Who is prone to them, what role do they play, and how to effectively heal.

The desire for revenge is a universal personal response in all human cultures. The greater the harm and transgression caused, typically the greater the desire for revenge. I have a patient who was betrayed by her husband, another who was sexually assaulted by his cousin, and one other that experienced years of bullying and humiliation. They have all experienced recurrent revenge fantasies. I have helped them work through their anger, sadness, and grief.  

While revenge is defined as “an action in response to some perceived harm or wrongdoing by another party that is determined to inflict damage, injury, discomfort, or punishment to the party judged responsible.” Robert Biswas-Diener, a researcher and author on happiness, asserts that to understand revenge we need to talk about embitterment, which is a feeling that often gets overlooked. Embitterment is a sense of having been let down or victimized, coupled with a desire to fight back, but because the person feels helpless, it leads to fantasies of revenge or aggression. Here we see embitterment as the feeling and revenge as what is acted out due to the feeling that gets evoked. 

Understanding Revenge 

The desire for revenge is a universal personal response in all human cultures. Perceptions about the desire for revenge vary according to cultures and communities. It can range from the desire being completely taboo to an expectation that there is follow through on the desire in a contemptuous manner. Many cultures, currently and historically, have the principle of what Knoll terms ‘retributive functional symmetry’, whereby an injustice committed by a person is then repaid with a similar injustice to that person. Current modern Western thought considers revenge taboo and encourages forgiveness instead. 

Revenge fantasies surface during childhood. Children are prone to revenge fantasies as at some point in their lives they want revenge against their parents. Their fantasy play, daydreams, and dreams at night contain schemes to get back at their parents for the frustrations that arise during childhood. These frustrations reflect their disappointment in their parents for not being able to live up to expectations or adequately protect them. 

According to Haen and Weber, children use revenge fantasies to disavow their inability to act (and mourn) and disguise their feelings of shame. Because of their developmental and physical limitations and inevitable feelings of lack of control, children can assert themselves through their “powerful” and “assertive” thoughts and feelings.  

Individuals That Are Prone to Revenge Fantasies 

Thoughts of revenge are especially likely in individuals who have been victimized and traumatized by others. According to one study, it is also more likely to present in individuals who are diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than individuals who do not meet the criteria for PTSD. In another study, revenge fantasies are common but are not only specific to PTSD, complicated grief, or other stress response diagnoses. 

In my article, We May Be Victims of Trauma and Not Even Know It, it is indicated that trauma can be defined as anything that causes our parasympathetic nervous system to react, whether it’s a “big T” trauma, or a “little T” trauma. There are various levels of trauma and impact from trauma is relative. I have seen individuals with all levels of perceived trauma experience revenge fantasies. 

The Role of Revenge Fantasies

Through a particularly negative interaction(s), such as by way of victimization, betrayal, bullying, etc., feelings of humiliation, anger, hurt, vulnerability, and victimhood may be evoked. This directly impact on one’s self-confidence, self-belief, and self-efficacy. These experiences of humiliation and unjust hurt caused by another, can understandably elicit the desire to seek revenge and fantasies of revenge.

Our mind perpetually tries to protect us from threat and discomfort. Knoll remarks that revenge feelings may arise as a result of attempts to protect a sense of self. There are several goals that our mind seeks by engaging in revenge. Revenge is intended to re-equilibrate the gains and losses caused by an assault. The losses are experienced as the perpetrator not getting equitably what was due to them based on the harm they caused, them getting away with the act(s) with minimal or a lack of consequences for their actions or gaining power and control which is an inherent human need. 

Haen and Weber assert that revenge fantasies often serve to calm the negative feelings of frustration, humiliation, and insult by virtually punishing the perpetrator and settling the score between the victim’s suffering and the perpetrator’ actions. It also serves to regulate feelings of injustice and loss of control. 

To process and gain closure after feeling powerless and helpless, the powerful revenge fantasies are experienced as a mechanism to regain power and stability. Searles also sees revenge as a defensive function, one that defends against separation anxiety as well as grief. 

How Individuals Experience These Fantasies 

Hate toward perpetrators burns at the core of revenge fantasies and often an array of emotions are present. These include anger at perpetrators, fear about trusting others, despair over the harshness of the world, and a general disgust with the injustices of the world. They are typically also blended with feelings of judgment and self-loathing over the personal vulnerability that failed to allow them to adequately protect themselves, layered with the positive emotional effects which are allowing them to feel some power and strength through the fantasies.

A sense of pleasure can be gained by imagining the suffering and regaining of pride and primal justice. It may also activate shame or guilt because of transposing the thought that “If I have such violent and aggressive fantasies, I must be susceptible to acting that way” and “therefore I must be a mean and out of control person.” The shame can be manifested as a sign of weakness of character, “I am a pathetic and weak person because I allowed that to happen to me and because I am unable to manage my thoughts and feelings.”  

How to Effectively Process and Heal  

One study suggests that violent revenge fantasies are not risky in the sense of inciting more aggression and rage. However, therapeutically they were not the most effective option for creating greater calm and comfort. Repetitive revenge fantasies are known to increase distress. Violent, graphic revenge fantasies may be as arousing, frightening, and intrusive as images of the original trauma. They may also be highly frustrating, since revenge can never change or compensate for the harm that was done. 

According to Herman, in her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence –From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, people who actually commit acts of revenge, such as combat veterans who commit atrocities, do not succeed in getting rid of their posttraumatic symptoms; rather, they seem to suffer the most severe and intractable disturbances. Because the revenge fantasies are not just reactive anger, the compensatory functions of the fantasies need to be explored as well. 

To heal and effectively process through the vengeful thoughts and feelings is to work through the anxiety and grief. This could be accomplished through integrating self-compassion and self-love strategies, as well as learning personal radical acceptance and self-compassion. 

The relevant topics to explore include the harm and pain, the injustice, and unrelenting loss and grief. With this, fully allowing the medley of emotions to surface and reconstructing a more resilient sense of self through traumatic growth.    

Revenge fantasies can be obsessive thoughts which can be tracked. One can get triggered by certain stimuli which reminds them of the person or circumstances, when they are subsequently offended or hurt, are in a bad mood, or feel fatigued. Having a plan to notice when the thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise and finding coping skills to effectively manage the recurring thoughts and distressing feelings can be helpful and therapeutic. 

Exploring values around justice, compassion, thoughtfulness, and forgiveness often get at the core of how the assumed consequences would feel if they were experienced. Awareness is heightened around how it is counter to leaning into those values and being one’s best self. Finally, the revenge fantasies lose their power when an individual finds alternative ways to gain a sense of power, purpose, and meaning.   

As Buddha poignantly suggests, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” The aggressiveness builds up inside, with often no retribution to the person that contributed to it. The goal is to help restore a sense of stability, self-confidence, and self-love. 

Here is a Courage Guided Meditation led by me. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.

Blog as published in Psychology Today.