Revenge is one of the most common themes in literature and film. Who doesn’t love a good get-even story? While we might tell ourselves we are looking for justice, what we really might be experiencing is a revenge-fuelled emotional tidal wave that takes us places we would be better off avoiding.
I confess to going to one of those places myself. After my ex moved out, when the house was in my name and his stuff cleared out, I opened a storage closet in my house one day and spotted a suitcase that wasn’t mine. I opened it. It was filled with some of my ex’s clothes and personal items, but also paperwork, including letters from his current girlfriend.
I saw red, and every other colour on the spectrum. I called my adult son and he admitted that his father had dropped by and asked if he could leave it at our house for a while and pick it up after he had moved into his new place, which happened to be in another city. I pointed out that the house was mine and any abandoned property on it was also mine. My son was sorry about letting his father do it, even sorrier that he had let the revenge-genie out of her bottle.
I emailed my ex. I gave him three options: first, pick it up within the week; second, I would store it, but in the leaky garden shed, the one he had never gotten around to repairing. I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t get wet and mildewed. In fact, I could guarantee it would be damaged. Or thee, pay me storage fees.
He paid, after consulting his lawyer girlfriend, who advised that although he could sue if I damaged it, I also had a strong argument and he probably would not win and have damages awarded over a suitcase of old clothes and love letters.
Revenge is one of the most studied of human emotions. There is research suggesting that it is hardwired into our brains. The findings of one (August 2004 Science magazine) showed that brain imaging of people administering punishment because they believed they had been wronged activated the reward circuitry of the brain.
Mike McCullough, psychologist and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, calls it a tax on offensive behavior.
The problem is that what feels like justice to one person might be interpreted as unwarranted revenge to another. And it often sets up an escalating pattern that will come back to bite the instigator.
Even worse for women, a study led by Tania Singer of University College London using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to analyze the brain activity of 32 volunteers after their participation in a simple game, called the Prisoner’s Dilemma showed that the men in the study experienced greater pleasure at seeing revenge on the game cheaters than the women who participated.
And while you might feel elated after watching a movie where the bad guy gets what he deserves, it doesn’t work that way in real life. A paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Brad Bushman, Ohio State University) reported more aggression in people who vented as opposed to those who had not.
So where does this leave us: hardwired to seek revenge, firing up the pleasure circuitry of the brain when we do, then feeling worse for longer afterwards?
Perhaps I’ll become one of those ‘Karma’s a bitch’ people. You know the ones: believers that “Time Heals All Wounds and Wounds All Heels,” who leave it to the universe to sort things out.
If you’ve got a revenge story, or perhaps dabbled in it yourself, please feel free to share it. I love nothing better than a good read where the nasty ex gets what is coming to him or her. But in future dealings with my ex, I’ll probably refrain from active revenge. I have to admit that it did feel satisfying at the time but long term only focussed me on petty things that I should have ignored.
In conclusion, I’m going to give the last words to William Makepeace Thackeray who let us know it’s okay to feel it but not deal it: “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural.”
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