You know that “letting go” is probably the healthiest move, but wanting revenge is often much more appealing. But why?
So you’ve been wronged. A friend casually dismissed a goal you set for yourself, or a colleague threw you under the bus, and you feel hurt and angry — maybe you even want payback. Sometimes those negative feelings dissipate over time, but other times they fester and become toxic obsessions.
You know that “letting go” is probably the healthiest move, but wanting revenge is often much more appealing.
It all starts with our nature, since humans are protective beings, especially when we feel threatened, according to Dr. Robin Gaines Lanzi, professor of health behavior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“If what we care about — whether it’s our children, spouse or other loved ones, our work or some cause that we are passionate about — is harmed or threatened in any way, it is instinctual to want to do something about it,” said Dr. Gaines Lanzi. It’s a primal instinct to want to exact revenge when we’re wronged, she added.
To wit: the American figure skater Adam Rippon said he wouldn’t have made it to the Winter Olympics without his haters. The reality star and nascent denim entrepreneur Khloe Kardashian created an entire TV show around the “revenge body,” wherein someone undergoes a makeover (which often includes losing weight) in retaliation against an enemy, bully or erstwhile romantic partner. And Taylor Swift looks to have used the idea of getting even to fuel the latest trajectory of her career.
Whether we want to admit it, revenge is a bona fide motivator. But is it healthy?
Well … yes and no.
“In novels and movies, revenge turns out to be this great cleansing moment that permits someone who’s been abused to triumph,” said Peg Streep, a science writer and author of “Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt.”
“Revenge works well in plot lines because there’s something very satisfying about a tit-for-tat payback, especially in a world that isn’t always fair,” she said.
But while it’s true that the vigilante is a popular protagonist in everything from cult-level comic books to action blockbusters, studies show that not only is revenge often short-lived, but it can also make the incident much harder to get over.
“Retribution ties you back to the person you’re trying to get payback from, instead of turning on your heel and walking away,” Ms. Streep said. “Revenge keeps you focused on the mistreatment and doesn’t allow you to move forward and redirect your life.”
So if ruminating on the offense to the point of obsession is the wrong way to deal with mistreatment, the right way appears to lie in how you frame or process these toxic emotions, experts said.
“Oftentimes it’s not necessarily the emotion itself that’s bad or toxic, but how one copes with it,” said Dr. Erin Engle, clinical director of Psychiatry Specialty Services at Columbia University Medical Center.
“That’s why people come to therapy, especially for something like anger — the problem is not the anger per se, but the expressing of that anger that results in some sort of negative consequence.”
While these inclinations of anger and revenge are understandable, that doesn’t mean they’ll do us any good. In reality, they’re more likely to just make things worse. That feeling of motivation to “get even” can tether you to the past in a way that overshadows any potential positive outcome the motivation might bring, said Dr. Merideth Thompson, associate professor in the Department of Management at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
“It tends to anchor that person in the past,” she said.
Dr. Thompson co-authored “We All Seek Revenge: The Role of Honesty-Humility in Reactions to Incivility,” a research paper that looked at how the traits of being humble or honest correlated with engaging in overt or covert forms of revenge in the workplace. Dr. Thompson determined that if the motivation isn’t sinking effort, time and attention into a toxic relationship, then revenge, per se, may be helpful.
“If somebody tries to take revenge and have a more future-oriented approach,” she said, “that kind of thinking tends to orient the person to the future and can make them stronger, happier and healthier.”
Think of it this way: You could use a feeling of envy to examine whether or not it illuminates what you value and prioritize, or you could spend time dwelling, ruminating and calculating a plan to hurt someone in an attempt to quash the feeling. Which seems more likely to be ineffective?
According to Dr. Engle, it’s the latter.
“Some of the most important political movements of our time probably started in anger,” she said. The catalyst lies in making meaning of a feeling like anger and channeling it into advocacy, for example.
It’s not about trying to ignore negative feelings entirely, which studies show isn’t effective anyway. Rather, it’s a choice between focusing on the transgressor and making sure they pay, or deciding that the 17th-century English poet and orator George Herbert was right: Living well is the best revenge.
Dylan Marron, a writer and performer who focuses on L.G.B.T. issues, recently gave a TED Talk in which he discussed how he addresses the hateful messages he gets in response to his videos. He reaches out to them to ask, “Why did you write that?”
A digital video maker, Mr. Marron became popular — some of his content went viral, and responses to his work began to pour in.
“Unfortunately, the flip side of success on the internet is internet hate,” he said. After initially responding by blocking and muting people, he began to wonder if some of the negative messages and comments he was getting could be starting points for conversations rather than dead ends.
“I wanted to confront my detractors,” he said, “not to shame them, but to simply ask why they wrote that negative thing about me. And then see where the conversation could go from there.”
Those conversations became part of a podcast Mr. Marron created called “Conversations With People Who Hate Me.” The dialogue often featured people finding a common ground or similar experience, such as being bullied in high school. Through these conversations, Mr. Marron is able to spin negativity into something that can be leveraged for good.
Moreover, letting go of toxic feelings can give you an added bonus of making you feel powerful — not by exerting power over someone else, but power over yourself.
“A person who feels wronged, betrayed or damaged by another person, group or system, might have lost their sense of personal power, and this can be deeply troubling,” said Tiffany Towers, a clinical and forensic psychologist who has worked with parolees who have chronic recidivism issues.
She said a person can develop a type of tunnel vision and start to believe that they can regain their power only by taking revenge when in fact, the power lies in the letting go.
What it comes down to is this: We can’t control when toxic emotions flood our minds, but we can control what we do in response to them. Seeking revenge or payback may seem like a good idea at the time, but in the long run it’ll likely only do us a disservice. The better option is to turn inward, finding the root of that feeling and either using it as a learning experience or warning flag as we move forward to something better.
“If you focus your attention on getting yourself emotionally, mentally and physically healthier,” Dr. Towers added, “not only will you feel better, but you will be able to handle future difficulties with more grace and wisdom.”
Caroline Cox is a writer and editor living in Atlanta.