In human interactions we all have our own way of seeing events, conversations and disagreements. We automatically and naturally see things from our own points of views, just as car drivers in other cars can only see the road from where they are, not from where we are.
In arguments we start from our vantage point and then hopefully attempt to reach a middle ground and work through it, or if we can’t do this we may stick to our guns or just give in. Yet we lose flexibility when we apply absolute or legal ideas to our preferences/point of view; this is what happens when we are fall into the Fallacy of Fairness.
All human societies apply laws as both a social contract 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. This may vary from person to person as humans construct how they see reality based on their previous experiences, their culture and their upbringings.
In everyday situations, how we respond is determined by our belief systems. So naturally how we react can be 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 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 every Friday he continually walks into a firestorm of accusations that he is being uncaring and unloving. This hurts and confuses him, for Sharon she is applying her own life experience and personal expectations as 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 by other people completely without their knowledge.
Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person basing their thinking on it 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.
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 (Millennials perhaps) 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 the emotions we experience following the actions of others are the consequences of unfairness 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.
People who deliberately hurt, cheat, manipulate, gaslight or torment us should not be tolerated, but the Fallacy of Fairness is more for when we may expecting others to magically know boundaries that are unique to ourselves or specific to moments.
But what I am saying is that we need to own that it is our boundary that is being crossed here, no one can read our mind even if we’ve communicated similar things in the past.
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 typically 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 will be 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 if in any interaction we approach in child mode: hurt, very angry, being unreasonable etc (as we might do if our “fair 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”). Some people in Child mode also just comply with our authoritarian attitude but this isn’t good for us or them.
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.
- Adults own their feelings as their own. They start by expressing how they feel and work from there. They might say I feel a little hurt, upset, let down, annoyed whatever.
- 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.
- They take responsibility for their own behaviours and actions and apologies for them if appropriate.
- They try to offer solutions going forward that are mutually agreeable and realistic.
- 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 fairness rules and be less ridged.
One persons fair can be other persons unseen line, clear communication is key to overcoming obstacles in relationships and in moment arguments that may be unintentional.
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.
Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: Filtering, Polarized Thinking, Over-generalization, Mind Reading, Catastraphizing, Personalization, Control Fallacies, The Fallacy of Fairness, Emotional Reasoning, The Fallacy of Change, Global Labeling, Blaming, Shoulds, Being Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy.
If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. In our next blog we will be discussing the Emotional Reasoning.
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going no where fast, it’s ok to step off.