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The Psychology of Revenge and Narcissistic Avengers

Is revenge a form of emotional catharsis? A release of tension and unconscious conflicts? Or should revenge be left to karma, with its bittersweet animus for the dark-hearted?

Jimena, 28, describes her ex as a foul-mouthed narcissist who is either hiding behind his walls or punching them in. She says that after one of his many episodes of drunken rage, he strangled her in a parking lot until the world narrowed in and the stars twinkled at the tip of her nose. Finally, after two years of relentless emotional and psychological abuse, this was the moment that spurred her to leave.

But for Jimena, like many survivors, exiting the abusive relationship wasn’t as simple as walking out the door. She says, “I felt constantly pulled to him like some kind of addict. It took all of my strength not to unblock him from Instagram and fall back into communication. I felt more lonely than I ever had before. I’ve had difficult breakups in my life, but none like this. I was fighting with myself not to go back because I knew it could kill me, and simultaneously I felt ashamed for wanting to collapse into his arms.”

The psychology of revenge.

It’s normal for there to be some back and forth between exes shortly after a relationship ends. In Jimena’s case, no such contact was wanted. Nonetheless, she describes how her ex made new Instagram accounts daily with personal messages written to her in the bios begging for her to return. We refer to this behavior as hoovering– or, the desperate attempts of an abuser to suck their victim back in.

“Eventually, it worked,” she says. “We had a few days of friendly conversation, and for a second I actually considered going out to visit him and seeing if it could work. That is, under one condition: he sees a therapist. I should’ve known better. This suggestion made him go apeshit. The things he said were so vile, it finally kicked in that he was never going to change and I had to move on. For good. When I blocked him this time, we both knew that that was it. The game was over.”

For Jimena, that is. A few weeks passed without any communication, when she received a call from a friend of hers, who we’ll call Miles. She says, “Miles told me that my ex was posting lewd pictures of me on an Instagram account, and that it looked like I wasn’t aware they were being taken. He said the bio read, ‘I was waiting until the very end for this. Sorry Jimena, I had to.'”

The psychology of revenge.

Revenge porn. A misnomer that completely fails to explicate the insidious intentions of the abuser to disparage their victim. In the words of Annie Seifulluh, an advocate at C.A. Goldberg Victims’ Rights Law Firm, “Use of the word ‘revenge’ wrongly suggests that the victim did something that warranted this abuse, that they somehow deserve it.” Seifulluh asserts that revenge isn’t always the motive. Oftentimes, perpetrators commit what she calls “cyber sexual assault” for attention, for money, or to feel more powerful over someone who is helpless in stopping them.

“You know, it was really hard not fight to back,” Jimena says. “There are a lot of sinister things I could have done, but I chose to have mercy- not on him, but on myself- for a few reasons. First, unlike him, I have a moral compass and I wasn’t willing to stoop to his level. Second, nobody plays the game of revenge better than a narcissist. If I threw a pebble, he’d throw a boulder. This is the type of person who won’t stop until they’ve dealt the final blow. And third, I’m not a kid anymore. I know that the sweetness of revenge is temporary. I’m not willing to live the rest of my life mortified by how I handled this situation, so I chose to rise above it.”

Jimena makes a strong case for resisting the urge to enact revenge. For most of us, the desire for retribution never surpasses the fantasy stage, but for those who take it to the next level by inciting slash-and-burn campaigns that make Stephen King’s Carrie pale in comparison, we have to ask: what the hell is going through their minds? And on a psychological level, are they really getting what they set out for? 

To answer these questions, a group of Swiss researchers asked subjects to play a simple game with a partner where the duo could work together to earn a pot of money. Unbeknownst to the subjects, their partners were instructed to betray them by keeping the loot for themselves. Upon the betrayal, researchers presented the subjects with an opportunity to exact revenge on their partners. What they found was that the pleasure centers of their brains lit up like a Christmas tree as they contemplated retribution.

The psychology of revenge.

But that’s not how it ends. For the control study, the researchers removed the opportunity for revenge from half the participants. The findings revealed that those who were not allowed to seek revenge exhibited significantly more positive feelings following the experiment than those who were allowed to seek revenge. As it turns out, revenge is sweet, but only in the sense that it’s like a transitory sugar rush wherein the avenger feels high for just a few winks before the crash sets in.

These findings are consistent with the work of David Chester, a Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor who studies the psychological and biological processes that motivate and constrain aggressive behavior. After scanning the brains of individuals who were given the opportunity to stick pins in voodoo dolls representing someone who rejected them, Chester attests that, “Revenge can feel really good in the moment, but when we follow up with people five minutes, 10 minutes and 45 minutes later, they actually report feeling worse than they did before they sought revenge.”

From this we can conclude that revenge, more often than not, backfires on the avenger. That said, some people are more likely to seek revenge anyway, according to a study by Özlem Ayduk and colleagues at the University of California, Berekely. The study investigated likelihoods that social rejection will elicit aggression in individuals with different personality types. Ayduk discovered that individuals with higher levels of “rejection sensitivity” were more likely to retaliate against a perceived wrongdoer with violence.

Furthermore, these individuals scored higher in neuroticism, anxiety, and depression. “They have this tendency to see rejection even where it doesn’t exist,” Ayduk says, “Rejection is an existential threat, so that expectation [of rejection] actually prepares – both mentally and physiologically – the person to defend themselves.” In other words, retaliatory aggression is a kind of “knee jerk” reaction that allows avengers to feel, however brief, a sense of control.

The psychology of revenge.

Narcissism, low self-control, and low self-esteem consistently rate high in individuals who are prone to violence. Research conducted by Ryan P. Brown of Rice University found that, “The most vengeful people were those who were both low in forgiveness and high in narcissism, independent of gender differences and healthy self-esteem,” and that, “Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers.”

None of this comes as any surprise to Jimena. “In the end, I only feel bad for my ex,” she says. For now, she has chosen not to pursue legal recourse against him, though she emphasizes the importance of women in relationships to document every instance of abusive behavior. She says, “While I continue to grow and develop my own coping mechanisms, he will spend the rest of his life a fragile, self-loathing, insecure child, emotionally-stunted inside his tattooed shell. And that’s his karma.”

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