In this instalment of Role Model in Training, Faye unpacks why revenge fantasies feel so good, and turn out so bad.
Dear Faye, I have a really shitty ex boyfriend that recently told his friend that he “kept me around” because I “did everything for him.” Losing a couple years of my life so someone can get their laundry done and feet rubbed feels really crappy — and I find myself fantasizing about revenge. Is it ever worth it? How do I respect my own anger without letting it take over my life?
All my Exes Live in Texas
Hey All My Exes Live in Texas,
You’re bigger than I am! Honestly, if someone did me this dirty, I’d probably already have attempted to burn down their house. I can’t imagine how it must feel to find out someone you loved, trusted, and genuinely cared for at a time acted this misogynistic and cruel. It’s particularly crappy to find out that someone shit-talked you when you weren’t there to defend yourself, and it’s crappiest of all to learn that the person who said it was perverting your genuine acts of kindness. I don’t blame you for fantasising about revenge. It’s seriously low behaviour on their part. Inexcusable.
That being said, I don’t know if retaliation will grant you the peace you need to move on. Maybe some part of you knows that – if you were hellbent on hurting him back, you wouldn’t have asked me. You’d just do whatever cruel thing you were fantasising about and leave it at that. And between you and me, Exes in Texas, I don’t blame you for feeling this way. This guy definitely deserves to be karmically punished.
Psychology tells us that we instinctively crave revenge when someone harms us because we want to force them to feel the pain they inflicted upon us; we want power back. It’s very likely that your obsession with revenge has stemmed from all your confusing feelings of indignation, frustration and heartbreak.
But here’s my first question: how are your revenge fantasies ending? Is it safe to assume you’re imagining his reaction? Maybe after you emerge glorious, he’s begging for you to take him back, or cowering, or suddenly acting sweet, or just finally disappearing into the shadows. If you want any of these outcomes to actually come true, the best option is to leave that man the fuck alone.
I know that sucks to hear. Being the bigger person isn’t fun. But honestly, I don’t even really think you need to be mature about this to ‘win’. You just have to not feed the fire.
The thing is, despite my Instagram username, I’m actually pretty anti-revenge. I learned how counterproductive revenge was the hard way.
My favourite philosopher Miss Fiona Apple herself says it best: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” When I was younger, I was obsessed with getting back at some of my classmates. They did some fucked-up things, then we were stuck in the same social scene – in such close quarters, I was able to pursue basically every potential route that I believed would leave them in as much pain as they’d left me in.
You know what I learned?The kind of person who does bad things in the first place is not the kind of person who will feel bad when you treat them the same way. Your piece-of-shit ex talked badly on you because that’s the language he knows.
He relied on lazy sexism to boost his ego. I wouldn’t be surprised if weeks/months/years from now, he completely dialled back on all his claims. I’d go so far as to bet that he didn’t even really mean what he said. I think he probably missed you and the nice things you did, and because he’s a shit communicator or a shit person, he got blustery and took an easy shot that he knew would cut you deep.
People who are cruel don’t say what’s truthful. They say what they know will put them on top – or more specifically, put you below them.
Let’s imagine you acted on your fantasy again. You tell his whole friend group he was a terrible lay. In your fantasies, he responds the same way you would, right? In reality, it’s way more likely that no matter how bad you made him feel, he’d react the way we know he has in the past: he’d externalise all his negative feelings and commit harm the way he knows best. He tells them something humiliating and personal you did in bed. Maybe he lies. He’d make sure it’d get back to you. You get angrier.
What do you do now? Walking away from it all would probably feel even more difficult than it already does. You two would enter a cycle where each would go lower and lower to get the last word in, and because you have a moral conscience that’s even slightly larger than his, you’d feel worse and worse and worse. How deep would you have to cut to get him to shut up for good? What would that do to your inner peace?
Later, in the same Fiona Apple song, she sings, “I know if I hate you for hating me I will have entered the endless race.” The most frustrating thing I’ve learned about trying to get revenge on a shit person, dear sweet Exes in Texas, is that pursuing it is the fastest way to guarantee they’ll stay on your mind. Do you really want to prolong your ickiest feelings?
