I’ve been consumed with getting revenge on those who’ve wronged me for years. I’m not talking about the Lifetime movie kind of revenge, where people are pushed off cliffs or thrown out of windows, because I never did anything violent. But I did settle scores and retaliated because I wanted to make a person think twice before betraying, harassing, or maligning someone again. Besides, isn’t there an intersection of justice and vengeance — a thin line, at least? It was righteous vengeance, I kept telling myself.
My childhood years were hard because, like many other quiet and shy kids, I was often teased and bullied. My mother would counsel me to let it go and try to forgive my abusers. Letting the pain go was difficult for me, so I didn’t. I let it fester and take up space in my head. I hadn’t done anything wrong, so why was I being asked to ignore the wrongs people were doing to me? Throughout the years, that pain haunted me and became a motivating force.
Retaliation, or at least fantasizing about retaliating, was my way of coping when someone caused me pain. So I started plotting small acts of revenge. I took solace in seeing my wrongdoers punished. Focusing on their embarrassment and pain meant there was no room for me to think about mine — seeking revenge shifted the power. When I felt defeated, or taken advantage of, or bullied and powerless, revenge became a way I took back control.
I took solace in seeing my wrongdoers punished.
Getting Paul sacked was probably my most powerful moment of retribution, but there were other times when I retaliated. When I learned that my ex and the girl he cheated on me with had started a relationship, I helped spread rumors about her infidelity that resulted in their breakup. When I was bartending, I overcharged cheap customers who repeatedly didn’t tip me. Some of my acts were small, some were more elaborate, but the power I felt when getting payback was too addictive to stop.
“When we are hurt by someone, there can be a visceral reaction to want them to hurt just as bad or worse. Most people would never act on that feeling, but for those who do, it can feel like a power surge,” psychologist Colleen Mullen told me. “There is a belief that if the person who wronged us also feels some pain, we will feel better.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that seeking revenge does temporarily make us feel better, but what does constant retaliation do to our long-term mental health?
“You may think that getting revenge will alleviate your feelings of anger, but in fact, it seems to increase them,” Mullen explains. She cites 2008 research by psychology professor Kevin Carlsmith finding that when people exacted revenge, their anger lingered longer than in those who did not. “Carlsmith believed that this was due to ruminating on the incident, because it was taken to a heightened level of pain — that once a person crossed the line and exacted revenge on another, the situation was deemed more hurtful.”
As I’ve gotten older and slightly wiser, the satisfaction I once felt in seeking retribution has become less satisfying. The weight of the harm I have caused began to feel heavy, and I started suffering from anxiety and insomnia. My anger and resentment triggered migraines and panic attacks. Through therapy and self-reflection, I learned that I had a very distorted view of justice: I believed exacting revenge would provide closure, and it almost never did.
“To take care of yourself emotionally when faced with these uncomfortable feelings, it is best to find a way of forgiving or finding a way to see past the actual incident,” Mullen says. “This does not mean you may repair the damaged relationship, but the research demonstrates that you will be able to resolve your internal emotions about the incident more efficiently and peacefully.”
Paul was fired a week after that incident at work. On my final day at the job, multiple women personally thanked me. Although I’m quite remorseful about most of my vindictive acts, I don’t regret avenging Paul’s harassment, because his behavior needed to stop.
But my mother, in her wisdom, had always advised forgiveness. Trading in revenge for forgiveness is a profound shift of power, because forgivenesses allows you to move forward. And forgiving those who wronged me allowed me to heal.