Getting even

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

Confucius, Chinese philosopher

Earlier this year, I was victim of a mini vengeful act. I won’t go into the dull and personal details, but the essential elements were that someone decided my perceived electronic “rejection” of them (which I considered as holding my boundaries around consent) needed to be revenged. The other person orchestrated a situation where they got the opportunity to reject me. Their actions tried to level the hurt score. Once I realised what they had done, I was slightly aghast. Such was their hurt of being rejected, they felt the need to retaliate.  

It’s not uncommon to find themes of vengeance in films or works of fiction, and for most of us acting vengefully rarely graduates beyond fantasy. But what is our quest for revenge all about? And what are implications of taking revenge in reality?

The reason we may desire vengeance is pretty much hard wired into us from our ancient origins, so it’s a pretty natural emotion. When we feel emotional pain, through being rejected or insulted, the area of our brain which is activated seeks to respond to threats and harm with aggressive retaliation. Interestingly when we match the emotional pain with the prospect of vengeance, we activate our brain’s reward centre and experience it as pleasure. Therefore, through revenge we essentially seek to balance our pain with pleasure. These findings are based on our experiences in the immediate moment, suggesting that revenge might not be as sweet in the longer term. 

Interestingly not all of us are attracted to acts of revenge. One 2006 study found that men get more pleasure from the notion of revenge than women. Plus, people who take rejection more sensitively are more prone to knee-jerk vengeful reactions. Those who regard their reputation as important to their self-esteem might seek revenge when their status has been diminished in some way. The notion of losing face is too much to bear, and so retaliation is a common way to cope.

The majority of studies on the topic of revenge prove that although the act might make us feel better in the short term, it doesn’t help us reach closure in the longer term. Seeking revenge can make us dwell on the past hurt for much longer than if we hadn’t taken any action. The original transgression gets stuck on repeat in our heads. We run the risk of rumination and obsession. Research has shown that when we don’t seek revenge, we can tell ourselves the original issue was less of a big deal, and this makes it easier for us to move on. Taking revenge makes the whole matter more important to us and therefore harder to recover. Revenge keeps the original wound raw and open, rather than letting it heal over and fade. This situation can become even worse if our revenge causes a cycle of retaliation, making closure an ever-distant possibility. 

And let’s us not forget that revenge can cause us greater issues in longer term. For example, former US President Richard Nixon was well-known for his list of enemies and vengeful acts against them, which later led to his ultimate downfall and resignation. Also, after an exchange of words, French footballer, Zinedine Zidane headbutted an Italian player during the last vital moments of the 2006 World Cup final and was immediately sent off and ultimately destroyed his football career. Italy went on to win the final.  The saying “shooting ourselves in the foot” seems to ring true when it comes to revenge.

One study in 2011, showed that revenge is more effective (in terms of making us feel better) when the person who has originally hurt us understands and acknowledge our vengeful action. The researchers concluded that revenge is more than just payback, it’s about delivering a message.

Well-known American psychiatrist, Judith Herman describes revenge, after a past trauma, as only increasing our torment and that it can never compensate for the harm that was done to us originally. Herman sees revenge as resistance to mourning, this being a necessary part of recovery from trauma.

And so, it seems the cathartic impact of taking revenge is largely fiction. So, when we notice our natural and immediate desire to get our own back, we need to pause and to understand that the best revenge (as the Welsh poet, George Herbert explains), is to live well.   

Photo by Cody Davis on Unsplash 

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