It’s true: The best revenge is living well


A Wave reader in South Bethany writes,

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I’ve always been told that it’s wrong, bad and emotionally harmful to hate. But, as I read the news and watch the goings-on in this world, it’s getting harder and harder to feel love or tolerance towards anyone who does us wrong. I’m confused about this. From your point of view as a professional psychologist, do you feel that it’s unhealthy to hate?


Dear Reader,

If by “hate” you mean to dwell on things that you cannot change, then, yes, that kind of ‘hate’ can be detrimental to your psychological health. I think that’s what a lot of people have in mind when they say, ‘Hatred is bad.’

But ‘hate’ can mean other things too. Hate is valid and necessary if it means passing a deserved judgment on evil, or something (or someone) that rightly deserves contempt. For example: I hate terrorists and mass murderers. But I don’t dwell on the emotion; I don’t deliberately keep it in my consciousness and make it my primary motive for living. I simply make the judgment and move on, living my life from there. It would be unhealthy to deny reality and evade the nature of their evil and the fact that they must be held accountable for their behaviors—but I don’t let the emotion overcome me, either. If I do, then I am allowing them to defeat me in a different way.

The same applies to other less obvious examples of people who deserve your contempt—but don’t deserve your day-to-day emotional energy. Maybe you have an ex-spouse who deliberately treated you in a vicious and abusive way. Or maybe your mother or father abused you, never acknowledging or showing remorse for what they did. Are you supposed to love them anyway? This kind of emotional conflict, or ‘dissonance,’ cannot be good for your emotional health. Therapists, myself included, emphasize that denial is unhealthy. It seems that the ultimate denial is to pretend that someone’s nature or character is something other than what it really is. In fact, my experience has shown that a lot of psychological dysfunctions, including alcohol and drug abuse, start with a person’s refusal to face up to the reality of wrongdoing in his or her family. This includes the need to acknowledge, at least to oneself, the perfectly legitimate emotions of hatred towards a person who profoundly did you wrong.

Psychotherapists are trained to avoid moral judgments when working with clients. But the reality is that many clients come to people like me seeking resolutions to ethical dilemmas. For example: ‘Am I bad to hate my father for molesting me, and never admitting he did it?’ Or, ‘Should I not hate the man who murdered my daughter?’ Or, ‘Is it unforgiving, and therefore wrong, to want nothing to do with my ex-wife for cheating on me?’

I reply to such questions, first and foremost, with logic. The notion of ‘forgiving’ someone implies that they are really and truly sorry for whatever they did. If a person isn’t really and truly sorry, then there’s nothing to forgive. People who are ‘really and truly’ sorry show their regret through behavioral change, not just words. Nothing less will do. This is important, because people are sometimes overcome with guilt over refusing to forgive someone—when that someone isn’t even sorry! I would never advise anyone to forgive when the wrongdoer doesn’t even care enough to show remorse. This would be the ultimate form of denial, and the damage to one’s psychological well being (mostly in the form of resentment, bitterness and frustration) would be immeasurable.

Some might make a case for unconditional forgiveness by saying things like, ‘Holding a grudge solves nothing.’ Or, ‘Holding on to your anger is unhealthy.’ On the surface, these are reasonable points (especially when the anger is over something you cannot control). But they ignore the bigger picture: You don’t have to go through life as a resentful, hateful person in order to accept the truth about something. If your mother, father, or ex-spouse was horrible, then whenever you think of them you will feel contempt, a lack of respect, or whatever’s appropriate. Then you tuck it away, and get back to the happy business of living. You refuse to pretend it didn’t happen, but at the same time you refuse to paralyze your life over it. And, by the way, I’m not implying that this is always easy, nor am I trying to minimize the pain caused by awful people. But it is, nonetheless, a worthy goal.

Some people, even in the psychological field, oppose hatred in order to sneak in the false concept that it’s wrong to judge at all. I completely disagree. It is not wrong to judge, because without objective judgment we have no way of separating the good from the bad, the deadly from the benign, and the evil from the virtuous. In fact, by encouraging people not to judge, you’re helping them excuse away things (like abuse, or worse) that should never be excused. Rational judgment gives us the power to face reality for what it is, to accept our feelings—and then get on with our lives.

It is true, as the old saying goes, that ‘the best revenge is living well.’ And living well means never having to pretend.