They say living well is the best revenge, but what about living well and also imagining harm befalling your enemies? Can that be part of a mature, healthy anger-management system? Maybe you’d never hit anyone in real life, but in your head, you imagine every jerk that cuts you off in traffic just so happens to drive off the next cliff into a pool of scalding lava. Again, is that inviting karma or a useful means of helping us process our worst feelings?
We’re taught from an early age by parents, teachers and transcendent gurus that violence solves nothing. Use your words is a directive we issue to young children to curb their natural impulses to bite, kick or hit when they are upset. As adults, most of us internalize this message with ease. We may get steaming mad at someone and flip off a rude driver, but getting physical is a crime, one most of us refrain from engaging in with little struggle.
But our subconscious tells another story: Even the gentlest among us may not be above imagining a little physical violence toward the person who cuts us off in line, steals an idea at work or breaks our heart. And whether or not it’s productive to fantasize about hurting others or seeing them get hurt, asking the question at least is incredibly human (and common).
On the website “Is It Normal?” where anonymous users can ask a range of questions and get a percentage vote of how normal the question is, the question ranks as 80 percent normal. “I have a long list of enemies,” the anonymous user begins. “When I’m wronged by someone, depending on the severity, I often find myself thinking about ways to beat them up or torture them or even kill them. I would never actually do anything because the consequences of any of those would probably be more than I could handle. But is it normal to think about stuff like that? I feel like a maniac sometimes.”
On the Straight Dope message board, a user similarly asks if anyone else has “ever been so angry with a person that you have fantasized about doing them some form of bodily harm? Do you consider this type of thought process to be normal?” They also want to know what the person did in order to provoke the thoughts — steal, lie, humiliate you, cheat, look at you wrong?
A sampling of the examples that flowed forth:
- “For some reason I always think of a cartoon bulldozer hitting someone I’m mad at on the head as a stick person. Weird huh?”
- “I fantasize about ramming into other cars when they cut me off or do some other rude thing.”
- “In fantasy land I am Death Incarnate. I’m the Incredible Hulk. I pick up large cars and hurl them at people. I pick telephone poles out of the ground like they were dandelions and then swing them like baseball bats.”
- “Occasionally, I imagine myself cracking someone in the chops. But then I feel bad. Even in my imagination. Stupid over-active conscience.”
Me? When someone does me wrong, I really enjoy imagining them getting beaten up. Not killed, or seriously injured, just a good, old-fashioned pummeling in the face. I actually don’t do the punching myself — I conveniently outsource the fantasy violence to someone else so that I’m an innocent bystander in this karmic retribution.
But after this exercise, I will feel petty or guilty and eventually start to wonder if it’s immature (at best) or sociopathic (at worst). So I asked Chicago-area psychologist Jacqueline Duke if there’s any cause for alarm.
“It can be very healthy to resolve mental conflicts via fantasy scenarios,” she writes via email. “Similarly to how our brains process internal conflicts unconsciously through dreaming, our subconscious fantasies can serve to alleviate stress through imaginary resolution.”
It’s something we do as children through imaginary play and can be a way of seeking solutions to difficult scenarios, she adds. “Fantasies of causing physical or emotional pain to another person for purposes of resolving an internal conflict can be our adult imaginations attempting to achieve a similar form of mastery,” she explains.
What’s more, she says: “It can be argued that for most nonviolent individuals, having these fantasies can decrease chances of acting out feelings of aggression, since the internal mental conflict has been resolved subconsciously.”
Elsewhere on the internet, therapists have weighed in on the normalcy of such bad thoughts. At Psychology Today, Jena Pincott notes a 1980 study from psychologist Eric Klinger that asked participants to carry around a handheld device that chirped at random and record their thoughts whenever it happened to go off. Pincott writes:
Within a 16-hour day, he found, people have about 500 thoughts that are unintentional and “intrusive” and that last about 14 seconds on average. While most dealt with the concerns of everyday life, 18 percent were unacceptable, uncomfortable or just plain bad — politically incorrect or mean thoughts. A remaining 13 percent were ugly, out of character or downright shocking — say, murderous or perverse ideas.
Pincott notes that Carl Jung considered this version of ourselves a “shadow self,” the dark part of our psyche where our basest desires and thoughts swirl around, the stuff that doesn’t fit with the socially acceptable, civilized version we present to others. Taken together, Jung’s theories and other research she notes explain everything from our attraction to slasher films, bad news, gruesome images (real or fake), schadenfreude, racist or sexually perverse thoughts and violent, murderous impulses.
She cites the work of psychologist David Buss, who argues, “Even mild-mannered folk have occasional fleeting reveries about shoving a stranger off the subway platform, running over a crowd, stabbing a partner during sex, raping and strangling a boss or smothering an elderly parent.”
Some psychologists argue that these things may have a direct lineage to our most primal survival methods, when our ancestors had to kill to survive, or when we scanned every scenario for possible hazards that could end us.
Duke says that these thoughts only become a problem when they’re accompanied by a “specific, realistic plan with desire/intent and access to the means of violence.” Pincott’s piece stresses the same thing — the thoughts shouldn’t be worrisome unless they become intrusive enough to interfere with our lives. (Such people should seek therapy to manage the why and how of it.)
But one thing none of us should do when we picture an annoying neighbor falling into a cactus is repress the thought. It only makes it worse and can, Pincott writes, “summon the forbidden thought back to awareness and supercharge it.”
Instead, experts say our best bet is to make peace with it. Sit with the thought and treat it as nothing more than that. Let it marinate. Let it play out. Add a musical score, maybe some cool special effects. Dare we say, enjoy it. Then let it go. Because after all, you’re not a total psychopath. You just happen to like to imagine people who annoy you plunging into an open manhole cover.
Congratulations, you’re human.