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Seeking Revenge: Its Causes, Impact, and Challenge

Seeking revenge may be an initial reaction, but it only creates further pain.

Key points

  • Seeking revenge may lead to a cycle of seeking revenge.
  • Revengeful thoughts and behavior are a temporary distraction from underlying suffering.
  • There are many factors that challenge letting go of revenge, including certain cultural influences.
  • Moving past revenge frees up energy to direct attention to personal goals and aspirations.

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” ~ Confucius

Carla was referred to my anger-management class after being involved in a physical altercation with Regina, a driver who rear-ended her car during rush hour traffic. Although not injured, Carla was startled and immediately jumped out of the car to see the damage to her car. Regina simultaneously left her car. Carla’s car experienced major damage to the bumper as well as a huge dent to the rear of the trunk.

As their tempers soared, the two women yelled at each other and. Regina slapped Carla, who in turn, became more infuriated. Without restraint, Carla punched Regina to the ground and then kicked her in the stomach and head. Carla was subsequently arrested for aggravated assault. “I wasn’t going to let her get away with what she did to me, especially in front of that crowd!”

123rf Stock Photo/-liudmilachernetska
An angry man
123rf Stock Photo/-liudmilachernetska

The cycle of revenge

Revenge is personal, powerfully driven by emotion. The motivation for revenge might be initially fueled by anger, but it is ultimately powered by anticipated satisfaction or enjoyment. A powerful driving force for revenge is the belief that acting out the desire for revenge will provide an emotional release, that it will help us feel better.

However, studies have found that while there may be initial satisfaction, revenge actually perpetuates the pain of the original offense (Price, 2009). Additionally, it often creates a cycle of retaliation, with the victim citing the most recent offense as yet another justification for further revenge. In effect, revengeful feelings and behaviors only train the brain to become more vulnerable to seek revenge.

This cycle was already a part of Carla’s past, influencing her quickness to be emotionally overwhelmed and to seek revenge. Prior to her recent altercation, she had endured many wounds about which she carried much resentment and hostility. Not having sufficiently mourned and grieved these wounds, Carla was left more vulnerable to impulsively react rather than respond to a grievance. In effect, the encounter with Regina was a “last straw” triggering event that catapulted her into her emotionally driven reaction, lacking the restraint of rational judgment.

Carla’s outrage fueled her initial behavior, but it was in fact motivated by a need to feel powerful vs powerless, adequate vs inadequate, and secure vs vulnerable. The fact that a small crowd had assembled further influenced Carla’s need to inflate her ego, boosting her self-perception in the eyes of the onlookers.

The motivation for revenge

Seeking revenge is often an initial human response to wounds incurred at the hands of others. When focusing on revenge, we may be driven by a sense of rectifying whatever has caused pain.

However, focusing on revenge is a distraction from fully experiencing the pain resulting from the offense. Ruminating about or acting on revenge involves a temporary orientation of our attention outward that competes with and overshadows our turning inward. Yet, it is only when we turn inward that we encounter the intense suffering regarding what has happened.

The comparative suffering hypothesis holds that victims of an offense receive satisfaction when they experience the offender as suffering. The understanding hypothesis states that revenge can only be satisfactory when the offender understands it as a response to his behavior. One study found that the understanding hypothesis was more often the driving force regarding victim satisfaction (Gollwitzer, Meder, Schmitt, 2010). Some observe that the primary satisfaction of revenge occurs when the offender shows an expression of pain (Eder, Mitschke, Gollwitzer, 2020).

Carla could have focused her attention on seeking punishment rather than revenge. While revenge might be viewed as the same as punishment, punishment is often an objective consequence for a behavior, sometimes assigned by a third party. For example, insurance companies might assess the collision and assign responsibility to one of the drivers. The courts might be involved in order to determine responsibility for the accident as well as to determine consequences for any physical altercation.

Holding onto thoughts of revenge is often a derivative of holding onto anger. I’ve found this to be true with almost all of my clients who experience trait anger—an ongoing disposition toward anger and hostility. Additionally, some victims of a transgression are more likely to be vengeful when they are highly anxious or depressed (Barcaccia, Salvati, Pallini, et. al., 2022).

Challenges to letting go of revenge

There are certainly contrasting opinions about the justification for revenge. We could follow phrases such as “an eye for an eye”. We could cite the many historical examples of individuals acting out their revenge, even when it resulted in greater suffering for them in the long term. This is another aspect of attention to revenge: It can blind us to the long-term impact on ourselves. In effect, taking revenge may not ultimately be in our best interest overall.

The problem is that revenge provides only a short-lived satisfaction. It does not really make up for the suffering we may experience and in fact only prolongs the enduring suffering of the original offense.

We live in a culture in which many individuals are currently focused on anger and revenge, a culture that emphasizes action rather than reflection, being impulsive rather than thoughtful, and quick to globally blame others for all of their suffering. This is further endorsed by political movements that thrive on anger and revenge. In fact, vengeful tendencies have been linked with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance and the motivational values that underlie these attitudes (McKee and Feather, 2008). As McKee states, individuals with such attitudes "tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent, and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values."

Moving beyond revenge

Reducing a tendency for revenge may be extremely challenging. It entails consciously mourning and grieving our pain with the intention that we can move on in our lives even though we’ve experienced a wound.

Some of my clients have stated that they often ask themselves what a religious or spiritual leader would identify as a guideline for their thoughts and behavior. Others think of loved ones and how being fueled by thoughts and behaviors regarding revenge make them less able to be present with them. Some strive to become their best selves. Those who practice self-compassion may evoke their wisdom to help them decide how best to manage a given situation.

Letting go of the desire for revenge requires strengthening our rational brain to override our emotional brain, an ability to show restraint even while we may wish for revenge. It calls for strengthening our capacity for forgiveness—of ourselves and others. This requires ongoing self-monitoring and commitment to change and, by doing so, developing a new default reaction to experiencing wounds. Additionally, channeling our attention toward the satisfaction of our personal core goals and aspirations frees us from bearing the weight of revenge. It helps us to move on in our lives—in spite of our wounds.


Price, M. (2009). Revenge and the people who seek it. Monitor, Vol. 40, (6), 34

Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., and Schmitt, M. (2010). What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge? European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 41 (3), 364-374

Eder, A., Mitschke, V., and Gollwitzer, M. (2020). What stops revenge taking? Effects of observed emotional reactions on revenge seeking. Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 46 (4), 305-316

Barcaccia, B., Salvati, M., Pallini, S., et. al., (2022) The bitter taste of revenge: Negative affect, depression and anxiety. Current Psychology, Vol. 41 (4), 10.1007/s12144-020-00643-1

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