Seeing things our own way is generally always where we start to look at interactions with other humans. We see come from our own point of views and then perhaps attempt to reach a middle ground, or we can stick to our guns when we know what we are seeing isn’t right. Yet when we apply absolute or legal ideas to our preferences we are falling into the fallacy of fairness.

All human societies apply laws as both a construct of common sense and of justice. Courts, judges, law enforcement, legal actions, city ordinances, traffic lights: we live in a world of laws.

Yet, what tends to happen in human interactions is different. Words, behaviours, lack of actions and unsupportive looks are not governed by black and white law and yet we expect some level of courtesy from those we choose to have in our lives.

Further than common courtesy we all have our own ideas of how we like to be treated and feel deeply hurt when we are mistreated. Humans construct how they see reality based on their previous experiences.

In everyday situations, how we respond is based form our belief systems and naturally how we react in situations seems rather automatic as we assume that our response is the right one for the situation.

However, if we adhere too tightly to our definitions of what fairness is, we risk rigidity, anxiety and anger when faced with the behaviours of others that don’t fit in our categories.

Of course, we can all have a slight disagreement with others about what their behaviour demonstrates, but occasionally if we become obsessed with fairness we risk anxiety and upset.


Misapplication of the law:

This distorted thinking style hinges on the application of ridged, legal and contractual rules to our of interpersonal relations. The trouble is that two people seldom agree on what fairness is, and there is no court or final arbiter to help them.

Fairness is a subjective assessment of how much of what one expected, needed, or hoped for has been provided by the other person. Take this dramatized example:

“Sharon expects flowers or gifts every Friday from Tom because she saw her mother get this from her father. When she doesn’t get them, she feels anxious, hurt, rejected and angry. Tom has no idea, and continually walks every Friday night into firestorms of accusations of being uncaring and unloving. This hurts and confuses him, for Sharon she is applying her own life experience and personal expectations a rule that doesn’t have to be vocalised.”

Now although this is dramatized for effect, many of us do this at a more micro level. Our rules that say what affection, praise and support are can be transgressed without other people’s knowledge.

Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. The result is a sense of living in the trenches and a feeling of ever-growing resentment.


Conditional assumptions:

The fallacy of fairness is often expressed in conditional assumptions: ‘If he loved me, he’d do the dishes”, “if he cared at all, he’d come home right after work” … “if they valued my work here, they’d get me a nicer desk”.

Again, this comes from what we saw growing up and as well can came to us from society in general. Hollywood, TV and Social Media all portray a life that we “should” aspire to have. The trouble is when we have this “should” in our heads and we don’t communicate properly we end up driving ourselves mad and others away.

Let’s take this in the work context. Many of us today grew up being told that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Now when we don’t get praise in work or even if we get reprimanded this can go against that we would consider “fair”. It’s not fair for us to be criticised. We were supposed to be the success.

Hear how the over reliance of rules even brings a childish tone to these comments. Rigidly believing that emotions we experience following the actions of others are universally unfair only add to our own suffering. This is because we are not seeing the big picture and our place in it as one individual.

Please don’t take me wrong that I am saying that we can’t stand up for ourselves in life and state our preferences. I encourage all people to stand up to bullying and harassment or anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. But what I am saying is that we need to own that it is our boundary that is being crossed here. Not some imaginary law that governs all human interaction.


Drop the legal mumbo jumbo:

It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued us. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way and we end up causing ourselves a lot of pain.

Outside a court of law, the concept of fairness is too dangerous to use. The word fair is a nice disguise for personal preferences and wants. What we want is fair, what the other person wants is bogus.

We need to be honest with ourselves and the other person. Say what we want or prefer without dressing it up in the fallacy of fairness.

One concept I would like to share here that I use in sessions a lot is that of Parent – Adult – Child from Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis. It is a wonderfully simple theory that like all good ones has endless applications to all kinds of human interactions.

The theory explains that we can be in one of three states: Parent, Adult or Child. So is the person we are talking too. This can be kind of like a see saw as we can switch between positions. The polar opposite ends of Parent and Child are very crucial and affect each other.

The theory states that when in any interaction we approach in child mode: whining, throwing a tantrum, being unreasonable etc (as we might do if our “rules” are broken). Then the other person will respond to us like a parent: talking down to us, using authority, trying to impress on us that we are unreasonable, saying that they don’t need this stress, etc.

The theory also states that if we approach someone in Parent mode: strict, laying down the law, snapping orders, stern and authoritarian, using threats or shouting (as we might do if our “rules” are broken). Then the other person will respond like a child and perhaps get into a huff, shut down, freak out, get mad, walk away or go full teenager and rebel (“you can’t tell me what to do”).

Throughout our lives we can oscillate between these two states either starting in one of the positions or being triggered into the opposite response by someone else. This happens whether the other is a partner, a sibling, a colleague or boss, a friend or indeed a parent or a child. This invariably gets us into nowhere.

The answer to these issues is that between these two points there is another mode of being which is in adult. When we are in adult and stay in adult we can make whoever we are taking to meet us in adult.


How do we do this?

We do it by remembering some core things that adults do and do not do.

  1. Adults own their feelings as their own. They start with how they feel and work from there. They might say I feel a little hurt, upset, let down, annoyed whatever.
  2. Rather that point, blame and say what the other person did. They say what they would have preferred and how that would have made them feel.
  3. They take responsibility for their own behaviours and actions and apologies for them if appropriate.
  4. They try to offer solutions going forward that are mutually agreeable and realistic.
  5. Adults listen to what the other person is staying and no matter what stays in adult mode.

Doing this is not easy, but it gives you the power and control to change an argument and to also break out of our own rules and be less ridged.

Therapy is one way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.

Anxiety Ireland’s therapists help hundred of people each year with Anxiety related issues. If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. In our next blog we will be discussing the Fallacy of Fairness.

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Team Anxiety Ireland

Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going no where fast, it’s ok to step off.