Vindictive People: What They're Like and How to Handle Them

We've all met, or might even be close to, a vindictive person. They're defined by their absence of empathy and lack of emotional regulation. How should we handle them?
Vindictive People: What They're Like and How to Handle Them
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 December, 2021

Vindictive people follow the old Talion law to the letter, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. Some serve their revenge cold, like Edmond Dantés. Others are hastier and seek any way to immediately avenge their anger and feel some sense of relief.

Deception, betrayal, and physical or moral attacks. These are just some of the reasons why someone may feel vindictive. However, these feelings always start from a very specific dimension: the loss of one’s integrity.

The person who wants revenge longs to inflict the same damage on the other person, thinking that it’ll make them feel better. Nevertheless, this doesn’t always happen. Indeed, they often feel no sense of calm or justice. As a matter of fact, generating in others the same pain that they caused merely places the perpetrator, in many cases, at the same moral level.

Dr. Michael McCullough is a psychologist at the University of Miami and an expert in the mechanisms of revenge and forgiveness. He explains, that we all completely understand the idea of wanting to hurt those who hurt us. However, what stops us from carrying out this behavior is impulse control, ethical principles, and emotional regulation.

Without those dimensions, we’d merely be animals in an asphalt jungle.

“It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.”

-JRR Tolkien-

Boss angry with employees representing vengeful people

What are vindictive people like?

Revenge forms the backbone of a large number of book and film plots. For example, Hamlet avenges the death of his father. Then, there’s the aforementioned Count of Monte Cristo, the unforgettable character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and the successful Millenium saga. In the cinema, Kill Bill or John Wick come to mind, but we could name dozens more.

This tends to suggest that, if there’s one human emotion we all often connect with, it’s revenge. Of course, we know that in real life it’s not legal to act as Lisbeth Salander does in Millennium. However, we feel satisfied because we empathize with their motives. The problem comes when we have to deal with vindictive people in real life.

In our daily lives, these behaviors aren’t always understandable and can even generate fear. One example of this is the individual who doesn’t accept a breakup and initiates threatening behavior against their partner. Also, the co-worker who, for unknown reasons, starts a harassment campaign against another colleague.

The desire for revenge can be understood when someone has suffered an act of violence or injustice against them. However, some harbor this feeling as a result of envy, insecurity, and even certain personality disorders.

Characteristics that define vindictive people

There’s a psychological trait that differentiates vindictive people from those who, despite having been wronged, know how to forgive. This is narcissism. The University of Oklahoma (USA) conducted research that claimed that the most vindictive personalities present a narcissistic personality disorder.

This explains several things. One of them is that there are certain individuals who feel hurt by largely insignificant and even incomprehensible acts. In fact, their egos are so sensitive that they get hurt by the slightest thing and they don’t hesitate to seek revenge. They’re identified by the following characteristics:

  • