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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The not-so-sweet taste of revenge

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” ~ Confucius

What would you think if you saw a person run up to another, stab that person in the arm with a knife, then disappear into the shadows and the victim’s response was to cry out in pain…and then start stabbing herself in the same place? You’d think she was nuts, wouldn’t you?

And if you asked her why she was repeatedly stabbing herself and she answered that she was taking revenge on her attacker this way, you’d be sure she was a few bricks shy of a load, would you not?

And yet, that is exactly what we do to ourselves when we focus our minds on revenge and retribution, on vengeance against those who have hurt us. We do not hurt them in the least, but by keeping our wounds alive and bleeding, we repeatedly, continually, hurt ourselves.

We like to think that vengeance is justice. We like to think that we will feel better if the people who hurt us are hurt in the same way. We like to think that thoughts of vengeance will not hurt us, that those thoughts are cathartic, allowing us to have our revenge at least in our minds, if not in our deeds. But, unfortunately, what we like to think, the conventional wisdom, is wrong. Not only is it logically wrong, it is empirically wrong: it has been studied and thoughts, fantasies, and wishes for vengeance actually make us feel worse than if we had turned our minds elsewhere.

Some people cite the Hebrew Bible’s “an eye for an eye...” scripture as justification for vengeful thinking and behaviour, but the same book also says “‘vengeance is mine’ says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35, in the NT, Rom. 12:19), reserving the right to vengeance to God, not giving encouragement to mankind to engage in it. And, as Martin Luther King once said, “That old law about 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind.” 

The American Psychological Association (APA) published an article entitled Revengeand the people who seek it by Michael Price in which he referenced numerous researchers on the topic of revenge.

“Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia, studies what makes a person seek revenge rather than just letting an issue go. In May 2008, he published a paper in Social Justice Research (Vol. 138, No. 2) linking vengeful tendencies primarily with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance, and the motivational values that underlie those attitudes.

“ ‘People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status… They don't want to lose face.’”

“ ‘Rather than providing closure, it [revenge, thinking of revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh…’

Bryan Robinson, in his article Why Revenge Is Bad and Good,  quotes Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York: “ ‘…everyone has felt the need to extract revenge. From being cut off in traffic by a rude driver and wanting to return the favor, to fantasizing about putting a school bully in his place, we have all felt wronged by someone — and mulled ways of gaining vengeance.’

“ ‘But while the need for revenge can be understandable, experts say it is never healthy… It’s not healthy, but like many other human needs, it’s also normal… Like hate, revenge is something that takes a toll on the person who feels wronged, as well as the [person’s] enemy. It is inherently unhealthy because it takes a psychological and physical toll on the person. Venting those feelings of anger and hostility does not decrease those feelings… It may give you a cathartic feeling, but it doesn’t last.’

Robinson goes on to say “Revenge spawns an endless cycle of retribution. It is not a long-term solution, but a quick-fix. That, experts say, is part of its appeal — it gives a wronged party some gratification, even though it is only temporary.

“Some people equate revenge with seeking justice, but the two are not the same. People who seek revenge are driven by anger and violence and have not thought about how [to] channel their negative feelings into something positive. They have not considered how they could use their negative experience — the injustice they suffered — to bring about change.

“ ‘It doesn't mean that you don’t want to hold people accountable for their actions or that you don’t want to seek justice,’ said William Mikulas, professor of psychology at the University of West Florida. ‘With revenge, you are coming from an orientation of anger and violence or self-righteousness: “I want to get him, I want to hurt them … I want to make them pay.” You’re coming from a place of violence and anger and that’s never good.’”

So, according to the literature, wanting revenge is normal but it’s not healthy for us. Basically, it keeps us stuck, unable to move past the injury for which we want revenge and, if we manage to actually get revenge, it still keeps us stuck, mulling over it. I am not so sure I entirely agree…

I think the desire for revenge, at least in Western society, is based on the pervasive but fatuous notion that life is fair and we are entitled to fairness in everything. Real life couldn’t be further from the truth. If life was fair, no child would be born into poverty…or all of them would. If life was fair, no child would be born with cleft palate or anencephaly or blind or to an indifferent, uncaring mother…or all of us would be. Human life, from the moment of conception, is inherently unfair, some blastocysts implanting to become fetuses, some failing to implant and being flushed out with the next menstrual cycle. We are not guaranteed fairness in life, nor are we entitled to it in the grander scheme of things: women live longer than men, Swedes, Brits and even the Greeks live longer than Americans, and by and large, men are taller and stronger than women…none of this is fair.

But while Mother Nature isn’t fair, there is one place where we can legitimately expect fairness and that is in institutions crafted by our fellow humans: marriage, family, law…things over which we, as humans, have actual control. We can create laws and marriage customs and family structures that are inherently fair to all participants or inherently unfair. And it is within this paradigm, the concept of man-made institutions, where we can create and legitimately expect fairness.

There is a fine line to be drawn between these institutions and the greater society, however. While we can expect to be treated fairly under the law, we cannot expect that the society will treat us fairly because society, by and large, does not reflect a perfect world. Our behaviour and our expectations will have a large part in determining where in the society we will fit and that determines other things, from who will befriend us to the jobs we get to our economic status. While we do have a measure of control with respect to law, we have no control over the behaviours of those around us. The rules of society are not codified, fixed, and enforced like the criminal and civil laws and, unlike law, the rules of social interaction don’t pay the slightest attention to what might considered fair.

