The War on Unfair

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When clients feel they’ve been wronged, resentment, fear and anger are sure to follow. Working through these emotions, as well as the backlash against them, presents challenges for therapists and clients alike.

Fear and Resentment on the Couch

Many of my clients are mandated to treatment. In brief, this means that they have been accused of a serious crime, convicted and sentenced, and part of their sentence includes mental health counselling. These clients are usually on probation and can be thrown back into prison for violating any one of a long list of restrictions over and above the boundaries placed on ordinary citizens.

Often clients feel some or all of this process is unjust. As a result of their beliefs, they spend a lot of time feeling resentful, angry, and fearful. They repeatedly relive past perceived offenses against them and construct elaborate waking nightmares of the next injustice they expect to come their way. In addition to the internal turmoil this pattern of thinking creates, it also distracts clients from addressing the wrongs they themselves committed that landed them in the justice system. They are also prone to oppositional behavior and more likely to incite conflicts with authority figures; they cannot win whether or not they have the facts on their side.

As a therapist, I accept the task of remediating these destructive patterns of thought. The directive from my superiors has been stated any number of ways over the years, some more blunt than others. When clients raise issues of unfairness, “shut it down,” is one phrase commonly uttered by those in positions of power. I’ve also been asked to “adjust the attitude” of clients who are vocal in their feelings of being wronged. Other times I’m directed to remind the client that they put themselves in this position through their own acts or inform them that life isn’t fair. Talking about injustice in therapy can also be dismissed by labelling it as “playing the victim.”

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While I wholeheartedly embrace the goal of ending rumination about perceived injustices, past and future, as well as getting clients over feelings of resentment and fear, I take issue with the ways unfairness is addressed above on two grounds. First, I believe that any thought or feeling that is denied becomes stronger. Consequently, making talk of unfairness unworthy in therapy simply drives it underground in the client’s psyche where it grows and festers to emerge elsewhere in a more destructive form. Second, by banishing consideration of unfairness, therapists impose a world-view at odds with the facts. While I believe the U.S. justice system is one of the best in the world, history records that it does commit egregious errors. Innocent men have been sent to death row only to be exonerated by DNA evidence decades later. In Pennsylvania, judge Arthur E. Grim accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sentencing youths with minor infractions to months in a juvenile detention facility. If I dismissed my clients’ concerns over injustice, then I deny the possibility that they too, no matter how awful their own offense, may have been a victim of injustice at the hands of the police and the courts.

Even a Monkey Knows Injustice

Perception of unfairness runs deep. If research by Sarah Brosnan, PhD is to be believed, it could be in our DNA. Brosnan studied capuchin monkeys by teaching them to do tasks in exchange for food. When some monkeys were rewarded more than others for the same work, the monkeys who received less often stopped playing the game altogether. They would rather receive nothing than receive something as part of an unfair deal.

So why should I be surprised when my clients become resistant or engage in passive-aggressive behavior when they feel wronged? If such responses are hard-wired into the human animal, what right to I have to make my client wrong for feeling them?

It is good that my clients are not in fact capuchin monkeys. As human beings, we can override the natural impulse to walk away from unfairness by reasoning through the consequences. For probationers, failure to ‘play the game’ of probation is grounds for a return to prison. My aim is to allow my clients to accept their emotional drive to throw in the towel while making the logical move to continue to engage a process that feels unfair.

Beyond Fair and Unfair

The justice system sees defendants in black and white. They are guilty or not guilty. Others can adopt this absolutist position, dividing the world into victims and victimizers, applying this label permanently and universally to an individual. More perniciously, the labels become mutually exclusive: once someone earns the label “victimizer” they can no longer be a “victim.” By this distorted logic, anything that happens to a victimizer, no matter how awful, no matter how unrelated, becomes an earned consequence of their offense. It is bad enough when others objectify this person and cast him or her in the role of eternal bad guy, deserving whatever knocks life dishes out, but far worse when the client internalizes the role. I have seen clients endure emotional, verbal, and even physical abuse without taking assertive action. I believe my clients settle for this treatment, at least in part, because they think their past crimes somehow balance out current offenses.

It is time for those of us who value justice to endorse a more nuanced view of what is fair and what is unfair. I am inspired by a recent interview with Ofer Zur, PhD. Doctor Zur is a distinguished psychologist who studies victimization. His experience serving as an expert witness informed his views on culpability and the law. Rather than adopt a black-and-white view of the relationship of victim and victimizer, Zur points out that while all victimizers are culpable for their actions, some victims may share responsibility for their suffering. For instance, if my car is stolen, I’ll probably get a great deal of sympathy from my friends and they will express condemnation towards the thief. But if I also mention that I parked my car on the street in the bad side of town and left the keys in the ignition with the door unlocked, then the response will likely change. While the person who took my car is clearly at fault, I am also in the wrong. The thief victimized me and I also allowed myself to be victimized by not taking reasonable care of my property. We are both in the wrong, even though the thief’s wrong is far greater than mine.

In a similar light, I call on therapists who work with offenders to remain open to discussions of unfairness in therapy rather than “shut it down” or quickly assert that “life’s not fair.” It doesn’t take much moral imagination to recognize that offenders can also be victims and that prior bad acts do not excuse another’s present misdeeds. This position serves clients because it allows them to reject victimizing behavior universally, accept the consequences of their actions, even the ones they feel are unjust, while asserting their right to fair treatment going forward and to protect themselves against being victimized in the future. If we as counselors confront the bad acts of our offender population, are we not inconsistent if we fail to condemn offending across the board?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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