Revenge is appealing. Someone hurts us and we’re convinced that revenge will make us feel whole again. Just thinking about revenge can trigger positive emotions so going through with our fantasies will make us feel even better, right?
This is what I like to 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 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 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.