Exploring The Power Of Revenge

Posted: August 31, 1986

The middle-aged man still speaks fervently of the rage he felt toward the airline that delayed him, his wife and their exhausted infants on a night flight across the country. Five hours late, their plane finally landed at 3 a.m. at an airport miles from their intended city of arrival. As a final insult, the airline hadn't even bothered to arrange transportation to carry the passengers to their destination.

But the man, an air-traffic controller in a large California city, said he found revenge after the airline cavalierly rejected his request for compensation.

"Whenever one of their planes wanted to land, I made sure they kept

circling until everyone else, even the small planes, had landed. I did everything by the book, but air controllers have lots of discretion," said the man, who requested anonymity. "Finally, when I figured that I had cost them 10 times as much in jet fuel as my ticket had cost, I felt I had gotten even and began to let them land in order again. Revenge can be sweet."

Psychiatrists and psychologists say that the longing for revenge by people against those who hurt them is both universal and very powerful. Everyone wants revenge at times, whether against an unresponsive airline, a rejecting lover, a capricious boss, a cruel teacher or a rude motorist. Despite the strength of these feelings, psychotherapists report that most people suppress their desires for revenge.

"Every patient approaches revenge very timidly. It comes up (in therapy) very slowly, not in the first four or five sessions," said Harvey Rich, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "There is something forbidden about revenge."

A blow to self-esteem triggers revengeful feeling, according to behavioral scientists. A person who diminishes another's self-esteem, whether that self- esteem is based on intelligence, competence or attractiveness, can provoke enormous anger in the injured person. As the victim contemplates revenge, he hopes desperately to overcome his feelings of impotence and to regain his former sense of self-worth.

Revenge may be feared by scientific investigators and clinicians themselves. "We all tend to be very afraid of our murderous feelings of revenge. We all have them, and we do a lot of projecting of them. Many psychiatrists fear vengeance from their patients," said Harold F. Searles, a Washington psychiatrist.

Revenge has caused much bloodshed and grief, and it is understandable that religions, societies and families have sought to suppress it. Psychotherapists, in interviews, regard revenge as dangerous because it often damages or destroys the person who seeks it.

They noted the psychological truth of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab, seeking to avenge the loss of his leg, eventually brings

himself and his crew to an ocean grave in his mad desire to get revenge on the great white whale.

A child hears family and social lessons forbidding revenge and learns to fear the retaliatory power of the parental figures on which he might wish to

wreak vengeance. The adult who desires revenge is often aware that he may get himself killed or jailed or hurt the lives of people he cares about while trying to obtain satisfaction. "People inhibit revenge because they are afraid of punishment," said George H. Pollock, head of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Those in the corporate, political and academic worlds learn that achieving revenge can be self-destructive. "If there's anything that's kept under conscious control in a place like Washington, D.C., it's the desire for revenge, because you know that you will need those who have offended you sometime in the future," said Bertram S. Brown, a psychiatrist who is the president of Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and who was the director of the National Institute of Mental Health during the 1970s.

Some beneficially displace their desire for revenge into an "I'll show them" kind of determination. Clinicians say that this sublimination of revenge has been the driving force of many in gaining success. George Orwell once wrote that getting even with adults who snubbed them as children was a primary motive for those who took up writing as a career.

Others act out, rather than suppress, their desire for revenge. Pollock said that he would characterize many of these unrestrained avengers as suffering from "impulse disorders." Often they have been manipulated by parents or siblings as children and have been taught "you are as we desire you" rather than being allowed to develop their own potential. They are children who grow up without an ally and who model themselves on an angry, bitter parent, Pollock said.

These are some of the people whose compulsion for revenge contributes to high rates of murder, assault and arson, according to behavioral scientists. A study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found revenge to be the most frequent motive for arson, a finding supported by other contemporary studies.

In interviews, clinicians said they recently had seen more patients with strong, but thwarted, desires for vengeance that the clinicians linked to severe economic pressures in the job market. Mental-health clinics across the country report great frustration among young people who cannot find a suitable job.

"There is a real increase in the desire for revenge," said Lawrence J. Hatterer, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College in New York City. "I am seeing many more patients abruptly terminated from their jobs without justification."

Just as the employee who feels mistreated may want revenge against an employer, such feelings are also common when one partner leaves another in an intimate relationship, said Zira De Fries, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. The desire for revenge is particularly prominent among older women "whose husbands have left for younger, greener pastures," said De Fries. The deserted woman often fantasizes about killing the departed spouse and broods endlessly over how best to humiliate him. "It becomes more important to hurt the other person than to help yourself," she said.

For rejected spouses or lovers, "it's an ego problem," said De Fries. ''Their sense of self-worth often comes from the other person. Their sense of self-esteem plummets." Angered by their loss of self-esteem, they want to get even.

Such feelings of revenge, especially when directed against a person with whom one has been intimate, are often a defense against grief and separation anxiety, Washington psychiatrist Searles has written in the professional journal Psychiatry. People who lust for vengeance can be trying to hold on psychologically to those who have spurned them, he wrote.

While therapists may caution patients not to act on their desires for revenge, they may actively encourage fantasies about them. "For most people, revenge is so taboo that they don't even fantasize about it," Rich said. ''When a patient begins to feel permission to get in touch with his feelings of revenge, it can result in an extraordinary freeing-up, almost a delight, in fantasizing about it. These fantasies make it much more likely that revenge will never be carried out."

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