THE BEST WAY TO GET REVENGE
Most people mollify psychic pain by attacking back; we yearn for revenge. But achievement striving is better. It opens the mind to the possible, instead of hitching it to the horrible.
In 2015, Dee Carroll was billing $17 million a year in her Washington, D.C.-based organizational development firm, heading a team of 18 in two locations, including a recently added IT arm, when her board suggested bringing on a chief financial officer. She found a candidate, and the board approved of her hire. Carroll, with a Ph.D. in business administration and 28 years at the helm, turned her attention back to growing the company.
“We were doing well,” she recalls. Every once in a while, she checked the books. The numbers added up, but she couldn’t figure out why the borrowing wasn’t decreasing on her line of credit. “We’re self-financing,” the CFO assured her. Then a day came when some documents needed reviewing and she called the bank. Its numbers and her numbers didn’t align. Carroll summoned outside auditors to search for a discrepant half million. The day she confronted the CFO, he admitted to running two sets of books. It took forensic accountants months to figure out how the guy had walked off with more than $2 million.
Carroll cashed in her 401k and filed for reorganization to keep the company afloat—while she spent a year in and out of hospitals with stress-induced illnesses. Then the bank froze her assets, and it was all over. “I was so angry, all I wanted was to get my hands on that CFO and punch him out,” says Carroll. Miraculously, a few months later, the day came when she could. They found themselves side-by-side in the parking lot of a giant Walgreens—she in her old Land Cruiser, he in a new Audi. Ever the planner, she pulled out her phone and called her attorney: “Get down here—and prepare to get me out of jail.”
Carroll chased the CFO through the superstore. He outpaced her. So she shifted strategies: I’ll just ram his car. Behind the wheel, it hit her. “If he had me going like that, he was in control of my life. I drove off—and I felt good.”
The desire for revenge, she felt, “had stripped my courage, my convictions, my confidence. It had me beating myself up for my failures: ‘I should have known.’ ‘I should have checked more often.'” Crumbling was not an option. “I decided I’m not going to give him the pleasure. He’ll only see me flying high.”
And maybe he does—literally. Carroll has not only successfully launched a new company, she spends much of her time traveling the globe, promoting “emotional emancipation.” She focuses on persuading women that no one controls what they can accomplish. “I needed to embrace the possible,” she explains. “Now I can grow.”
What Carroll apprehended, sitting in that parking lot, was that nothing she could do to punish the CFO could harm him as badly as her desire for revenge was harming her.
Rerouting the Amygdala
Revenge-seeking has deep, seemingly instinctual roots in the human behavioral repertoire. Since the dawn of civilization, the highest authorities have sanctioned harming someone in the same manner as he or she has harmed you. From the 1754 B.C. Code of Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king, to the Bible—Exodus chapter 21: “You shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”—the ancients specified how the impulse for revenge was to be carried out.
From the time we are barely able to put together full sentences, we yearn for revenge, screaming, “That’s not fair” in response to a perceived injustice (a sibling getting dessert that we don’t, because we are being punished) and following that outcry with the vow, “I’ll get you!” targeted at Mom, Dad, or the babysitter for giving preferential treatment to the kid who shares our bath.
As adults we’re only slightly more sophisticated in response to abuses by others. A small insult—getting cut off by a driver—can launch a highway chase for miles, either to cut that motorist off in the same way or to deliver the hand gesture known as “flipping the bird.”
Most people seek to mollify psychic pain by attacking back. But there is a better, far more adaptive way—showing ’em, by achieving something personally and socially significant related to the offense. To first turn the other cheek and then build something meaningful, to oneself and to others, out of the abandoned anger requires a psychological shift—within just about anyone’s reach—that harnesses the brain’s amygdala, its processing center of danger, and redirects its impulses.
When you cope with psychic pain via achievement striving, your mindset is on the possible. Revenge-seeking hitches it to the horrible.
“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well,” wrote English philosopher, statesman, and scientist Francis Bacon. He captured the core problem with revenge: It demands ruminating about wrongs, which amplifies their significance, aggravates what sparked anger, and makes it impossible to let go.
Freud was the first to dissect the amplification of suffering brought on by anger born of distressing events. Paradoxically, despite the pain that such recollections cause, the events are “reviewed, repeated, or rehearsed”—through dreams or obsessional ruminations.
