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3 reasonable ways to reframe the unfairness of life

Re-assessing hard times for a better future

By Mark Tyrrell

Life isn't fair and you could say it's not meant to be. 'Fairness' - as we normally speak of it - is an entirely human construct and there's no evidence that the universe takes any notice of what humans think. What you get in life is (largely, if not 100%) a matter of luck. Some of us are born into wealth, good looks and talent. Others are not. Some of us are born into loving families or societies with enough food and shelter, while others find themselves in conditions where it's an exhausting daily struggle just to stay alive.

When faced with clients who feel injured, damaged or cheated by life's vicissitudes, I think the worst thing we can do is offer them the "I know how you feel..." platitudes. When we try to apply notions like 'fairness' to life then life certainly will seem unfair, even if we think we have been lucky ourselves. Let's face it, even if you're 'lucky' enough to live a long life, that life itself will eventually strip you of youth, energy, friends and family. Even what looks to the rest of us like an overall happy existence has many 'unfairnesses' within it.

We only need to look at the news, or hear about friends of friends who have been brought low in some way, to get a sharp reminder about the prevalence of misfortune.

In spite of this, we all regularly hear (and even make) the familiar lament of those who consider themselves especially unlucky: "What have I done to deserve this?!" as if the 'punishments' and 'rewards' of life are dished out on the basis of merit.

When clients feel that fate is against them

As therapists we'll sometimes hear clients focusing on how their lives generally, or a particular situation, is or has been 'unfair'.

How might we deal with this perception in ways that don't invalidate how they feel but at the same time offer a sense of wider perspective and hope?

1) Align yourself with their perception of 'fairness'

Rather than saying something like: "Who says life should be fair?" we can maintain and build rapport with our client's perception of the need for fairness but put a hopeful spin on it.

For example, I might say something like:

All these years life has seemed unfair to you, with all the things you've told me about, all the ways you've found to strive and continue despite all that... and I am starting to really feel, very strongly, that you are now well overdue... some lasting good luck...

This connects with their sense that life should have some sort of 'rules' of fairness, and extends that idea - but in a positive way. When people start looking out for good luck they'll start to find it.

2) Talk about others during hypnosis

Drawing a direct comparison with someone obviously worse off seldom works. However, while our clients are in that most receptive of listening and learning states that we call hypnosis, we can offer anecdotes or stories of more helpful role models.

I often find it useful to talk about Milton Erickson, the great 20th century clinician who suffered severe polio and pain throughout his life.

I might paraphrase his words about luck by quoting such pearls of his as:

Life is much better if sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn't...

and go on to relate how Erickson often talked about adults who had had such 'perfect' lives and had been such 'model children' that they had 'never learned the realities of life'. Erickson said of the effect of such a life:

... the diet of social development and health must include a reasonable amount of 'roughage' (Erickson's term for 'bad luck')

'Roughage' is a lovely metaphor because it implies something that is actually necessary and aids digestion (of what the self really needs).

3) Ask what they've learned

Bad luck should never be 'wasted'.

Focus not on what they've done, or suffered, with whom, where and how bad it's all been, but on what they've learned from their experiences. And keep coming back to this.

We might say something like.

All that bad luck and misfortune has been a breeding ground for learning... just as the orphan cast adrift in the world must learn deeper and faster than the pampered children, just as the most interesting trees are those that face storms, rain-lashed, wind-buffeted, and grow greater because of all that, unlike the cossetted sapling in their protective plastic cones... and over the next day or so you can begin to notice more and more all the different things you've learned from everything that's happened... the deep learning which is going to help you immeasurably in your future...

Ultimately, we all have to take and make from life what we can.

We might even utter this sentiment ourselves sometimes...

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Mark Tyrrell
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