It’s hard to imagine forgiving a person who has imprisoned you, deprived you of your humanity and killed your family. That’s exactly what Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz did. In her book, The Choice, she described her harrowing account of life and death in several concentration camps and how she came to terms with the trauma of her suffering following liberation. Whilst many people naturally felt the need for revenge against the Nazis, she wanted instead to teach people not to hate others. Although she felt intense anger for the losses she grieved, her experience led her to find ways to choose how we see our lives and those events which affect us emotionally.
We all experience anger and revenge when we feel that we have suffered wrongdoing. This is a normal response to conflict because it is so related to loss. Our fury could manifest as a passive-aggressive response to a co-worker we have argued with; a desire to harm the partner who has asked for a divorce; or a more aggressive way of relating to other people when we have suffered abuse or neglect as children. Underlying the need for revenge is anger. Underneath that feeling is pain.
This blog post is about choosing forgiveness over revenge as a conflict resolution strategy. Wanting to punish the person you are in conflict with has devastating effects not only on you but the people you love, care about or just interact with.
It’s astonishing that forgiveness can follow such an horrific abuse of humanity but it’s also testament to the weight and hardship of carrying the burden of revenge, shame and guilt. The only antidote to that is forgiveness. As Dr. Eger says, we can choose whether we blame ourselves and others for what has happened, or we could choose to view what has happened to us differently; as an opportunity to change our behaviour, to learn from it and to grow. You can’t change what has happened, but you can change how you view it and react to it in the future.
Where To Start
As always, start with yourself. Acknowledge your emotions. You can do that by writing them down, crying, screaming, meditating on them or just talking to a friend or counselor about them. That might be difficult at first because we are not always aware of what we feel or have the vocabulary to label them. If you can’t pinpoint them, then identity the physical sensations that you might feel. For example, my throat tightens when I feel vulnerable and anger feels like a tensing of my jaw and chest.
None of your emotions are good or bad, wrong or right, despite what we have been taught. They are just feelings, reactions, sensations and temporary experiences of the world we live in. They cannot be controlled or repressed. All you can control is how you behave towards others when you are feeling their intensity.
Once you have done that, here are some more ways to turn revenge into forgiveness:
- Get some distance from the conflict. It may take some time for strong emotions to calm enough to talk through conflict resolution. A mediator is trained to help you do that but if you don’t want to take that step yet, approach the other person when you are calm enough to behave at least with politeness and respect. If you find yourself in that struggling with that, here are some ways to manage your anger.
- Understand that revenge is not a constructive conflict resolution. Machiavelli would disagree and for practical reasons, advise you to kill your enemies so that they don’t pose any further problems to you. However, it’s 2019 and you are probably not a psychotic killer! Revenge and trauma are similar in that they are both passed onto others, sometimes for generations. In that sense, it extends the cycle of conflict rather than putting it to rest.
- Realise that carrying anger and seeking revenge consumes your energy and your time. It can stop you from living your life in an expansive, liberated way and instead, it focuses your attention on punishing others. That emotional response spills out into other areas of your life and often clouds your decision making.
- Know that you have a choice. You can either continue to blame others for the conflict or you can take responsibility for your own role in it (no matter how minor) and move on. I am not suggesting that you blame yourself for acts of neglect or abuse you have suffered at the hands of others. It is, however, your responsibility to review your own response to it in the present moment and to be realistic about how it is affecting your life. Are you choosing to continue the conflict or are you wiling to come to terms with what has happened and find a way forward for your own benefit?
- Use empathy and honesty to help ease yourself away from the need for revenge. Yes, you have suffered, and it is essential to give yourself the understanding and space to respect that. You could also extend that to the other person when you are ready to. Are you able to understand the conflict from their perspective? Could pain and suffering have led them to behave as they have done towards you?
- Ask yourself, is it worth it? How is this conflict affecting the people that you love including yourself? Will revenge hurt them more? Will your relationships suffer and if so, how will this affect you? These are the kind of conflict considerations you should think about before and during any conflict.
If you feel the need for revenge, the main question you should be asking yourself is why. How will this benefit you? If, underlying that aim is the need for the other person to acknowledge your suffering then a constructive conversation could be the way forward. It could even lead to forgiveness.
None of this is easy. It takes time to get to this realisation but hopefully, this blog post will move you further along that path.
As always, I would love to read your stories of revenge or forgiveness or any other comments of tips you may have. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments box below!