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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

"That's Not Fair,...."

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 15th 2011

"That's Not Fair,...."How often have we heard that plaintive cry? How many times have we made the same complaint? How often have we heard
the typical response, "Life is not fair, get used to it?"

When our children assert that we are being unfair, that is the reflexive answer we give them. In fact, when that old saying was directed at us when we were children, we promised ourselves that we would never make the same mistake. Of course, what happens when we are parents? We almost automatically repeat the same thing. Yet, whether that maxim is true or not, it incites us to riot when we adults are confronted with it. Can anyone say anything worse that, "Life is not fair, get used to it?"

The "life is not fair" cry stems from many things but one of the biggest is the concept of equality, not only in America but in life generally. In reality, equality does not really exist because we are born into different circumstances and with a set of varying talents and liabilities. Some of are born into incredible wealth while others poverty stricken. Some are brilliant and will have successful careers. Others have limited intellectual abilities, especially if mental retardation exists. In fact, its not fair when I get a traffic ticket for speeding while other cars around me are also speeding but they escape. Its not fair...and it isn't.

Of course, the sentiment about the lack of fairness of life has more than a small amount of self pity attached to it. When I got my speeding ticket, driving from New Mexico to Colorado, I felt like a victim. Yes, me, the therapist. All the self pitying thoughts arose in me, like a volcano: "Look at what a victim I am. The others didn't get a ticket. Why are they always picking on me." I realized that I was indulging myself in the victim role when, in actuality, I was not. When we got home I paid the ticket and had no points on my drivers license because we were out of state.

So, why are we so offended by,"life is not fair, get used to it?" It seems to me that this maxim delivers a large dose of criticism. For example, "get used to it, you big baby," or, "you haven't suffered as much as I have but someday you will see." I am very sure there are plenty of other negatives connected when that saying is hurled at us.

However, I think the worst part of it and the most hurtful part of it is that the individual, be it parents, friends, colleagues or anyone, is showing a total lack of empathy when we are hurting. Its the ,"get used to it," part of it that is most offensive. It teaches nothing, is helpful in no way, and is really very insensitive.

Even in dealing with a child who is in the throes of unfairness, there are positive ways in which a parent can deliver the message that life, inevitably, carries frustrations because there are limited supplies of everything.

The next time someone you know, be it child or adult, complains about the unfairness of life, show some empathy. Adults know that life is not fair. When they say it they are just stating they are hurting about something.

When you feel like life is unfair, examine what you have. Just like me, when I thought about it, getting that traffic was not so bad, after all.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Thanks - Rob - Mar 11th 2011

Thanks for the article and I also found the comment "teachable moments" full of good ideas.  My daughter is 5 and just started school.  My wife and I are struggling with her regular complaining of injustice she is experiencing (largely with her younger sister).  I will go with the idea of empathy and reframing.  Nice one.

teachable moments... - A. - Feb 16th 2011

Thank you for your article; I agree wholeheartedly with you that while life may not be fair, the lack of empathy in the average response is a far bigger problem.

As a parent with five kids, we come up on those "its not fair" moments quite a lot, and try to use them as teachable moments. I tell my kids it's okay to be mad something isn't fair. Nothing wrong with the feelings. But, the rules of being mad are- you can be mad, but you can't hurt anyone, anything, or yourself. Then I ask them to think about what it is that wasn't fair, and is it something that can be changed or not? If it can be changed, then we talk about what they can do to try to effect change, and I encourage appropriate action. If it can't be changed, then I try to help them try to reframe the situation so they can see it in a realistically positive way, which helps them work out of their anger and into acceptance. Like, "Okay, my big sister got to go to the movies with her friends, but she is 4 years older than me and did extra chores to earn the money. When I am 4 years older, I'll get to do that, too." Or if they didn't win something, "Well, there was a lot of competition, and I like mine better, but the judges had to choose from a lot of good work- and just because I didn't win, doesn't mean I'm not good. Maybe next time." Or if someone else gets something we wanted, undeserved, "Well, sometimes random good things happen to me and I don't complain then- their getting that didn't take it away from me, so I can try to be happy for them."

, but I prefer to maintain my optimism that, just like the sun rises and sets, good things come and go, bad things come and go. Our job as human beings is to keep our head up and try to enjoy the journey the learning experiences as we go along.

Suck it Up - Athena - Feb 16th 2011

"Its the ,"get used to it," part of it that is most offensive. It teaches nothing, is helpful in no way, and is really very insensitive."  I agree.  The particular version used on me was "so suck it up".  That was so offensive, so utterly insensitive considering the situation I was in that I started an SI habit a few days later with that thought running through my head.  Those words, and the SI habit are still with me today.  That was last April.

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