Now, I said you’d be in a cycle with him – it’s true that fighting would effectively keep him in your life. Even more significantly, it would give your relationship new material. I think this is why so many of us dream of revenge: because actually saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. We’re only human.
Love rarely leaves. If we can find any way to keep the door from totally closing, we’ll chase it, subconsciously or not. Everytime I did something ridiculous and petty to get back at the kids who hurt me, there was a deep desperation that took years to identify. Finally, I realised I’d been centering them in my hurt. All I wanted was for them to know it was there… I missed the good moments with them, and hoped that once they were aware of how furious/devastated I was, then closure could be achieved.
I chased revenge for maybe five years before I was able to let it go. Now, I know through secondhand sources that a lot of the people who had harmed me do feel bad about it. But you know what? Nothing a single one could do would grant me anything close to closure. I was only able to move on through nurturing better relationships with myself and the people around me.
Subscribe to shado's weekly newsletter
Exclusive event news, job and creative opportunities, first access to tickets and – just in case you missed them – our picks of the week, from inside shado and out.
Let’s get to the second part of your question. You asked if you can respect your anger without letting it take over your life. I think this is a fantastic, introspective question that shows your self-worth and commitment to… well, not dwelling in misery. The truth is, anger is one of the most confusing emotions out there. We assume it’s simple, because it produces such incredibly intense feelings that it has a totalising effect. But in my experience, anger is a very heavy, tangled thing. The only way out of anger is through; you can’t ignore it if you want to reach deeper feelings.
Anger is, at its core, a launchpad: it can propel you into a cycle of shame or into a cycle of self-discovery. Let’s try to aim for the latter. Do you have creative outlets that you turn to? If I was in your shoes, after crying and hitting my pillow and pouting to everyone who’d listen (and not tattle), I’d probably try to write a terribly-written gory story about an ex-girlfriend getting really grisly, exacting revenge. If you draw, you could make a cartoon; if you dance, choreograph a routine.
If those feel too ambitious, you could cultivate a private playlist of the meanest songs you can think of. Terrorist by Heavens to Betsy is a good place to start. The chorus goes: I’M GOING TO KILL YOU! I’M NOT YOUR PREY, I’LL MAKE YOU DIE. You could write Letterboxd reviews about revenge films, prep a recipe to take on a picnic with friends … you catch my drift.
The reason I’m suggesting these outlets is not only because creative practices are healing, but also because you told me you’re in fantasy mode. This is a perfect time to indulge in art as a site for dreaming and generosity. I think you’ll get more satisfaction and find more inspiration than you’d ever get through confrontation. Maybe you’d learn some lessons from these artists who have already worked through the pain imbued in their work. Engage in art to help you grow, or even try sharing it with friends to remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with doing nice things. Don’t try to make a masterpiece, don’t edit your work while you’re making it. Please don’t share it publicly yet, at risk of starting a social media war. Just create for the sake of it.
In the last minutes of my therapy session today, I told my therapist how I’m responding to your question, and she reminded me that the best revenge is living well.
I agree wholeheartedly. I want to conclude by encouraging you to not internalise your ex’s cruelty. The things people say to hurt us can stick around in our minds for a while, and I’m going to go out on a limb to guess that, based on his insults, you’re a pretty thoughtful person who enjoys caring for the people around them. Don’t let him rob you of your pride in that! If this interaction shows us anything, it’s that there’s very few real-ass, kind people in the world. You should be proud of your big heart.
Your role model in training,
Got a question regarding love, sex, or style? A situation you can’t stop obsessing over? A pattern you want to break? Submit to Role Model in Training here and Faye may answer yours next.
What can you do?
‘The Beauty of the Husband’ is an excellent poetry collection by Anne Carson that unpacks labours of love and relationships falling apart.
‘Baise Moi’ by Virginie Despentes is an excellent, furious read if you need validation in anger and feel angry at men in general. It’s Faye’s personal favourite book. Major content warning for gun violence and sexual assault.
Ev’Yan Whitney’s podcast “The Sensual Self” offers tips on healing, tuning in, and getting back to your body. Perfect to reclaim the kind things you’ve done – you deserve to rub your own feet, so to speak.