by Steve Andreas
Years ago, conservative TV talk show host Joe Pyne, who had a wooden leg, had Frank Zappa as a guest. He began by saying, “So I guess your long hair makes you a woman.” Without missing a beat, Frank replied, “So I guess your wooden leg makes you a table,” and Joe Pyne looked stunned..
A young woman once said to me, “NLP is a crock.” I was particularly curious about her statement, because she worked for an NLP institute. When I asked her why she thought NLP was a crock, she replied, “Because I can’t use it on myself.” When I said, “Yeah, I guess brain surgery is a crock, too,” she threw up her hands and said “Ohhh!”
The simplest way to describe the pattern that underlies these two examples is that:
1. The initial statements are beliefs, or generalizations,
2. The responder found a content example that was clearly a counterexample to the generalization, and
3. The responder paced by stating the counterexample in the exact same linguistic form as the initial statement, as if it were an additional example of the generalization.
Because the counterexample is stated in the exact same linguistic form as the initial belief statement, the person holding the belief has to process it with exactly the same meta-program sorting principles or other biases that apply to the belief. Like the Trojan horse, it is welcomed past all the cognitive defenses right into the heart of the belief. Only after this is it recognized as a counterexample that weakens or destroys the belief.
To appreciate the power of this conversational pattern, compare it to the kind of answer most people might give in the two situations described above: “No, I’m not a woman; I just like long hair,” or “Some women have short hair.” “Some people use NLP with themselves,” or “Even if you can’t use it on yourself, it can be useful to use with others.”
This is a really easy pattern to use, because there is no need to characterize the meta-program sorting principles that are used to maintain the belief. All you have to do is identify a content counterexample and embed it in the same linguistic form. Since the form is an expression of the processes underlying the belief, this ensures that the counterexample will be processed in the same way as other supporting examples.
Now let’s turn to the title of this article, “It’s just not fair!” People invariably say this when they are narrowly focused on a situation in which someone else has more of something valuable (dessert, money, good looks, etc.) than they do. “It’s just not fair˜that she is pretty and I’m not” “˜that he is rich and I’m not,” etc. It is then a very short trip to feeling victimized and sorry for yourself, and complaining that someone else should do something about it (an “ill-formed outcome” that I have little or no control over).
I have found it really useful to apply the same principle of feeding counterexamples through the same structure. Since “It’s just not fair” depends on examples in which someone else has more of something good, a counterexample will be any way that the other person has less of something good (or more of something bad). “It’s just not fair˜that he is in a wheelchair and I’m not,” “˜that she is poor, and I’m not,” etc. Whenever I fall into thinking that life is not fair, I use this as an internal mantra, filling in whatever convenient content I see around me.
To summarize this pattern:
1. Identify a belief or other statement that is problematic˜that leads you or someone else into feelings, responses or behaviors that make them, or someone else, unhappy.
2. Identify content that constitutes a counterexample to the content typically processed by the generalization.
3. Package the counterexample content in the same linguistic form as if it were an example of the generalization.
For those who might be curious to know more about how we get lost in generalizations like “It’s just not fair,” let’s take a closer look. There are only four words˜or five, really, since the full statement is “It is just not fair.”
“It’s” or “it is” is the familiar “lost performative.” The person making the statement is lost, and the object of the statement is also missing. Expanding “It’s” into its full meaning, we get “I’m saying it’s not fair to me.” Of course the “it” is not specified, but that is usually clear by the context, or specified by statements that precede or follow the “It’s not fair.” The “is” also specifies that a belief, in the form of a complex equivalence, is present. (It = not fair.) “It” is some event or condition, while “not fair” is the meaning attributed to it, joined by “is,” which is equivalent to “equals.”
“Is” is also the word we use to describe being or fact (in contrast to appearance or opinion). When we say “That is a cat,” it carries the implication of incontrovertible fact, not to be questioned. When a single word has many meanings like this, it is said to be “semantically packed,” because so many meanings are packed into it. Usually most of the many meanings are processed unconsciously, and the person responds to most of them largely unconsciously.