The continual mental replaying of an event, however humiliating, is a primordial propensity to revisit hurtful interactions in an attempt to master through imagery what could not be mastered behaviorally. As the initial injury is relived, negative alterations in cognition and mood grow progressively worse—negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of oneself or others for causing the trauma, feelings of isolation, and difficulty experiencing positive affect. The original insult remains a focus of cognitive imagery.
Failing to consummate revenge fantasies turns them into obsessions. American literature offers the definitive example of obsessional revenge seeking in Herman Melville’s Moby–Dick; or, The Whale. After losing a leg to a white whale, Captain Ahab embarks on a hunt to destroy that whale, a quest that ends in his demise. To this day, “white whale” is another term for an obsessional pursuit.
My own clinical experience corroborates what decades of medical evidence demonstrates: People who harbor thoughts of exacting revenge exhibit systemic turmoil, courtesy of an activated amygdala preparing against the threat of attack. They experience sleeplessness, owing to nonstop rumination; irritability; hyperarousal; and distractibility that often impedes their ability to function. As Confucius said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Orthopedist Richard “Rock” Barnes, 46,* walked into my office because I had written a book about burnout. Trained as a psychiatrist, he had worked at a prestigious mental hospital before feeling burned out. His remedy—changing medical specialties by retraining and moving across the country—wasn’t working.
In our initial session, Barnes didn’t seem burned out so much as burned up—consumed with rage from an incident early in his career. A patient under his care had been sexually exploited by a senior psychiatrist. Barnes had sought to avenge the wrong by exposing the abuser, but learned that filing a claim would harm the fragile patient and would be refuted by the VIP doctor as a tale told by a mentally ill woman.
In my office, Barnes raged at himself, but especially at the abuser. And he railed at the vestiges of a medical hierarchy that had made him feel so impotent as a young physician. How, I asked, could he “right the wrong in an ego-syntonic manner?”—that is, in a way congruent with his values, his personality, his self-concept, and his future. Certainly not by killing the doctor.
A decade and a half later, Barnes is still mending bones but he is also helping physicians everywhere to articulate perceived problems at their institutions without fear of rebuke or retaliation. Through an organization he started, first at his own hospital, he speaks at hospitals around the country, reducing the likelihood of abuse like that his patient suffered.
My work with Barnes led me to recognize that it’s possible to say “Screw you!” to harm-doers in indirect but active ways that are not only personally gratifying but also socially constructive. Revenge is so tightly bound to pain because the eye-for-an-eye mindset is backward-looking, focused on the original insult—but also because it is irreconcilable with most people’s goalsfor themselves.
“Showing ’em,” not “socking ’em,”—taking a behavioral step beyond the amygdala’s bidding—brings relief not least because it jump-starts growth. It renders people no longer vulnerable to the forces that originally harmed them. For that reason, it directly enhances feelings of self-efficacy and power.
For sure, psychotherapy has value. It is especially useful for exploring conflicted feelings. But dealing with revenge through psychotherapy may bring slow healing. En route to relief, the victim must relive the original injustice. Mind and body return to the scene of the crime, again and again. Achievement striving, on the other hand, need never recall the actual insult.
The Power of Striving
Some Turn Away from avenging a wrong as if they had an innate understanding of the Buddha’s observation: “Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.” But for most, this is near impossible.
Revenge is rooted in a brain network involving the amygdala and temporal areas that are fired up very specifically by acts of perceived unfairness perpetrated by another human being, University of Geneva researchers recently found. The greater the neural activation, the greater the inner push for punishment. It’s common for people to yield to the urge.
But rage for revenge is thoroughly alterable. If the dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a key area for emotion regulation, is activated during the provocation stage, the amygdala is muted, inhibiting the desire for later punishment, neuroscientist Olga Klimecki and colleagues observe in Scientific Reports. “The DLPFC is coordinated with the motor cortex that directs the hand that makes the choice of vengeful behavior or not. There is a direct correlation between brain activity in the DLPFC and behavioral choices.”
Striving toward positive goals, research has long shown, naturally subdues the amygdala. In my own clinical experience, the majority of patients experiencing profound trauma are able to flourish afterwards by channeling their anger into a meaningful endeavor, typically one that focuses on others. They do well by doing good. Revenge becomes an opportunity for exercising values mobilized by the insult.
Not all wrongs to be avenged are born of injury inflicted by individuals. Social injustice is a prime motivator, too, and the one that impelled lawyer Barry Scheck to create the Innocence Project, a consortium of attorneys that, since 1992, has been devoted to overturning wrongful convictions of (mostly) indigent people.
