Expectations and Fairness: Can You Tell the Difference?

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

The other day my nine year old daughter was begging me for more screen time. For our household, getting off of screens means televisions, computers, phones, iPads, everything. I had told her that she had reached her limit and she was adamant that she hadn’t. She relentlessly pushed me to change my mind. I told her that she was losing treats for the day, which for us means desserts, as a consequence. She wouldn’t drop it and so I told her she was losing treats for the next day as well. At this point, she back pedaled and started trying to negotiate to get back one of the days. I held my ground. Knowing that she was defeated, she started to walk away in frustration, but then she came back over to me and put her arm around me. She said, “You know what I like about being at your house as opposed to being at daddy’s? At your house, when I get in trouble I know that I deserve it. I know that it is fair. At his house I don’t feel like it is fair.”

It’s interesting that she was able to make the connection, at nine, between expectations and fairness. Because she doesn’t know what the expectation of her father is regarding her behavior, she knows that it is unfair to get in trouble for it. She understands that talking back to me and not listening isn’t allowed and so she knew that she deserved the consequence of losing treats.

Fairness is something I have often thought about myself, particularly when I find myself feeling treated unfairly by someone else. When I feel mistreated by someone, and am feeling miffed about it, I have noticed that I have the tendency to equate unfairness or wrongdoing with the situation no matter what the circumstances. However, often when I’ve backed up and gone over the facts, rather than my feelings, I have discovered that somewhere along the line I had acquired an expectation of the other person that wasn’t agreed on. I had invented,

Often when I’ve backed up and gone over the facts, rather than my feelings, I have discovered that somewhere along the line I had acquired an expectation of the other person that wasn’t agreed on.”

in my mind, a sort of understanding about what the other person was going to do or “should” do. My real disappointment was not in what the other person DID do, rather it was about what the other person failed to do. They failed to meet my expectation, one that was never agreed on to begin with.

I have gotten into the habit over the years of making myself evaluate the difference in fairness and expectations during conflict. When I am feeling angry or disappointed in someone I have found it extremely helpful to simply lay out the agreed upon facts for myself. Next, I evaluate what expectations I had conjured up based on the facts. To be honest, there is usually a discrepancy. Once I realize that the real disappointment that I am feeling is not in another person or in how they had treated me unfairly, I feel some sense of control over the situation. Instead of directing my anger and frustration at them, and risking harming the relationship, I instead come up with a game plan about how to make sure I don’t inflate my expectations the next time.

At the end of the day, to increase our sense of empowerment and the control we have of ourselves is the best step we can take towards changing our circumstances. Feeling that we can impact our environment in the way that we hope to, brings about the courage to move forward. Taking steps to differentiate the difference in

“Feeling that we can impact our environment in the way that we hope to, brings about the courage to move forward.”

fairness and expectations can keep us from falling into the trap of wallowing in our disappointments. If someone treats us unfairly, there is little we can do to change the situation. However, if we are feeling down because of expectations that we created ourselves, then we can own our part in the situation and improve ourselves for the next time. Although blaming the other person is usually our natural tendency, ownership of our part brings about empowerment and hope and this is what mental health is all about.

For more information on managing thoughts, particularly critical thoughts, see my post on fighting thoughts.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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