Sweet Revenge . . . Or Is It?

Posted on 05 December 2020

Just who are you really hurting?

Many people today (thankfully, not everyone) are experiencing what may feel like the worst of times. Their reactions to this, not surprisingly, include feelings of fear, hopelessness, helplessness and even despair. They want to hit back at those who have hurt them. They want ‘sweet revenge’.

Revenge can be defined as harm done to someone as a punishment for harm that they have done to you first. It’s sometimes called ‘sweet’ because, at least in prospect, it feels rather satisfying. The saying “revenge is sweet” stresses the pleasure you think you’ll feel from harming someone who has harmed you—from paying them back in kind.

Yet punishing others, especially when it’s irrational, is based purely on emotion, not reason. And revenge breeds revenge. The more your brain is activated by the anticipation of revenge, the more willing you become to act vengefully. The same, of course, is true of the person you inflict your revenge upon. You pay them back, they do the same to you and on it goes.

Why is revenge, the act of harming someone, ‘sweet’?

Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of a book called Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go and Moving On says there’s a simple reason for the rise of revenge. It’s because revenge satisfies. “It feels so good. It’s a wonderfully triumphant feeling.”

Brain-imaging studies indicate the brain centers that ‘light up’ when we experience pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction also light up when we commit, or even consider, an act of revenge. We actually feel satisfaction when we punish others for what we consider to be their bad behavior. When engaging in vengeful thoughts or deeds, whether you actually act out your revenge or simply considers it, your brain’s pleasure centers are being stimulated.

Vengeful behavior is reactive and self-defeating

Revenge doesn’t come from thinking, but from the acting out of fear. In meting out punishment and visiting revenge on another, you may believe you are justified, but the rational part of your brain is scarcely involved. It’s your ancient, primitive reptilian brain—all fear-based instinctual reactivity—and your animal limbic brain, which generates ‘reasons’ based on protecting your turf and your emotional sense of selfhood. They’re in charge.

Angry, hurt people can easily come to feel like helpless victims, harmed by people and forces ‘out there’. That’s why, as they being sucked into the quicksand of victim consciousness, they feel the need to hit back at those they blame. Viewed from this emotionally-charged standpoint, revenge seems to be the only strategy that will give them back any sense of self-worth.

Many who seek revenge (in mind or in deed) live in an “if only” world. That is: “If only I could punish, remove or even annihilate (fill in the blank with an individual or individuals, a group or groups), then I would experience some happiness or satisfaction.”

The truth is that revenge is like a drug: the more you use it, the more of it you need next time to feel even mildly satisfied. The ‘high’ it provides is fleeting. It offers no true peace or security. It’s needs are never-ending, like drug addict who needs to score one more fix, and then another. Revenge soon becomes a way of life—an endless, miserable, self-sabotaging, self-limiting obsession.

What’s real here?

When you feel angry and hurt, your perception easily gets disconnected from reality. You may project your feelings of hurt and outrage onto people ‘out there’ although the problem has been inside you all along. Maybe that person you so long to ‘pay back’ has nothing to do with your pain. Harming them may well gain you nothing. Unless you take the time to explore your inner feelings and emotions to look for the root causes of your anguish, you may be aiming at the wrong target. It’s all too easy to blame others and spend your energy fantasizing about revenge instead of curing the problem and getting back on track.

James Baldwin explains it well:

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with [their own] pain.”

Moving towards a better solution

As Charlotte Bronte wrote: “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrong.” No one was born seeking revenge, so how do people come to indulge so much in blaming and being vengeful? How did they learn to want to punish others for their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life?

Rather than blaming others and seeking revenge, you could choose to get in touch with your needs and deal with your issues yourself. When you choose to take your life in your own hands, there’s no one to blame, no one to punish, no one with whom to get even. Only by moving from a place of vengeance to a place of taking back your power and control of your life will you ever stop experiencing yourself as a helpless victim.

