"It's Just Not
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,
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
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
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
1. light-colored (fair
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
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
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,
2. equitable, impartial,
3. exact, accurate,
4. correct, true
5. deserved, merited
6. legally right, lawful,
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.