Most of us have heard the phrase, “an eye for an eye,” which refers to the idea that people should be punished according to the way in which they offended. While many of us have succumbed to feelings of vengeance and vindictiveness at one time or another, research shows that the outcomes of vindictive acts are not always in our best interest. As Gandhi reportedly explained, “And eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Let’s explore what vindictiveness is, why it emerges, and how to transform it into constructive actions.
What Is Vindictiveness?
Vindictiveness is the calculating desire to hurt someone perceived to have wronged us. A person who is vindictive holds grudges and builds cases against others to justify vengeful acts. In some cases, vindictiveness is associated with narcissism. Various triggers can cause vindictiveness to emerge, but most of the time it is a result of unexpressed anger. This is especially true for those of us who grew up in households where anger was not a welcome emotion, but a silenced one.
What’s Hiding Underneath Vindictiveness?
Hiding underneath vindictiveness is the emotional child’s desire to be empowered. If someone hurt us when we were children, it’s common to feel victimised for years, especially if we never learned how to express our pain and disappointment. We may think we are “over it,” but then we see the person who wronged us, or we’re reminded of them and suddenly we regress to the child we were when the hurt first occurred. A common defense mechanism to this pain is to let our unresolved anger become vindictiveness, but this approach only keeps us stuck in our victimhood.
What Comes After Vindictiveness?(It’s Not Relief)
Though a vindictive act may give us a feeling of power and superiority, this triumph is short-lived. In a study by David Chester, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies human aggression, participants who committed vengeful acts felt good in the midst of these acts, but when researchers checked in five minutes, 10 minutes and 45 minutes later, the participants actually reported feeling worse than they did before they sought revenge.
Transforming Anger & Vindictiveness
Letting go of vindictiveness takes time, but it is the only path forward if we hope to be free of our victimhood and get what we really need from others. During the Hoffman Process, participants learn to trace their pattern of vindictiveness along with other negative patterns back to their caregivers and the formative experiences that contributed to this behaviour. Here are some ways you can transform anger and vindictiveness into constructive actions.
- Become aware: What are your triggers? What are the sensations that take hold of your body when you notice feelings of vindictiveness? Noticing what triggers your vindictiveness is a powerful step in learning how to change your behaviour
- Comfort the emotional child: Ask yourself what your emotional child is really trying to achieve through vindictive acts. Are you really after respect? Comfort? Love?
- Speak your needs aloud: Use words to describe your emotional child’s needs (e.g “I have a need for respect.”) to deactivate the amygdala
- Send compassion: Place a hand on the wounded part of the body (where you feel vindictiveness) and send compassion there
- Make a request: When possible, have the courage to express your needs to the offending person and make a request that these needs be met
- Acknowledge effort: Acknowledge any and all effort this person makes to meet your needs to support new behaviour
This article was contributed by Erica Garza. Follow @ericadgarza on Instagram