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How Can You React When You Are Treated Unfairly?

Evaluate whether or not the situation is in your control.

A year ago, my husband and I were informed that our rent was increasing by $250 per month. Our landlord knows that we have been living here for seven years, and that the rental market is absurdly tight. Yesterday we were told, in a terse email that our rent was being raised another $350 per month and that the increase was nonnegotiable. In seven years, there has been a cumulative $1000-per-month increase, and our contract has gotten more and more restrictive: If appliances fail, for example, we must pay for repair and replacement, but we can’t schedule our own repair visits; the landlord has to do it, and he does not check to see whether it’s convenient for us.

In general, I try not to take things personally, but our landlord has been oppositional ever since a plumber came to our house about four years ago. It had been so cold inside that we had been working in hats and gloves in our home office; we sent the landlord a photo of the office thermometer as evidence. When he sent a plumber, the latter quickly fixed the heating problem. About an hour later, the landlord called and started screaming that we were yuppies who expected five-star hotel service in an old house. He continued upbraiding us and when we got off the phone, tears were rolling down my cheeks. I felt unfairly attacked.

“Why don’t you just move somewhere else?” you are probably thinking, and in fact over the past few years we have looked for another place, but we have found nothing satisfactory that meets our requirements for a home and office.

I watched myself slip into anxiety and depression, my mind whirring with anger, a desire for revenge, fear, helplessness, and victimhood. I couldn’t work, concentrate, or enjoy anything. All I kept thinking about was the unfairness of the situation. We have taken such good care of his house. Even if he is a hard-hearted businessman, couldn’t he have been nicer, kinder, and more human in his communication? It would have made the pill easier to swallow.

Finally, last night, I realized why my reaction was so intense. I grew up in a household where unfairness was the general order. My mother delighted in the control she got from exercising arbitrary power. One incident flashed in my mind. When I was in college, I had been accepted for a year abroad to study in France. My parents agreed that I could go. Thrilled at the prospect, I changed my major to French, told my roommates to find someone to replace me for the next year, and started making arrangements. I was buoyant when I went home during recess, and the first night my mother turned to me with a sneer and said, “You are not going to France.” I asked her why not, and she replied, “Because I said so.” No other “reason” was ever given. I started to weep, but my mother was intransigent. All my plans unraveled.

At the time, I was enraged, outraged, and depressed. But when I realized there was nothing I could do, I adapted, switched my major back, and went on with my life. I wasn’t going to let my mother’s unfairness destroy my spirit.

According to Melanie Greenberg, in her post here about the neuroscience of fairness and injustice, I did the right thing. “If these feelings of victimization are left to fester, you may end up with a clinical depression or become a chronic complainer,” she wrote. “It’s better to take a more active approach and evaluate whether the unfair situation is something out of your control or a situation you can do something about and how much energy you want to invest.”

My landlord is out of my control, and he has to live with his own karma. I am forced to accept his terms because I am given no choice, and I refuse to let his coldness and unfairness drain the joy from my life, knowing that some things — and some people — are unfair. That is part of life, but not all of it.

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