The Baggage Breakdown (Part 2): Revenge
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Anger and Revenge
It was the record heard ‘round the world. Whatever you might think of her as a person not withstanding, Beyoncé’s 2016 album “Lemonade” and actually a quite a few of her previous works has paid homage to the raw and caustic feelings women and men feel as a result of betrayal. When I think of the baggage of revenge, a few words on this album crystalize it perfectly: “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself. Don't hurt yourself,” Beyoncé growled on the third song on the album, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The epic feel of the first half of this album is pure and unapologetic retribution.
In summary, it declares, “you have betrayed me, cheated on me, and lied to me, so I will make you feel the hurt you have put me through by smashing the windows of your car, letting you know that I will find someone new, party and get on with my life and let everyone know how much of a dog you are.” All this so that person will have no doubt that they did, in fact, mess with the proverbial “wrong one”. It was the anthem of 2016 for many a jaded young woman (and man), because it gave melody to the anger many still feel because of past baggage. For many, it felt good to hear a woman like Beyoncé stand up for herself and in a sense give us a standard by which to unleash our own power against our offenders too. Lemonade was a powerful ode to the emotion of vengeance and the equally powerful response of forgiveness (more on that in a bit).
Psychology now informs us that anger is a secondary emotion. Anger and the vengeful behaviors it brings is a manifestation or reaction to the primary emotion of sadness or hurt that we experience. Acting on our emotions in a vengeful way, however, has the most potential to truly alter our lives or the lives of others. If you’re a fan of crime shows like me, you see it unfold all the time. People get betrayed and they react out of their anger and this leads someone to be hurt or to be in jail. These cases are extreme examples of course; however, what is often not explored is how being vengeful plays out in our lives outside of its legal implications. It can be just as harmful to us, because though prison sentences can be served and completed, the prison of our minds can keep us enslaved in bitterness, hostility, and subversive revenge seeking forever. As long as we choose to continue to keep score of those who harmed us, the baggage of revenge will keep us chained in the prison of resentment.
Most of us have many maladaptive ways of dealing with anger. We handle the resentment we feel by carrying it around with us, ranging from the classic case of being butt hurt over slight slights to bullish confrontations or through stealthy subversion. In our hearts, we either actively or passively hope that what goes around comes around and are more than happy when the universe does pay them back. We might actively or inactively plot their failure or just continuously put energy into beleaguering their wrongs. Though there is nothing wrong at all with speaking our truth, you do have that right to resolve your feeling in a healthy and productive setting, and it can help to vent to a trusted friend instead of bottling our emotions inside. However, there is a point where we stubbornly hold onto our stories, at times even refusing to be consoled, even after the universe gives them the payback we wished for. We walk around content throwing petty parties, hosting screaming matches, or even engaging in physical altercations and never stop to think of how we can really resolve our issues.
Now, this is not to suggest a holier than thou stance, please know we love a good petty party just as much as anyone else. It’s the stuff fun times are made of, who doesn’t feel it in their soul as Queen Bey belts out “you must not know bout me… to the left, to the left”? The moment she hits “don’t you ever for a second get to thinking… “, our souls crescendo with her notes and we ball up all our resent to hit that note right along with her. That’s because whether we admit it or not, it still hurts. We have survived, we have moved on, but it still hurts. The problem is, although we gain camaraderie from that collective energy, this energy doesn’t really serve any other purpose. It doesn’t resolve the real hurt we feel. It almost glorifies the baggage that is tethered to our lives. (Side note: to clarify there is nothing wrong with standing up for yourself and removing unhealthy influences that misuse or abuse us, which is what the song “Irreplaceable” was about, but we often miss that point for the punch line, but I digress).
Often, we have given that person or situation our power. We allow them to hold the remote control of our emotions. Often, they are actually toxic or immature people who will gladly keep changing our channels, increasing and lowering our volumes with their every whim. So, they post a picture or status, good or bad, and your reaction is, “Who do they think they are after…”; or, they had something good happen to them, “hmph, we’ll see how long that lasts…”; or, you hear through the grapevine that something bad happened to them, and you might think “Ha! That’s what they get”.
These are only the initial reactions. Upon having our volume turned up or down, we then tune into the channels of our mind and start to relive the situation, indexing all the actions that led to this point and re-evaluate ourselves as right or wrong, stupid or strong, winner or loser as a result of something someone did, possibly years ago and oceans away. We start to binge on emotions that in no way influence what has already occurred. Though you probably are right about how despicable that person might be, does this sound like healthy or helpful behavior? In these moments of self pity, you could probably have used your energy to work on a project that would lead you towards your goals, spent moments with your loved ones, or just spent time appreciating the things in your life that are going well now. We engage in seemingly harmless bitterness, but don’t realize that we are only hurting ourselves.
In our defense, it is often because we don’t know how to let go, because we were never taught how. Often our environment dictates how we absorb our pain, so if you were raised seeing your mother sulking about the injustices she faced in life, or your dad mumbling to himself about that one thing for years, then you were trained by observation to approach the hurts of life in the same way. There are many reasons for people’s affinity to address their hurts in this way that is rooted in environmental factors; for example, in low-income communities, historically there are not often systems or law enforcement that proactively address challenging situations in these communities. So, without an external advocate or positive conflict management skills, these situations swell into external conflict that creates lasting tensions. Think of every reality TV show that builds its plot on the multiple conflicts that build on each other and create drama for seasons and seasons to come; now, imagine that’s your actual life. Is that the life you choose to live?
How to let it go
We actually re-traumatize ourselves each time we relive or reengage with the conflict in these non-productive ways. If you’ve ever observed a person going through their fit of resentment or rage, you’ll notice that they will often react immaturely to the situation. There is a reason why we regress to the age and maturity level where we first experienced the trauma. This is because the solution is regression; only it must be done in a productive way. According to play therapy expert Byron Norton, our brains go back to that time trying to resolve what happened. It's a larger version of when a song gets stuck in your head. It's trying to figure out the lyrics. In the same way with trauma, our brains are trying to work out infinite details, which are different for all of us. In my experience, one of the most effective therapies for trauma is experiential play therapy. This therapy allows children to repeatedly work out their thoughts and feelings without feeling obligated to use words. You would be blown away by the various elements that they analyze in order to come to terms with troubling events.
Ultimately, what ties all of our vengeful feelings and behaviors together is our belief that there has been a loss of justice, that a person has robbed us of the justice we feel we deserve. We will all go to bat for our rights if threatened. It’s human, it is relatable, and it is completely rational. However, what we can’t often realize is that it’s just not as clear and defined as we would like it to be. Though we all know that there should be right and wrong in the world, we at some point must realize that everyone thinks that they are acting justly or rightly in their own eyes. This is not to say there is no justice in the world; however, it comes by means that we have no understanding or control of.
We can admit that even the legal system does not convincingly reflect justice in many cases. We all have the right to defend ourselves when we feel hurt or shame, but the way we do this is through setting up appropriate boundaries that keep unhealthy and unwanted influence out of our lives. But as Beyoncé showed in the end of Lemonade, power can also be found in finding true forgiveness for a person if they are willing to accept their wrong and work to fix it. The end of Lemonade is a beautiful homage to the power of forgiveness and choosing to address your hurt in a way that helps you to let it go and move forward.
How to move forward
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