Forgive not for them, but for you
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Another book I've read recently is Gala Darling's "Radical Self Love" and one thing she wrote recently stood out: "What if, instead of labelling all those people from our past as monsters, jerks and narcissists, we simply changed our minds?...What if we chose to see them as people in pain who didn't have the tools to stand beside us when we really needed them?...instead of making them the villain of our story, we chose to have...empathy...for the circumstances which led them to this place where they had no emotional resources...?"
How often, even when we have moved on and are in a more positive place/relationship/job/situation do we think back to the person who hurt us and feel anger or resentment? How often do we even choose to have that feeling by scrolling through their social media accounts hoping they "got fat" or "got divorced" or "their company failed"? Revenge "...is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." (Ghezzi, 1980).
Revenge is not sweet
Yao et al found that it is the bonding hormone, oxytocin, that is responsible for the feeling of vengeance we harbour when our trust has been broken. With women, the greater our trust, the stronger our desire for revenge. Further, it was found that the remedy for revenge is "treatment in kind" - which aside from the restitution of financial status, is not often easy nor possible. (Even someone else breaking the heart of an errant spouse is not the same, as you didn't get to do it.)
Yet we believe that revenge will be "sweet" - neuroscientists have found that the thought of punishing a wrong-doer lights up the same pathways as a pleasurable drug or winning a prize. The thought of revenge lights up our "reward centre".
However, in practice - despite what our brain instinctively does, Kevin Carlsmith found that "Revenge can make us feel worse.", and this is for a number of practical as well as psychological reasons:
- It might backfire on us
- It might be a time waster
- We get caught in a revenge "loop" or even a cycle of retaliation.
He found that when participants were "Let down" in a task, those who were able to "cheat" the other person out of winning felt worse than they did before they "got revenge", and those who didn't have the opportunity for revenge actually felt better! Carlsmith suggested that this is because if we get the chance for revenge, we keep thinking about the painful initial act in order to justify behaving in a negative manner ourselves...and thus simply make the negative thought bigger. (Overthinking anything results in an exaggeration of the memory or event in our heads.)
Time and energy are finite - spend them wisely
Even with the best will in the world, our time and energy is finite. We have 24 hours in a day, and about 6 of those are truly productive ones. As we tend to "pack" so much in, including a wealth of responsibilities, as well as all the enjoyable priorities we have - how much time can one really afford trying to "get our own back" - especially when it seems that unless it really is "an eye for an eye" it'll still not quite feel as good as you think. You will never be able to change the past.
Further, carrying the desire for revenge, even plotting it - while as a fleeting thought may make you feel better (igniting your reward centre) - holding on to it is filling the valuable space (ie. time and energy) we have that we could spend pursuing our goals; focusing on enjoying our life; laughing with loved ones (whom we can trust!).
Don't willingly accept "victim status"
In order to justify seeking revenge someone else must have "started it". The mantle of being the victim must therefore be claimed before it is appropriate to pursue revenge...otherwise you're just being mean! Is this really something you want to accept?
I would always encourage people to focus on strength instead. For example, if you think about what ownership you might be able to take in that difficult situation - this is not to alleviate "blame" from the wrong-doer. If you find you had any responsibility in contributing to that outcome at all, you have power, because that is something you have under your control to change in future.
A strong person continues to grow, they do not hold themselves back seeking retribution.
I also ask if you are willing to forgive the situation - in order for you to let go - again not to absolve the other of the pain they caused.
This is where what Gala Darling says is key - what if we saw them not as a villain, but as someone lacking? While what happened to us is unfortunate, it is not our place to have to teach them - and neither will they even learn, so why should we waste our time doing so? While the offender is not deserving of our compassion, should we choose to offer it, we may be able to move forward without them pulling us back down to their level.
Forgiveness is not about condoning nor accepting the act, neither is it about reconciliation. It is our decision to overcome pain and let go of the negative emotions associated with the injustice we experienced - even though we are certainly reasonable in feeling them.
Try the following:
Reflect on - or write down - the injustice (I prefer to write it down because we are not going over it in our heads making it bigger.)
Identify how that experience affected you. (...and think about whether those changes are helpful to you in the long run.)
Reflect on how different things may be if you decide to let go of the feelings of anger and resentment...you do not need to become friends nor even see the person again...but this way you are not seduced into losing more of your valuable time and energy. (Every second scrolling through an ex's social media profile is a second you haven't spent on nurturing you.)
Consider what may have caused the person to act as they did - remember this is not about absolution, but about processing the experience so that you can understand why revenge may not be the best way to progress.
If you decide to forgive - you may wish to affirm it out loud. "I forgive you." You may even want to add "I am grateful I am strong enough to claim back my power."
And a quick word about "karma"
Your belief depends on your perspective, but my approach to "karma" is that we reap what we sow. If someone has treated me badly, chances are it is because they treat other people badly in general, and will therefore only find themselves surrounded with people who accept that treatment, or people who will never be close, true, connected friends.
How you choose to spend your time and energy is always up to you - but when someone has wronged me, I choose to forgive - (not forget - as I learn where I can improve myself) - and refuse to let them take any more from me than I've already accidentally let go.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt