The Best Revenge

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If it were not true, the saying "revenge is sweet" wouldn't be so popular. There is no doubt that getting back at someone who has wronged you feels good—but, of course, there are degrees of vengeful acts, and there are consequences of those acts.

"Revenge can be fantastic!," says Shannae Rickards, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Thousand Oaks, California. "It's totally human to want to hit back when we are hurt. You see it in children. If a two-year-old pulls another child's hair, the other kid is going to turn around and do it back, maybe even harder. It's a natural reaction." According to Rickards, a revengeful act will immediately make you feel better. You will have gotten the hateful feeling toward the other person out of your system. But, unlike children, adults need to ask themselves, " 'What will this accomplish and is it worth it?' before they act," says Rickards. It may feel great to go on a date with your ex's best friend in hopes of hurting your ex, but if you don't really like your ex's best friend, you'll be the one suffering through a bad date. And you might end up hurting an innocent third party (your ex's best friend).

Ironically, Rickards says, in the end most revengeful acts will make you feel worse. "Even though revenge is human, it isn't the best coping style," says Rickards. "You will feel guilt and remorse about what you did, and then you'll be stuck with those feelings..."If someone keys your car and you get him back by keying his car, you still have a keyed car," she adds. "How are you in a better position?"

So some methods of revenge are bad—but that's not to say some other responses, that are just as strong-willed, are not healthy. "It goes against human nature to let people take advantage or walk all over you. The best revenge is done in a smart, level-headed, guilt-free manner," says Rickards. For example, if a co-worker purposely presents a bad image of you to the boss, costing you a promotion, "actively beating him out for a better job at the company might be the best way to get even," says Rickards. "Stealing and burning his important files may feel great initially, but it will probably only get you into trouble."

Subtle forms of revenge are ultimately stronger. "Simply face the other person and let him know you understand his game and you won't tolerate it," advises Rickards.

"Let them know they're being hurtful" says Rickards. "It would be inappropriate not to say something, because then you are stuffing your feelings. The wrong response is to say something nasty back. You'll feel guilty and nothing will be accomplished." As for revengeful acts possibly being exacted on you, well there's good news and there's bad news according to a study done at the University of Arkansas. When they gave 40 subjects a chance to exact revenge—in the form of a bad evaluation—on a fake group defector, only 20 percent of the subjects used the opportunity for retribution.

The bad news is that those who did seek retribution showed a determined ruthlessness. The bottom line: When given the chance, four out of five people will let minor wrongdoings roll off their backs. But beware of that one-out-of-five person. Chances are, they'll want to seriously settle the score. "I think people use retribution to teach others about appropriate behavior," said Julie Steel, the graduate student who worked on the design of the study. "Maybe it's not our best quality as human beings, but it isn't done purely out of cruelty or malice. It has its own function within society."

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