Once you move your mental processing from the amygdala and limbic brain to the cortex—the level of the brain involved in thinking, problem-solving, goal-setting, and planning—you’ll be able to be less reactive and see the consequences of vengeful decisions before acting on them. The cortex also allows you to distinguish between feelings and facts. You’ll be able to let go of negativity and be more understanding and considerate: to act from having a conscience, not from emotional, unintelligent urges to violence.

Here are some questions for self-reflection as usual:

  • Are you the type of person who doesn’t just get mad, you get even? Do you often find yourself plotting to take revenge on your enemies? Do you use this to deflect responsibility from yourself/ Do you absolve yourself by blaming others?
  • Before stooping to revenge, are you sure of your facts? How do the actions of individuals and groups on whom you would like to exact revenge directly and measurably affect your life?
  • How often do you scheme to upset other people in some way; to make their life miserable for what you imagine they have done to you? Do you keep mental notes on all the people who have screwed you in life? What does this say about you?
  • Do you believe that two wrongs make a right? Is your motto, ‘an eye for an eye’? Have you ever spent a significant amount of time trying to hunt down someone from your past just so you could get back at them? How has this worked for you? Did it really make you feel good for more than a moment?
  • What has been your experience of taking revenge, punishing others and getting even? Does it prevent future problems? Or does it simply mean you have a growing list of people to take vengeance on?
  • Have you ever noticed that those on whom you take revenge work to pay you back for that too? Are you setting up a pattern where hurt leads only to further hurt? How could you escape from it?
    What would happen if you didn’t take revenge? What would you really lose? What might you even gain?

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This post was written by:

Peter Vajda - who has written 40 posts on Slow Leadership.

Peter Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a founding partner of SpiritHeart, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching and counseling. With a practice based on the dynamic intersection of mind, body, emotion and spirit, Peter’s 'whole person' coaching approach supports deep and sustainable change and transformation. Peter facilitates and guides leaders and managers, individuals in their personal and work life, partners and couples, groups and teams to move to new levels of self-awareness, enhancing their ability to show up authentically and with a heightened sense of well be-ing, inner harmony and interpersonal effectiveness as they live their lives at work, at home, at play and in relationship. Peter is a professional speaker and published author. For more information: www.spiritheart.net , or [email protected] , or phone 770.804.9125.

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. CK says:

    I am a firm believer in Karma—I have seen Karma work its way and come back to bite those who deserve it! As an example I had a Supervisor that was a terror to her employees. Being called to her office was not a good thing! One day one of the employees placed his two weeks notice (so he could be closer to family) and she read him the riot act! After an investigation of her abuses, she was demoted, transfered to a different department, took a $20,000 cut in pay, and has a permanent record that she is NOT to have any subordinates!

    So I just like to sit and watch Karma do its work while I sit back and see nature take its revenge!

  2. peter vajda says:

    Hi, CK,

    Karma is always operating..sooner or later. It’s the Universal Law of the Circle…what goes around, comes around; there’s no escaping it, much as many try to or deny Karma.

    Taking the high road, watching, observing and being the witness is an interesting and often instructional way to learn about life, even our own life.

    Karma, for me, is not so much about anyone punishing us or taking revenge on us…it’s what we do to ourselves as a result of the choices we make at work, at home, at play and in relationship. Karma means each of us can be our own worst enemy…if we choose to be.

  3. sambit says:

    I believe anger is a result of not getting what one wants.More often than not this is a result of inadequacy in oneself.However we tend to see the world from our point of view and invariably don’t see ourselves with scrutiny. Mostly we look for an external cause to blame and when we convince ourselves to blame it on a person it somehow conceals our inefficiency. Then we say it revenge and try to satisfy ourselves for the loss by taking it on the person. We try to compensate the earlier sense of loss with this gain. But rarely does it but we make do with it. That’s why revenge tastes bitter sweet and not total sweet. However I agree that it is not an appropriate response either for the individual or for society at large. An eye for eye makes us a society of blind ones.

  4. peter vajda says:

    Hi, Sambit,

    Blame, revenge, and lashing out have become art forms in our culture. Introspection, self-awareness, and mindfulness, not so much. So, as you say, looking outside to blame makes us feel better on the inside—but not for very long; the bitter-sweet quality you suggest.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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