While in elementary school, a fire destroyed Scheck’s family home, injuring his parents and killing his beloved sister. At first debilitated, by high school he was academically motivated enough to gain entry to Yale, where he protested the Vietnam War on the grounds that the deferments granted to students discriminated against poor teenagers. He used his law degree to become a public defender in New York’s then-distressed South Bronx and a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
After co-founding a law firm specializing in civil rights litigation, he joined the “Dream Team” that got O.J. Simpson acquitted of double murder charges in 1994. By then, the Innocence Project was already deploying its legal skills to show the world that those who suffered injustice had an ally to undo what was done to them.
If ever a deed could conceivably justify the wish to exact lex talionis, the death of a child by murder might top the list. Yet that is not what happened in May 1980, when 13-year-old Cari Lightner was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The driver, who had been convicted of drunk driving offenses three times in four years, never even stopped his car. And when he struck the girl, he was out on bail for a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.
Candy Lightner’s pain at her daughter’s death was amplified when the responding police officer told her, “Lady, you’ll be lucky if this guy gets any jail time, much less prison.” As she later told People magazine, “This was not an ‘unfortunate accident.’ Cari was the victim of a violent crime. Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”
The societal pass that drunk drivers received at the time served, Lightner recalled, to “double my anger.” And she immediately vowed to make people horrified by the consequences of drunk driving. Four days after Cari’s death, she quit her job and organized Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (later, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD).
Indefatigable in her quest to save others from a similar tragedy, Lightner was named to the National Commission on Drunk Driving in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. MADD has sparked new penalties for drunk driving and changed the legal drinking age in many states.
Significant as the achievements are, they pale in comparison to what Lightner got from harnessing her anger and taking up a cause instead of seeking revenge. She not only gained kudos from around the world, she also gave meaning to her daughter’s life.
Getting out of oneself and giving back constitute a sure antidote to the emotional cancer of rumination. An added advantage of working for a cause is that you don’t act in a vacuum. On the contrary, such endeavors demand contact with like-minded people. Social support is the best-documented balm for almost every ill of mind and body.
Photo by Reinhard Hunger
Beating ‘Em at Their Own Game
Doing well by doing good could have been the epitaph for Benjamin Franklin, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and one of the richest men in American history, certainly its ultimate Renaissance man. Writer, philosopher, scientist, diplomat, musician, and oenophile, he spoke five languages—exclusively self-taught; he also invented bifocals, the urinary catheter, and swim fins! You probably recall schoolbook illustrations of Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm to study electricity—a daredevil venture that led to his invention of the lightning rod (which has saved countless lives and millions of dollars).
What’s missing from textbook accounts of Franklin is the truth about his early life. Because his father could not afford to send Benjamin to school, he arranged for his older son James (then in the process of establishing a printing business) to employ Benjamin, at age 11, as an indentured apprentice. Almost immediately, James became so jealous of Ben’s precocity that he demeaned and beat his younger brother regularly.
Things only got worse as Benjamin mastered the basics of printing and learned to read and write better than most adults in Colonial New England. He asked his brother if he could write for his newspaper and was denied. But instead of getting angry, he turned to writing articles under the pen name Silence Dogood. Slipped under the door of James’s shop, they quickly became the most popular part of the paper. When James learned who wrote them, all hell broke loose. Benjamin fled to Philadelphia, arriving with three shillings in his pocket and rags on his back.
Although wronged, Franklin never once sought to exact revenge directly or engage in displays of dominance. Instead, he found a psychologically satisfying way to “show” his brother—and thrive: by behaving better than him. He was driven to become the best printer in the 13 colonies. Starting as a journeyman in Philadelphia, Franklin soon established his own shop, leapfrogging from printing mundane legal forms to culturally significant pamphlets, newspapers, and books, including his own. As the leading printer in Colonial America, he ultimately printed its currency.
In 1748, after amassing the equivalent of more than $10 billion in today’s money, Franklin retired at age 42. It was time, he said, “to do something useful.” His next 42 years (40 beyond the life expectancy of males at the time) were a case study in generativity—not simply a Founding Father of the country and its first foreign diplomat, he also founded the American Philosophical Society, America’s first scientific society, its first science library and museum, and the nation’s first modern liberal arts college, later renamed the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin stands as the quintessential example of coping with the pain of trauma in an entrepreneurial, ego-enhancing way—by building something that not only helps the world but brings authentic personal rewards, from praise and respect to a host of new and exciting experiences.
*name has been changed