What Is the Deal With Revenge?
Heal trauma by turning rage and helplessness into creative action.
Posted Jul 21, 2013
“Revenge is necessary. To seek equilibrium in the emotional life.” (Otto Rank, Psychoanalyst)
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”(Confucious)
What is the deal with revenge? Should we take revenge? Should we forgive? Which option is better for wellness?
My patient Lila, a banker, was traumatized by a false accusation. A group of co-workers at her investment firm accused her of stealing and her superiors ordered an internal investigation. Lila, innocent of the charge, felt betrayed and shocked. She seemed dazed to find herself in this position. For years this group of male co-workers had taunted her about her clothes, where she shopped, her weight and even her boyfriend’s heritage, but she never imagined they could do anything like this.
I was struck by the change in her personality for the three years she was dealing with this. She still went to work, saw her friends, cared for her cats and dated. But she was not the same. Normally cheerful, optimistic and outgoing, she became fearful, less driven to succeed, and sad. Just seeing her accusers in the hallway elicited suicidal thoughts, heart palpitations, and uncontrollable bouts of crying. We decided to start antidepressants to get her through this rough period.
In the end, the investigators determined that she was innocent of all charges. Indeed, they also discovered that the accusers had engaged in nefarious behaviors themselves. They were fired but charges were not pressed, and they went on their way with clean records.
Lila remained at the firm, but a couple of co-workers whom she had once considered friends remained suspicious of her and loyal to their former colleagues. “Well, we really don’t know the truth of what happened,” came through the grapevine.
The urge for revenge is part of the human condition. If unjust treatment has occurred one can be wracked with helplessness, rage and retaliatory wishes. Should we fight these impulses or should we act upon them?
Some say, “Don’t get mad, get even,” “They need to be punished,” or “Don’t get even, get everything,” (I can’t recall where I read that last quote.)
Problem: The need for revenge can be so consuming that you stop living your life.
Those of the forgive/forget persuasion say, “Move on, let it lie, let it go.”
Problem: Dismissing a major transgression is a lofty goal but easier said than done. Not caring anymore is a good idea, but true detachment can be difficult to achieve.
People might tell you, “They are crazy, sick, insecure, jealous, greedy, or evil.” “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” or “Take the high road,” but this stance may not remedy your injured inner state.
Inaction after abuse, psychological or otherwise, can lead to depression.
Furthermore, in some instances forgiveness may not be appropriate if the perpetrators have not shown remorse, sincerely apologized or taken responsibility for their actions. It is particularly challenging if they continue to blaspheme or blame the victim.
Here is the good news: If a character-deficient, conscience-deprived or profoundly disturbed person disrupted your life you can get over it.
If neither revenge, nor forgiveness, nor detachment frees you there is another action you can take.
Create. Create. Create.
It is therapeutic to revisit the experience, fully feel your feelings about what happened (as painful as that might be) and turn it into another form. Put your creation outside yourself and into the world or your desk drawer, or your kitchen table. The point is to take the inner chaos and turn it into an organized outer product. Experience, examine, digest, shape, and express and complete it. You can make yourself whole by creating something, anything and getting it outside of you. Get rid of the story and hold on to yourself.
Get rid of the story. Write it, paint it, walk it, run it, build it, cook it. You don’t have to do it well and you don’t have to bring a beautiful item into the world. The beautiful result is what happens internally when you get absorbed in something. When you free your mind.
You do not have to have prior experience. You do not have to expose, display or talk about what you are doing. It does not have to please anyone else.
In the words of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, creative action “makes life worth living.”
Get started by having a healing conversation with a trusted friend, advisor, pastor or artist. Get safe. That will help you open you up, connect and start to get better.
You can take it from there, but take it easy. Be curious. Give yourself a break. Know and trust that when you take action and get moving you strengths, talents or energies can emerge that supersede what you thought you had.
Perhaps you are different person after what happened but that can be in a really good way.