Is Revenge Sweet?

In my book, I talk about one of the more hurtful events that happened during high school. It’s a chapter I struggled with to write. I struggled to re-write and now, struggle to finetune before sending on to my Editor.

I want to name the person who hurt me.

I want their name to be forever tied to what they did to me and I want it in print. I want everyone who reads my book to know exactly what this person did. I want people to know how cruel they were. How heartless and how they made the horrible situation I was going through privately even worse.

I want them to pay with regret over their actions. I want others to see how petty of a person they really were.

Then I stop. How petty of a person…

I stop because, at that point, I’m the one being petty.

Yes, the situation that happened was completely humiliating. It hurt me to the core to learn how nasty someone can be, but it also taught me a lot of lessons. Lessons I am grateful to have learned so early in life. While thinking about it, my ADD kicked in. I started wondering about why revenge matters so much. Why do we crave it? Why do some people get so caught up in the thought of revenge that it takes over their life? What, if anything, do we get out of it that makes us feel better about whatever happened?

The mesolimbic pathway is often referred to as the reward pathway in our brain. It’s the part that processes rewards, Its neurons release dopamine that makes us feel good when those rewards happen. When someone hurts us, our reaction often includes how to return the favor. Thinking about retaliation builds on that reward sensation. We think it will make us feel better to ‘give them what they deserve…make them pay…make them hurt as much as we do.” Revenge seems cathartic but I’m about to burst that bubble.

Psychological studies have proven that, not only does revenge not provide lasting positive feelings for emotional healing, it actually has an opposite effect. Initially, revenge can make a person feel better. That dopamine gets released, we tell ourselves they got what they deserved and can mentally re-establish a position of control in our lives; i.e. no one hurts me…

What actually happens is the dopamine releases, we feel good for a time and then the dopamine level goes back down.  Because we’re talking about the part of the brain that processes our reaction to reward, we want to get that feeling back. In order for that to happen, we mentally go back to the original offense, back to the revenge, maybe even back to how the person should be punished even further.

In short, we relive the situation over and over again. It prevents us from healing from it. Whereas, if we can emotionally move on from whatever happened, without revenge, our brains tend to trivialize the situation. That helps us overcome the mental entrapment upsetting moments can have on us.

But how can we move on from something that hurt us?

I’m being real here when I say, the most hurtful day of my high school experience happened 30 years ago. Seriously, I’ve held on to this for 30 years. And by saying “held on”, I don’t mean I’ve plotted revenge all this time. I just mean, it’s a moment I sometimes go back to. I can’t forget it. It’s not because the situation was that horrible. It’s because there were multiple factors going on in my life at the time. What happened that day only magnified the bad. It became a component to the nightmare I was living and another reason to consider taking my life. That’s why it mattered to me and it’s why I struggle to write about it.

It didn’t matter that some guy was a bully. It mattered because I was already losing a battle to find reasons to keep living. I was hanging on to fragments of hope that were snapping one by one. I had to make a choice to give in or move on.

In order to choose to move on from it, I first had to choose life. I chose my life over the person’s appalling actions.

I had to choose to be real about what happened. My emotions had little to do with that particular person and everything to do with my mental health as a whole. Recognizing the bigger picture made the person very small.

I choose to reroute the hurt. Instead of dwelling on being a victim, as with other aspects of my life, I chose to be a survivor. I was bullied but I didn’t allow it to break me. I use the experience to help in my work with at-risk teens. I use it to relate to kids who think no adult could possibly understand.

I also choose to remind myself that boys can be jerks, especially teen boys. I also remind myself that hurting people hurt people. I have often wondered what was going on in this boy’s life to make him act like he did towards others. What happened to him that made him want others to feel so badly? Instead of planning revenge, it makes me pity him.

I choose growth. I’ve grown from the experience. I’ve matured and used it for good which has made the experience matter but the perpetrator irrelevant. That alone I’ll take in place of revenge.

Most importantly, I choose to trust Jesus with the situation. In multiple places, the Bible tells me, not only, to forgive others but that vengeance belongs to God. In every hurtful situation of my life, I’m pretty sure anything He has ready for punishment is worse than what I could come up with.

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