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The Revenge Myth: Why do we Believe in It?

written by Andrea Brandt, PHD, MFT June 12, 2020
The Revenge Myth: Why do we Believe in It?

Revenge is definitely appealing. Someone hurts us and we’re convinced that revenge will make us feel whole again. Just thinking about it can trigger positive emotions. So going through with our fantasies should make us feel even better, right? This is what I call “the revenge myth.” Not only do our past experiences uncover the truth about the revenge myth, but science does, as well. So why do we continue to believe in it?

The assumption that revenge will make us feel better has been with us since we were born. When we discover our partner has cheated on us, instead of thinking how to mend our relationship, we imagine that cheating on them back will make us feel less hurt. In my 35-plus years as a marriage and family therapist, I have seen patient after patient buy into this myth. When we’re kids and another kid breaks one of our toys, our instinct is to break one of their toys in return. The result? Two broken toys — and a broken friendship.

While it would be nice to say we learned our lesson about the pointlessness of revenge when we were toddlers, that’s usually not the case. Later in life, when we learn a friend is spreading gossip about us, we might spread some gossip about them to return the injury. When we discover our partner has cheated on us, we imagine that cheating on them back will make us feel less hurt.

For a moment you probably do get a thrill out of breaking your friend’s toy, spreading the juicy bit of gossip, or flirting with someone behind your partner’s back. But a few hours later you feel even emptier than before. Not only have you not regained the thing you feel you’ve lost (a toy, a secret, trust), but now you’re short one toy, or friend, or a bit of your integrity.

How Did The Revenge Myth Develop?

Studies show that the desire for revenge is actually hardwired in our brains. That momentary feeling of elation upon spreading that revenge gossip is actually the activation of the pleasure center of your brain. In fact, this pleasure center activates with the mere thought of punishing someone we think has wronged us.

According to evolutionary psychologists, this desire appeared in our early physiology to help ensure our survival as a species. Early humans were more likely to survive when living in a group. So when one member of the group did something wrong or disrupted the peace, retaliatory action was an effective way of deterring future wrongdoing.

What’s interesting about recent studies on revenge and activated pleasure centers is that, although we enjoy fantasizing about revenge, and the fantasy stirs positive emotions in us, scientific evidence shows that we usually feel worse after actually doing it.

No matter how horribly a person harms you, the number of times, or how deep your feelings of anguish are, revenge isn’t a substitute for what we actually need to repair that harm. True peace comes in three steps:

1. Acceptance:

What happened is in the past. That doesn’t mean your feelings about the harm that was done is in the past, but no amount of revenge can reverse time. Revenge will not make you feel whole again.

2. Owning your pain:

Often, we use fantasies about revenge as a substitute for dealing with our thoughts and feelings about what happened. You don’t have time to feel sad or angry when you’re plotting the myriad ways you can get back at someone. But buried or ignored pain won’t go away, no matter how long you try to ignore it. You must allow yourself to experience all of those painful emotions to heal in a real, lasting way.

3. Letting go of your pain:

Once you’ve acknowledged your hurt feelings and let yourself experience them, it’s time to let those feelings go. Holding onto past resentments will only lead to bitterness and leave you perpetually stuck in the past. Instead, you need to move forward with a healthier sense of how someone can meet your needs; how to tell them when they’ve hurt you; and how to decide whether or not you want that person to continue to have a place in your life.

The next time someone says or does something to hurt you, and the pleasure centers in your brain light up with thoughts of delicious revenge, try to remember that the part of your brain telling you that revenge is a great idea is the caveman part. Both scientific evidence and your own past experience should show you that revenge won’t make you feel better in the long run

© Andrea Brandt

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