“Revenge is not sweet; it is gloomy and a waste of time.” ― Anna Bayes
Human Nature & Revenge
In The Better Angels of our Nature, a massive tome on the overall decline in violence, author Steven Pinker asserts there are five pervasive demons that humans will have to control and master in ourselves and in the culture if we’re to create a continuously less violent world. One of the five demons he names is the instinct for revenge. Revenge is present in all cultures and all eras. It’s present in children, and has even been identified among primates. So, why do people seek revenge? What is its evolutionary purpose? And why is it sometimes misdirected?
“Revenge is an infection of the spirit.” ― Jonathan Maberry
Some people think that revenge or retribution can play a legitimate role in justice – whether civil, criminal or personal. The idea is that this form of punishment will deter future victimization. Revenge, however, happens outside of legal systems, where any evidence of grievance would be weighed, assessed and witnessed. Private revenge is emotionally charged, and it carries none of objectivity of deliberated justice. Revenge never brings the resolution, real restitution, forgiveness or compassion of mediated justice.
But still, people do seek revenge, especially if they perceive that there’s no “just” recourse. Several psychological studies show that the desire for revenge increases greatly when the person who feels victimized also feels shamed, and especially when the shame is in front of people whose opinions matter. The propensity to feel shame varies widely – some people have a momentary passing feeling of shame, and others are “shame-bound”- tied up in their own feelings of unworthiness. Let’s explore the connection between being shame-bound and the desire for revenge.
People with shame believe themselves fundamentally unworthy, and do a lot of things throughout their lives to overcompensate. They have learned over a lifetime to hide the self in favor of a projection that others approve of. The shame-bound person will carefully construct an image, continually posturing and pretending to impress others, but rarely show their true self. The shame-bound person has an especially hard time with real intimacy.
This projection or mask can become so dominant that the person’s real self disappears. The false self requires constant validation, usually from the respect or appreciation of others, otherwise there is no-self. If the shame-bound person isn’t important to others, there is no-self. The image, thus, becomes more valuable to the person than their reality. Managing this image takes a lot of work. Pretending all the time takes a lot of work. It can make the shame-bound person quite controlling and manipulative, and often a true perfectionist.
Because there is nothing of substance perceived behind the image, the image is equated to the shame-bound person’s being. If the image is threatened, the shame-bound person will go wild, on the inside or the outside, in a desperate but real grab to reclaim their identity. This is the core of what drives and exacerbates revenge.
Shame and Revenge
The logical connection between shame and revenge is centered around the need to save face. If a person who is shame-bound feels their image is being attacked, they will feel justified in taking revenge. Wherever the identity is most prized will be a likely trigger for shame induced revenge. For example, if a person wants to see themselves as successful or competent, any incident that flies in the face of this will be received poorly. The same with money, class, character, parenting ability.
In addition, when a person who is already shame-bound is shamed additionally, especially in front of a group that matters to them, the desire for revenge will intensify. Any disrespect that may destabilize, threaten or compromise our sense of belonging and standing in a group will be perceived as exponential wounding.
With this threat to self, to existence, the avenger doesn’t care about anyone, just the preservation of their own image. No price is too high: they would rather use their time to put out another’s light than cultivate their own, no matter who gets hurt in the process, no matter the facts of the situation. A person acting in revenge doesn’t have the ability to see beyond a momentary satisfaction. They are, in this moment, completely forgetting who they truly are.
What if it’s You that Desires Revenge?
It is beyond miserable to invest your time hoping that someone who may or may not have ‘done you wrong’ will suffer. As another local Marin author, the wonderful Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” If you find yourself up at night ruminating your revenge fantasies, or goddess forbid, planning them out or acting on them, what can you do?
First, doing work on your own internal shame is a vital step in releasing the desire for revenge, and moving toward forgiveness. An acute episode of revenge fantasy may be seen like a fever: a visible symptom of an illness, a perfect time to make your own internal injury available for healing. It’s a perfect time to do your own work. You may find that the exercise of looking at your desire for revenge and your own shame underlying it, the sense of being unjustly treated, may lead to a giant leap in emotional capacity, and get you to soften your own heart in unexpected places.
“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.” ― Laura Hillenbrand
Another thing you can do is to remove any victim role you may be willingly taking on. Look as closely as possible at the reality of the situation you feel hurt by, and examine your own role in it- your own victim mentality may be part of the problem. What can you take ownership and responsibility for in the outcome of things? Yes,it’s very hard for a shame-bound person to examine their own being, but it can be done. There are even some forms of therapy that leverage MDMA to help a person look at things that without the use of the medicine carry too much shame or fear to be examined.
It may also help to add some reason and the wisdom of experience to the equation: there is no release for the avenger after the revenge is done- once it’s done, the doer often feels dirty, as bad or worse than their ‘victim’.
The Mantra: “Next Play”
You may be starting to see that both the wronged and the avenged both suffer in this dance.
Regardless of the side you find yourself on, how do you move on? If there is some justice needed, or some restitution, seek that first. If justice or resolution can’t be achieved by going directly to the person, then find some outside help to get that accomplished- a trusted go between or professional mediator. I encourage direct conflict resolution as long as both parties feel safe to do so.
Aside from that, what can you do?
You might say to yourself (as successful athletes do after an unsatisfying move) “Okay, that happened, next play.” It’s easier to stew in your own juices when you yourself don’t have focus, some burning desire to create, build, grow or create new opportunities yourself.
With eyes on your own mission and purpose, you can quickly dispense of pettiness and get back to what matters. What needs to be done, what is important to you? If something tweaks you, you may take a moment to notice it, feel whatever it is that’s going on in you, but then turn your attention back to the things that you know matter now,and away from the distraction of the old conflict.
The other thing that helps is to trust the long arc of karma. Everything comes out in the end. If you’re in a shame-enhanced revenge situation, just be authentically you, people who you touch directly you will know the truth – there’s no need for defensiveness.
“Everyone that at core, each of us is innocent, and beloved, and unassailable.”- Christine Marie Mason
The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius in Meditations wrote, “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” When we understand that the desire for revenge is often coming from a place of shame, from mistaken identity, we can have compassion and empathy for it – whether it shows up in ourselves or in others.
Ultimately, revenge and shame BOTH are distractions from fearlessly moving into our most magnified creativity and impact. That’s what awaits you on the other side.