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How to Deal With Unfairness

Override your gut reactions before you make matters worse.

Have you ever had a knee-jerk reaction to someone who cuts in front of you on the road (or should I say a mouth or finger-jerk reaction)? Have you glared at the person in front of you in the express lane at the grocery store who has too many items? Or have you fantasized about gluing the mouth shut of the person who interrupts you while you are talking and he doesn't let you finish?

Do other people's behaviors send you into a rage or cause you to feel so frustrated you shut down?

This is standard human behavior under the influence of unfairness.

When we feel something is unfair, we respond as if it were a threat and go into "fight or flight" mode. Or as Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D. said about women in the famous study she led on women, stress, and friendship, we go into fight, flight, or call-a-friend-and-complain mode.

Many neuroscientists are using brain scans to study moral decision making. They have found that basic, primary reactions occur when your brain determines a situation is "just not fair" — demonstrating that your reactions are instinctually, not logically driven.

Steven Quartz from CalTech said, "The fact that the brain has such a robust response to unfairness suggests that sensing unfairness is a basic evolved capacity."

How does this play out? The moment your brain determines someone is not playing by the rules, your abilities to deliberate, weigh all sides of an issue and make thoughtful decisions are impaired.

Additionally, when you feel cheated your emotional system immediately prods you to say "no" to the offenders without thinking through your response and the consequences of your reaction. You can see this play out daily in our political system.

The Problem: Not everyone plays by the same set of rules. Cultural and religious background, family upbringing, education and life experiences all combine to help you form a mental frame called, "the world according to me." Other than legal and safety issues, these rules are often based on personal bias and opinions of what you think is right and wrong. You then act as if these rules are cast in stone when they actually differ from one person to the next.

The Result: You make snap decisions and emotionally react, then rationalize and justify your response using your logical brain.

The world is full of smart people who litter, plot against co-workers, scream at politicians at town hall meetings and give unaware grocery clerks the evil eye as they deal with what they believe is unfair.


1. Try to become aware of what your brain is doing. When you feel something is unfair or disrespectful of your rights, catch yourself reacting in anger or frustration. Then take a breath before you say or do anything to make the situation worse.

2. Determine if your loss is real or not. Is the rule you think was broken that important, really? Did the person who offended you take anything away from you other than a few minutes of your time? Was the action you resent a conscious offense or could the person have acted without realizing the impact on you? Did you lose your self-respect or respect from others? If the loss is not real or too small to bother with, choose to relax and let go. Then focus on something more interesting.

On the other hand, if the person who interrupted you is being intentionally rude or the person in the grocery store needs help finding the right lane, you might choose to let the person know the impact of their behavior and what would be a better choice they could make in the future. Screaming, sarcasm, or grunting creates conflict; it doesn't solve anything. If the loss is real, stand up for yourself by explaining the Impact and Desired Change of Behavior. Hopefully, this will start a useful dialogue.

3. Sometimes it is better to choose to be healthy instead of right. You decide where to put your most precious resource-your energy. Let go of what you cannot control.

In the end, one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself is to learn to quickly discern when it is time to let go from when it is time to react. There are times you need to stand up to what is unfair. There are times to move on.

This takes practice. Don't beat yourself up for having an emotional reaction. Your brain is doing what it is supposed to do-protect you. Instead, recognize when you are having an emotional reaction, take a breath and choose how you best want to respond.

It's time we take charge of our primitive brains, bringing more peace to our lives and to our world.

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. is the author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

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