The Psychology of Anger and Revenge

by | Aug 15, 2002

Q:I have a friend, Mary, who was nearly sexually molested by a 30-year-old adult when she was about 15 years old (she convinced him to stop). She never told anyone about it until she shared her secret with me about 6 months ago. Mary is now 35 years old. The accused is her sister Jill’s […]

Q:I have a friend, Mary, who was nearly sexually molested by a 30-year-old adult when she was about 15 years old (she convinced him to stop). She never told anyone about it until she shared her secret with me about 6 months ago. Mary is now 35 years old. The accused is her sister Jill’s husband, Bill. It turns out that Bill also tried to do this to Mary’s other sister, Pam.

After discussing this situation, Mary wants to seek justice. Bill is studying to become a high school teacher. Mary wants to wait until he gets his teacher’s certificate, and then report him to the state for the sexually dysfunctional behavior he exhibited. This would also potentially prevent him from further sexually abusing minors (assuming he still exhibits this type of behavior). Pam, Mary’s sister (who also had been sexually approached by Bill), is afraid that Mary’s behavior is revengeful and therefore does not agree with her decision. Just “leave it alone if it’s revenge” is her morally agnostic, subjectivist advice.

What is the difference between justice and revenge? What would be your suggestion for Mary?

A: Pam is caught up in the middle of a philosophical/psychological false alternative. The false alternative is this: either be reasonable and dismiss your anger over the past (regardless of whether it’s justified); or act upon your anger, but in the process be unreasonable and immature.

According to this false alternative, you can be angry and seek justice — but you must inevitably surrender reason; or you can be reasonable and rational — but then you can’t be angry and seek justice. This idea is based on the false notion that “rational” equals non-emotional, when in fact what rationality actually involves is not letting emotions take over in place of reason. Emotions can go hand-in-hand with reason; it’s just that they can’t, and shouldn’t, replace reason.

You see this same theme at work in the current war against terrorism. Liberal mentalities oppose strong and decisive retaliation against terrorist states because they object to the expression of anger, even justified anger. Instead, they promote the notion of “restraint.” Restraint in this context, of course, means doing nothing. That’s Pam’s approach in this case. It’s her prerogative to take this approach of course; but it doesn’t make it right or healthy.

Conventional thinking on the subject goes like this: If we’re angry, we can’t be reasonable; therefore, we must stop being angry. Of course, if you extinguish or repress your anger — even when the anger is reasonable — then you subvert justice (and, in the case of both terrorism and sexual abuse, outright safety).

It’s reasonable for Mary to seek justice. I don’t know that she’ll get anywhere in this particular case. A licensing board will not likely have the power that a court would — because under the law, Bill is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Also, Mary (like Pam) was almost molested, not actually molested. She should be prepared that nobody will care. She shouldn’t put the time and energy into reporting Bill unless she’s prepared for such a reaction.

Nevertheless, Mary should do whatever she judges objectively reasonable to put this to rest in her own mind. She should make public in some way that this is what Bill does to people, or at least what he used to do. People who interact with him should be cautious in their dealings with him — especially since he seeks to be around young people.

Mary’s on the right track, and she should not succumb to the false alternative I described. Nor should she buy into the viciously stupid idea that mentally healthy people refuse to ever act upon or express anger. She should go on with her life, of course, and keep in mind that the best revenge is living well. She should not become a professional victim, in which her whole life becomes organized around how she has been stepped upon. Nothing in her proposed course of action, however, suggests this will necessarily become the case.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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