive action is a choice. Being happy and doing things that make you happy is a choice. So are being bitter, angry, vengeful, and miserable. All of these things are mindsets. They are not something that anyone can give us, and they are not something anyone or anything can take away. Certainly, challenges and hardships happen in our lives that make us feel sad or angry. In fact, these are normal emotions to feel for a period of time after something negative happens in our lives. We grieve losses. We regret mistakes. We get upset when we or someone else is treated unfairly. However, at some point, we have to make a decision. Do I want to live in the past, or do I want to live in the present and work toward a positive future? Only you can make that choice, but I hope this article has provided you with sound reasons and ways to choose the present if you haven't gotten to that point yet, and if you have, good reasons to stay there.

© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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