“But it isn’t fair!”

To want to be respected and treated fairly is understandable. Morals and ethics based upon this expectation form a major part of our social system and inform our social construction of justice. As such, a person who breaks the law can be held morally responsible for their actions. 

My sense of moral responsibility legitimises me to want to seek revenge or compensation when I have been unfairly treated.

But what if life is not fair and is more a matter of happenstance? 

A person does not choose their parents, or the circumstances of the life they are born into. And yet, both of these factors, together with luck, have an enormous influence on every decision a person makes, and any consequences they may face for their actions.

What happens, then, when there is no easy way for me to gain retributive justice for the emotional and physical pain I have suffered as a consequence of another person or persons’ act of transgression, either by commission or omission?

On occasions when I have felt hurt and deeply wronged by a person’s ‘unfair’ words or actions, I have been preoccupied by the desire for vengeful justice. 

Thinking of the transgression, I notice tension in my arms and shoulders. My jaw clenches, holding my tongue tightly clamped in my mouth. Next comes the furrowed brow and a wave of nausea. Without me consciously doing anything, my brain has given the go-ahead for a release of adrenaline to help my body cope with this fight or flight response, making my heart beat faster and increasing the blood flow of metabolised sugars and oxygen to my muscles, priming them for action. I am now buzzing with energy and have an urge to shout out loud, but who is there to listen to me? 

What can a person do in this state of anxiety, with intrusive ruminative thoughts, an inability to focus, general fatigue and potential feelings of isolation and depression?

How Positive Psychology Can Help

Positive psychology offers hope in the form of an intrapersonal process in response to this question. Evidence-based research models have been developed – such as Enright’s process model and Worthington’s REACH model – to guide an individual, couple, or group through the intrapersonal emotional process of forgiveness. 

Discovering the different models of intrapersonal forgiveness helped me see that I do not need an apology or act of contrition from the perpetrator to release myself from the burden of injustice carried in my body and mind. Forgiveness research demonstrates that forgiveness is essentially an intra-psychic process (personal and subjective), that may or may not involve the perpetrator. 

Introducing step-by-step interventions such as writing a forgiveness letter or expressive writing, a positive psychology coach can develop a strong working alliance with the coachee. This provides a trusted space to help the coachee make safe contact with the pain and hurt they have experienced and continue to experience. Through this approach, it may be possible for the coachee to state their commitment to let go of the transgression and to compassionately forgive the perpetrator. This work takes time, and progress may not be linear or follow a rational timeline. One letter may be started, abandoned, and another letter begun. The resulting letter does not need to be sent, as this is a subjective process. However, reading the finished letter to a trusted friend is recommended.

Awareness of the research into the process of forgiveness has helped me to be more forgiving. I see the perpetrator of a transgression as a human being living in a world where fairness is not always a given. I consider the possible reasons why the person behaved the way they did. I reflect on the background of the person and how their social environment may have influenced their behaviour. Doing all of these things may, in the long-term, be better for me and for society as a whole. When I stand back from the heat of a situation, breathing calmly and quieting my thoughts, I am better able to consider, with compassion, the complexity of life, which at times…is not fair.

Positive Psychology has so many practical applications for our lives. Expand your understanding and coaching practice through evidence-based coaching approaches and assessment tools, which are covered in our ICF-accredited Practicing Applied Positive Psychology Coaching course.