“What have I done to deserve this?!”
Recently diagnosed with a devastating illness and cheated on by her (now ex) fiancé shortly after, Andrea certainly had cause for her lament.
Her entirely understandable reaction of ‘why did this happen to me?’ is one I’ve heard many times in my career.
As therapists and counsellors, we’ll sometimes hear clients focussing on how a particular situation (or even their lives generally) is or has been ‘unfair’.
Now we could point out that life isn’t fair or that ‘fairness’ is an entirely human construct. That the universe takes no notice of what we humans think we’ve earned or ‘deserve’.
Or even that a lot of life is luck – 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.
But of course this isn’t a particularly helpful or kind approach when we’re faced with clients who feel injured, damaged, or cheated by life’s vicissitudes.
So how might we reframe this perception in ways that don’t invalidate how the client feels, but instead offer a sense of wider perspective and hope?
Here are 3 reframing techniques to subtly challenge the feeling that ‘life’s not fair’.
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 while putting a hopeful spin on it.
For example, I said to Andrea:
“These past few months, 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…”
Language like this connects with the client’s sense that life should have some sort of ‘rules’ of fairness and extends that idea – but in a positive way.
Because research has found that when people start looking out for good luck, they’ll start to find it (1).
2) Use others as metaphors
Drawing a direct, conscious comparison with someone obviously worse off seldom works. I definitely didn’t tell the suffering Andrea that there are people out there who have it worse than her – that would have broken rapport and been dismissive of her serious troubles.
However, when our clients feel life has treated them unfairly we can offer anecdotes or stories of more helpful role models without directly linking these to our clients’ worries.
You can talk about anyone your client would most easily relate to, but if no one else seems a better fit, 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 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’. Of the effect of such a life, Erickson said:
…the diet of social development and health must include a reasonable amount of ‘roughage’.
I relate Erickson’s story almost as an afterthought or unrelated tangent some time after my client and I have talked about their unfair situation – and many other things in between. I’ve personally found it most effective to do this while my clients are in hypnosis, that most receptive of listening and learning states.
3) Ask what they’ve learned
Bad luck should never be ‘wasted’.
When reframing the unfairness of life with my clients, I don’t let the focus stay on what the client’s done or suffered, with whom, where, and how bad it’s all been.
Instead I encourage them to consider instead what they’ve learned from their experiences, and keep coming back to this.
To Andrea, I said:
“All that bad luck and misfortune has been a breeding ground for learning… Just as the most interesting trees are those that face storms – rain-lashed, wind-buffeted – and grow greater because of all that, unlike the spoilt saplings in their protective plastic cones… Just as a sailor’s skill can only increase by weathering the challenge of capsizing weather and waves… 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 that is going to help you immeasurably in your future…”
Ultimately, we all have to take and make from life what we can.
And Andrea, I’m pleased to say, recovered fully from her illness and months later told me that she’d learned to truly treasure the friends who weather the storms with her rather than racing for the lifeboats. In fact, she’s marrying one such friend next month.
My online course Conversational Reframing delves much deeper into subtle ways to challenge unhelpful client mindsets.
- See Richard Wiseman’s research into the psychology of luck.