07/01/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Life Is Unfair -- Feed the Right Wolf

I always viewed the phrase "life is unfair" as negative. It felt to me the glass is half empty; why try when you'll fail anyway; the good guy comes in last. I preferred the more positively-framed approach of believing anything is possible in life, especially when it comes to career success. If you work hard enough, you will get what you want.

Recently "life is unfair" took on a clearer, deeper meaning for me and now gives me more empowerment and perspective with my work life. This was inspired by an workshop I attended entitled "The Trauma of Being Alive," hosted by Buddhism experts Mark Epstein and Joseph Goldstein. I was intrigued by it's promise -- an investigation into the unfairness of life, a key topic that is also focused upon in yoga philosophy.

In our professional lives, we suffer for two major reasons:

  • We don't get what we want (higher salary, promotion, job fulfillment)
  • We get what we don't want (bad boss, unwanted team transfer, budget cuts)

There are some things in life we have control over, but most things we do not. Suffering happens because we think we do or don't deserve something. The deepest misery results when we feel we have done everything exceptionally right, everything in our power to deserve a different outcome. "I work much harder than he does. Why does he make more money?" and, "I'm so busy with the accounts I have. Why am I being given more work?"

These thoughts are driven from the feeling of being punished or wronged. The feeling of how unfair life is and we do not deserve what is happening; in fact, this should be happening to someone else, not me.

In Buddhism, dukkha means the struggle to accept the fact that things in life are temporary, limited and imperfect. Understanding that we do not have control over every outcome, no matter how hard we work towards it, is the beginning of easing suffering. Similarly, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Swami Satchidananda, book 2.16 references "Heyam duhkham anagatam," which means future suffering can and should be avoided. We have a choice in the matter -- hold on and feed the storyline and drama, or feel the pain in the moment, learn and let go. With this let go mindset, thinking shifts from, "Why me? This is so unfair!" to "I'm unhappy and suffering with this, but let's find a way to cope and move forward."

The magic formula to reduce suffering: ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT IS.


Accepting the unfairness of life at the workplace is a tall order and very difficult. Often anger, jealously, rage, vengeance and more get the better of us. Pema Chodron, American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has written many books on the subject of accepting what is. In Taking The Leap, she recounts a well-known American Indian tale:

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, "The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed."

Pema continues to explain that we all have a choice of which wolf we are going to feed when faced with life's unfairness. This is the fork in the road moment for all of us. Will we let the aggressive dark wolf lead us down the path of spiraling suffering, feeding it with stories of blame and self-righteousness? Or will we follow the light wolf of compassion and wise understanding of what can and cannot be changed?

We all know what it feels like when you feed the dark wolf. Rarely, if ever, do you ultimately feel better from being sucked into suffering, negativity and making everyone around you suffer. There may be a momentary high of dark victory after your initial punches are thrown but the lasting effect is never a good feeling.

The goal is to feed the light wolf. This may not be possible in the short-term upon first hearing upsetting news. Initial reactions should be honest, emotional and even raw. Post initial reaction, however, is the critical turning point where you actually have a choice of what your long-term mindset and focus will be on. The takeaway story line you create will be will be up to you. It feels best to move forward with effort and grace to seek out rays of positivity and gratitude in even the darkest moments.

When faced with life's unfairness, take a moment and carefully examine the fork in the road ahead. Gather patience and empowerment. Say to yourself, "It's up to me to choose which wolf to feed." Making the right choice will get easier every time.