Tag Archives: emotional regulation

No Revenge is the Best (Non) Revenge

Photo: Poseidon, Virginia Beach 2018

Deception and betrayal. Countless plays, poems, novels, stories and fables, and shows have focused on our universal experience of being stabbed in the back. The desire to get even, to be made ‘whole,’ is also universally human. We may feel it for the wrongs done to us, or to loved ones. In Eastern thought, Confucius wisely said that before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. One for you and one for your adversary.

Even with caveats, revenge still seems appealing. We are attracted to the idea of someone getting their comeuppance. Most people at some point have felt so aggrieved, hurt, and offended that the shadow of that bitter but tempting idea has gone through their minds: revenge. Our moral compasses can deviate a few degrees when we feel wounded and we imagine ways we can give them a taste of their own medicine. The expression that hurt people hurt people is often true. Interestingly, research conducted by clinical psychologist, Dr. Gordon Finley, found that revenge has little to do with morality. Individuals who rate high on morality measures can also be capable of desiring revenge. Dr. Finley found that revenge is an impulse; with the goal of catharsis of rage and deep hurt.

In my professional work, I have found that a desire for revenge is related to our personal relationship with empathy. Many people who have been wronged cannot fathom that somebody would treat them in such a manner. It is a violation of the Golden Rule, taught since kindergarten, treating others as we would want to be treated. How could they do this to me, I’m a good person. This creates dissonance, and people can actually become aggressors who perpetuate the painful behaviors of the person who originally hurt them.

The Research
Characteristics of perpetually vengeful people include the following variables:

*Poor emotion regulation.
Easily reactive or affronted, difficulty modulating emotions or seeing nuance.

*Little self-knowledge or insight.
For many vengeful people, thinking about their own motives, antecedents , and consequences does not come easily.

*Sense of moral authority.
They have the belief that they know what is absolute and universal. They are the law/justice, an example of what every person should be; that they are always right.

*Concrete thinking. 
Seeing everything as black or white. Either you’re with me or you’re not. Things are done correctly or they are done wrong.

*Little empathy.
Neither forgiving nor forgetting, living chained to the past and resentment. They may frequently reflect on old hurts from years ago.

*Poor impulse control.
They want immediate satisfaction, even if there are permanent consequences or new data.

*Representation of authoritarianism and social dominance.
Social anthropology researchers believe that revenge may have played a part in our earlier cultural lives by keeping people who had wronged the society in check. However, as communities evolved, different sets of checks and balances rather than personal revenge or vendettas became normative.

According to the journal Social Justice Research (Vol. 138), in cultures and communities where there is a sense of fairness as a ‘village’, vengeful behavior and thoughts are reduced.

Why revenge is bad for mental health
*It does not provide any significant relief from pain or an increase in satisfaction. In fact, research shows that people who hold onto vengeful feelings tend  to feel worse in the long run. Dr. Kevin Carlsmith, a social psychologist at Colgate University, found exactly the opposite happens, according to a study published in the May 2008 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  This is in line with neuropsychology research that the more you think about some thing, the more neural pathways are activated and maintained.

*People do not accurately assess the emotional consequences or fall out achieved from revenge. For example, they may expect to feel much better if they can act on vengeful feelings, but find that these words or retaliatory behaviors actually create MORE activation of negative feelings such as anger and hurt. Revenge often keeps wounds open and fresh.

*Psychology research shows that keeping a healthy routine and moving forward with personal goals after being wronged is related to positive mental health. You are much better off channelling your energy into moving forward positively with your life.

It appears that living your best life, according to the science, truly is the best non-revenge. Also see The Neuropsychology of Schadenfreude

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
― Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado

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