Retaliatory aggression is often a mood enhancement to ameliorate the pain of rejection. Rejected people harness the power of revenge to make themselves feel better.
When students were given the chance to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing the grader who told them that their work was terrible, they felt a boost in mood greater than the boost in their mood than those who did not get a chance to retaliate. (Read more about it here)
We want to strike back because it makes us feel better.
The good feelings we receive cancel out the sting of the bad feeling. The worse you feel, the more you want revenge and the more severe you want it to be. This makes sense.
After all, you might want to flip the person off who cut you in traffic, but that response will feel insufficient for someone who attacked your spouse.
Evolutionary psychologists that that a primal inclination for vengeance is ingrained within us. Without laws and jails, our ancestors depended on the prospect of reprisal to maintain harmony and address acts of unfairness.
Incentives are powerful. In theory, an eye for an eye makes everyone blind, but in reality, it makes everyone act right because no one wants to lose those their eyesight.
The Long Game
However, revenge seems to make us feel worse in the long run.
In a study, participants played a game where they’d all receive the same amount of money if they cooperated unless one person double-crossed them. In that case, that person would get more, and everyone else would get less.
Double-crossed players got a chance to retaliate, and when they did, they initially felt great—but later felt worse than at the start of the experiment. Seeking revenge makes the event seem larger in our minds than it is, which gives it more power over our mood. (Read more about it here)
This reminds me of an ad hoc definition of trauma I learned, where it’s like you experience the event every time you think of it as if it had *just* occurred. Perhaps memory is the key to dealing with trauma and helping us forgive, for when we think about something intensely, and reinforce the wrong done to us. That makes it difficult to let it go.
I won’t use the word “forgiveness” because that requires a lengthy explanation to prevent people from thinking I’m advocating for lawlessness. Instead, here is a quick way to help you stop being held hostage by how you feel about something in the past that you can’t do anything about.
This isn’t therapy. This isn’t a cure. This isn’t a replacement for justice. It’s just a technique I’ve used to stop feeling so much anguish towards the people from childhood who hurt me.
The collateral damage of life
The universe doesn’t care about you, and no one is coming to save you.
That’s not harsh. You are an insignificant spec of dust in the vastness of the universe. Our planet is an insignificant spec of dust. When we’re in the path of an asteroid again, that’s it.
The universe didn’t pick Earth. Earth was just part of the eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth.
As a child, some adults may save you. Your parents certainly should. But once you become an adult, the world is on you to navigate. People are caught up in their own issues, and unless you specifically are part of that agenda, they don’t even know you exist.
Take those two ideas as the basis of reality. These are hard to disagree with. Now, take these ideas and apply them to people. When a person wrongs you, it’s more like they’re self-interested to the point of ignoring your well-being, even if that means specifically victimizing you to get something they want.
If it weren’t you, it would have been someone else.
Part of living in the universe is that bad stuff happens. Some of that bad stuff will happen to you. The hardest part is to realize that this isn’t personal.
Once you can accept that, then you see that some people have issues, and you happen to be in the path of them expressing those issues.
I’m not telling you to forgive or even to let it go. But you’ll find yourself a lot less angry (and oddly, a bit more empathetic and understanding) if realize that none of the tragedy you suffered was personal.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!