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Getting Whole While Getting Even

Self-expression is key to recovery from life’s atrocities; it's the best revenge

Forgiveness by Karen Presser

When I teach trauma-informed courses to mental health professionals, my perennially favorite quote is one by Judith Herman, author of the seminal Trauma and Recovery:

"Atrocities refuse to be buried. The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter out aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims."

Herman refers to the most terrible forms of atrocities, including interpersonal violence (sometimes called domestic violence, child abuse, spousal abuse or elder abuse), war, and terrorism. Fortunately, most of us do not experience the atrocities that Herman describes. But we generally do not escape smaller atrocities in our own lives that are hurtful enough to stimulate thoughts of "getting even." There's the betrayal of a relationship, discrimination at work or the full-blown experience of ingratitude, disrespect or humiliation. Sometimes the situations that include these experiences are very similar to those found in interpersonal violence because friends, family or co-workers tell us to remain silent about the atrocity and "move on." Or they may even actively collude with the perpetrators to maintain the dysfunctional dynamics that they prefer in lieu of confrontation and truth-telling. They often convince themselves that they are not part of the problem and in doing so, reinforce a sense of victimhood and hopelessness for everyone involved.

Gina Barreca's "Sweet Revenge" quotes a female Fortune 500 executive who noted, "The best form of revenge is simply to make the truth known." It can be, as Gina says wonderfully restorative and gratifying, especially when hurt or humiliated, to not "be nice." I personally believe speaking truth to power can be the ultimate in healing experiences. However, for many of my clients, it is simply not possible to openly share their physical abuse by a partner or injustice in the workplace for fear of reprisal. But I tell them it is possible to eventually "get whole while getting even" through what they can make creatively from what they have endured.

For some it may be telling without talking through art expression (see my previous posting on domestic violence and art therapy) and for others it can be any of numerous forms of creative arts that can speak the unspeakable. Writing is a particularly powerful means of restoration because it can be used to tap into one of the core issues embedded in life's atrocities: forgiveness. Individuals who experience interpersonal violence, bullying or abusive dynamics within a community or workplace generally want to hear someone say, "I am sorry." Because it is sometimes impossible to get that type of apology from a perpetrator or perpetrating system, I recommend to clients to try writing the letter they would like to receive from that individual that asks for forgiveness for the atrocities committed. The human mind has a wonderful capacity for repair through imagination and positive psychology research indicates that this simple act can be as helpful as actually receiving a letter from the actual perpetrator.

From my own multiple experiences with minor atrocities, I realize that they often come with revelations of personal hypocrisies that compound the hurtful situation. We unfortunately learn that not everyone can be trusted and that people who we thought had our backs will do everything to keep themselves safe while abandoning us in many cases. This is one of the many circumstances where the human reflex of "getting even" emerges in response. But then I always remember the sideways wisdom of First Wives Club Ivana Trump who said, "Don't get even, get everything!" Instead of getting all the money like Ivana, to me it means that "getting even" is really about "getting whole" (getting everything) again. More importantly, we all have the imaginative power to recreate that wholeness. And we all have the possibility to recover whatever was lost, stolen, violated, disrespected or betrayed from those who hurt us which is the ultimate form of "getting even."

© 2011 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT