Spite: A Bitter and Dangerous Emotion

When you're angry, you don't think clearly. In fact, the pain of a breakup or betrayal curbs your ability to make decisions. Furthermore, you often make decisions that really hurt you.
Spite: A Bitter and Dangerous Emotion
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 02 December, 2021

Spite is an emotion that’s been little explored. However, it’s extremely interesting from a psychological point of view. It’s an intense psychophysiological response of negative valence that’s experienced as a result of a betrayal, a disappointment, or some kind of personal affront. The injured person then begins to display behaviors that are both complex and dangerous.

It’s common for the injured party to seek revenge. For example, if it’s an ex-partner who’s upset them, they might insult them on social networks, publish private information about them, or initiate a smear campaign. They might also embrace their perceived status as a victim as a way of life with the purpose of drawing attention to themselves.

Spite is an emotion that navigates between two rivers: a resentment that eats away at the individual, and unmanaged sadness. It isn’t easy to deal with insults, humiliation, and abandonment, especially when they come from what used to be a loving relationship. In many cases, it’s emotional immaturity interspersed with revenge and bad decisions, that leads to this type of borderline behavior.

Let’s take a closer look.

Whoever acts out of spite, sooner or later ends up regretting it.

Angry woman feeling spite

Spite

Spite is a psychological reality that’s been much neglected by scientific research. This fact was emphasized in a study conducted in 2014 by Washington State University. However, according to the authors, some of the darkest behaviors of the human being have been motivated by spite.

The need to hurt someone, even when that figure has emotional meaning for us, is a common characteristic of the human being. Indeed, literature and cinema are full of stories that tell this tale. What’s more, there’s an old saying that goes as follows: Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. It means that hurting who we love or used to love is like hurting ourselves.

A common example of spite in emotional relationships often occurs when an ex-partner starts a relationship with someone close to the partner they’ve left. For instance, having an affair with a sibling of the ex-partner is pretty common. With these actions, there’s a clear desire to hurt the ex-partner. However, the instigator usually ends up regretting it. They also tend to feel unhappy with themselves.

Spite and misfocused desire in seeking emotional justice

Spite is an emotion with an unhelpful sense of justice. Indeed, the disgruntled person feels hurt and wants to produce the same pain in the one who caused their pain. “You’ve hurt me and I’m going to find a way to make you pay for the way you’ve made me suffer”. They usually plan on carrying out their revenge in the most Machiavellian way they can.

Furthermore, the jilted individual perceives themselves as a victim. They feel exploited, cheated, and above all, humiliated. These adverse emotions feed their burning desire for revenge.

Spite can become addictive. The injured person may become obsessed with ways to hurt the other. This sometimes happens between separated and divorced couples when one of the partners doesn’t agree with the break-up.

The spiteful person and the dark triad: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism

Everyone has felt spiteful at some time in their lives. Perhaps you experienced it as a child when you were angry with your siblings and took revenge by breaking their toys. You may also have felt it in adulthood. However, your proper emotional management and common sense probably calmed and rationalized the emotion.

On the other hand, people who feel spite, and make it their own, employing it in behaviors of twisted revenge exhibit a specific personality profile. In fact, they display traits of the dark triad. This fact was supported by a study conducted in 2014  by researchers from Washington State University, led by psychologist David Marcus.

The researchers discovered that those who display high resentment and feelings of spite possess narcissistic, Machiavellian, and even psychopathic characteristics. In some cases, the spiteful individual not only seeks to harm the other but themselves as well. This is usually in an attempt to draw attention to themselves.

It’s clear that spite involves highly complex, harmful and self-destructive behaviors.

Boy feeling spite

Spite is a sword of Damocles

Spite is a sword of Damocles hanging over your head. Seeking revenge, harboring permanent resentments, and feeding constant emotional distress always end up hurting the instigator. As a matter of fact, when you do anything against another, you’ll always end up hurting in some way or another.

Sleeping with an ex’s sibling or best friend doesn’t solve anything. Criticizing or discrediting a friend who no longer wants you in their life doesn’t help or solve the problem. Because hatred simply generates more hatred. In fact, spite is nothing more than a badly managed pain that’s become chronic and turned to resentment.

No one deserves to live in this permanent state. Living surrounded by resentment, hatred, and bitterness is like being a small insect preserved in amber. You can’t move forward and you’re cocooned in your own suffering. For this reason, you should prepare yourself to be able to handle your emotional wounds, accept what no longer makes sense, and act with emotional maturity.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, resentment suffocates us, but forgiveness oxygenates us.

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  • David K. Marcus, Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Sterett H. Mercer, Alyssa L. Norris. The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness.. Psychological Assessment, 2014; DOI: 10.1037/a0036039
  • Marcus, David & Zeigler-Hill, Virgil & Mercer, Sterett & Norris, Alyssa. (2014). The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness. Psychological assessment. 26. 10.1037/a0036039.
  • Marcus, D. K., & Norris, A. L. (2016). Spite. In V. Zeigler-Hill & D. K. Marcus (Eds.), The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology (pp. 121–133). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14854-007