“Fair” is also a semantically-packed word. My dictionary lists the following meanings: “light, pleasing, beautiful, free from stain or blemish, open, frank, honest, equal, just, reasonable, equitable, good, unobstructed, smooth, even, according to the rules, frank, candid, characterized by favorable conditions, clear and sunny.”
These meanings can be grouped into three basic categories:
1. light-colored (fair hair)
2. good (fair weather)
3. equal, just, equitable.
Although the last meaning is the one that is most applicable, the other meanings are also being elicited in our minds when we hear the word “fair.”
What may not be obvious is that “fair” in the sense of “equitable and honest” can only be applied to human agreements, exchanges and transactions, not to the natural physical world, which just is. If I say, “It’s not fair that I’m short and he is tall,” that is actually a “selectional restriction” violation, equivalent to saying “the pregnant rock,” or “the angry storm.” Rocks can’t be pregnant, and storms can’t be angry. (A storm may seem angry to us, but that is only because we project our emotion into it.) Being short or tall has nothing to do with being fair.
While occasionally someone may use “It’s just not fair,” to describe a human agreement or transaction, more often it is used to describe things or events in the natural world that we simply don’t like. While it’s fine to say “I don’t like something,” (and better yet to do something about it when I can), it’s inappropriate to say “It’s not fair,” just because I don’t like it. We might as well scold a rock for not getting pregnant! To say “It’s not fair” just makes us into whimpering victims, and diverts us from finding and taking useful actions to make things better.
Milton Erickson told of examining patients and staff at a mental hospital. On one particular day he first examined a 75-year-old alcoholic who was in excellent health, but had been a burden to his family and society for many years, and would likely live another ten or twenty. Next he examined a bright young woman who was a volunteer at the hospital. When he examined her retina he saw the unmistakable signs of Bright’s disease, which meant that she had only about six months to live. Erickson had to leave the room to regain his composure before returning to tell her what he had found. As he described it, he said to himself, “Get this through your head, Erickson; life is not fair.” We can do our best to make life more fair, but moaning about its being unfair only makes it worse.
“Just” is a fascinating word, even more semantically packed than “It’s” or “fair.” The main meaning here can be best characterized as “only.” “Just” is a “tunnel vision” word that says “Don’t pay attention to anything else; this is the only thing that matters.”
“Just” can be used either as an adverb to modify the verb (in this case “is”) or as an adjective to modify an object, in this case, “not fair.” I don’t know how a grammarian would decide “just” is used in this case. I’d say it is ambiguous, which means that our unconscious language processing will process it in both ways (no matter how the grammarian decides).
When “just” is used as an adverb it can mean “barely” as in “I just missed the train,” or it can mean “a short time ago,” as in “He just left.” Although both these meanings are inappropriate here, all the other meanings do apply: “only,” “quite,” “exactly.”
When used as an adjective, “just” has even more meanings. My dictionary lists eight:
1. upright, honest, righteous
2. equitable, impartial, fair
3. exact, accurate, precise
4. correct, true
5. deserved, merited
6. legally right, lawful, rightful
7. right, proper
“Synonyms: exact, honest, impartial, precise, proper, upright.” In short, “just” means all that is valued as right and good.
“Not” has the simple meaning of negation, and although it really negates “fair,” “just not” also can be easily read as “not just” which has the same meaning as “not fair.” If you negate all the meanings of “just” listed above, we find that “It’s just not fair” means that all that is right and good has been negated.
Putting all these pieces together we can see how “It’s just not fair” can transform a situation in which I don’t like something into a situation in which all that is good and fair has been violated, even if fairness doesn’t actually apply. Life is not fair. Recognizing this, we can seek out ways to make it more fair for all of us.
*Anchor Point, Vol. 12, No.3, March, pp. 43-46