Are we really clear on what is fair? Is it fair that one guy dates a string of supermodels but the same women won’t date the engineer at the next desk? Is it fair that one sister has four children but the other sister has fertility issues? Is it fair that your neighbour drives a new Porsche and you can barely keep your 15 year old Saturn moving? And if you believe these things are not fair, what are the viable options to level the playing field? Should the women be forced to date the engineer? Should he be permitted to shoot all of the beautiful women who won’t date him? Should the fertile sister give half of her children to the infertile one? Should the neighbour buy you a Porsche as well? Of course not…the solution is in learning and accepting that life in inherently unfair and that in many instances, there is nothing we can do about it. Accept it, change the attitude that you are entitled to a fair (“everything everybody else has”) shake in life, and that if you don’t get it, you are entitled to vengeance, even if the law doesn’t allow it.

We have two choices when it comes to dealing with unfair situations that are not governed by law: 1) acknowledge it feels unfair, learn a lesson about your part in it, and then accept it and walk away or 2) decide to do something about it. That latter choice also breaks down into two choices 1) take positive action, like exposing an injustice or spearheading a change in law (that is how MADD was formed and our laws about drunk driving got changed) or 2) plot, fantasize about, wish for, and focus on obtaining revenge. The first is a productive, positive way to deal with your disappointment, the second a corrosive, self-destructive, way to stay stuck and never, ever have feeling of closure.

Revenge…even fantasizing about revenge…may seem sweet in the moment but over the long term it is ultimately dissatisfying. It keeps you angry and stuck in the pain, and even if you are able to exact revenge, it keeps you stuck because we, as humans, vastly overrate what it will do for us. Revenge does not level the playing field, it doesn’t make things fair where they weren’t fair before, it doesn’t even make the victim of your vengeance empathize with your feelings—it just makes them feel hurt, unjustly attacked, and may even put them on the path of revenge against you. How do you think vendettas get started?

In the modern day, many people advocate turning the other cheek and forgiving the transgressor but I disagree with that, too. If you have been hurt, it is important to acknowledge that hurt and find out why you feel injured. Were you expecting blood from a turnip and now are disappointed, hurt and angry because the turnip didn’t bleed for you? Did you set up a transaction in your mind—failing to get the buy-in of the other person with whom you set up the transaction—and are now hurt and disappointed that the other person did not perform as expected? Are you in denial about another person or yourself and somehow an uncomfortable truth was revealed? Or were you really, truly victimized, taken advantage of, exploited?

When you know why you are feeling hurt, then you can learn the lessons your pain has to teach you and modify your behaviour, your expectations, who you trust. If you were truly victimized, you now know what to expect from the person who victimized you…will you heed this lesson going forward or put yourself in the position to be victimized again? If you created a transaction in your head… “I will do this and he will appreciate it and then he will love me”… and it didn’t work out the way you expected, you can learn to be more honest in your interactions with people or you can learn that this person is either not very perceptive or simply not interested in reciprocation and adjust how you interact with him in the future.

From analysing why you feel hurt and angry and learning the lessons that analysis provides you, you can move on to acceptance: recognize that rattlesnakes have venom, scorpions have stingers, wild animals bite, and some people are no different. They take and do not truly give. They will betray you every time you give them an opportunity and they stand to gain from it. They stab you in the back with one hand while extending the other in a gesture of friendship or love. They cannot be trusted to be benign, only to strike when it suits them. Accept that this is the way they are, be happy they have given you the gift of truth—they have shown you their true colours so now you can protect yourself, and use that knowledge to your best advantage. Vengeance does not evoke empathy in them for you, it does not make them understand how you feel. They merely see it as an unprovoked attack for which they have a right to retaliate. In the long run, revenge never ends well, nor does it give you that feeling of closure.

And it doesn’t heal what is hurting you, either.


  1. To long for revenge would require me to have feelings for those family members who have hurt me. I am in that liberating state of feeling nothing, neither positive nor negative, when I think of them.
    These days, I simply accept them the way they are and remind myself that acceptance and approval are not synonymous. I also accepted that I cannot deal with their dysfunction and walked away.
    If this implies a weakness on my part, so be it!

    1. You make a good point: as long as you want revenge, you are still emotionally hooked into their drama.

      Accepting the reality of a situation and walking away from the drama is not a weakness, it is a strength. The weakness comes in when you stay hooked into the drama, unable or unwilling to pull away.

      You've hit on the key to ending thoughts of and desires for revenge: accept them for who and what they are...recognize the reality of who and what they are and accept the unpleasant truth without hope of change. And make decisions about you own well being based on that acceptance and reality. We don't want revenge on rattlesnakes for being rattlesnakes and doing what rattlesnakes do, we just do our best to avoid contact with them. It's no different with narcissists.

  2. The rattlesnake analogy is perfect!

  3. Just wanted to note: the law isn't fair either. It's run by people, so it's run by prejudice and self-interest just like everything else run by people. The law is written as though it is fair, and talked about as though it is fair, but in practice it is not.
    Basically nothing is fair.

  4. Hi, I just wanted to tell you that I feel a lot better after coming upon your blog. It's a little bit like my therapist, and I am glad that I can read about somebody who feels the same way, even if I am sad that either of us experienced it. I'm trying to figure out how to let go of the hurt, and knowing that it's okay to feel hurt has really helped me with the healing process.

  5. Thanks for this post!


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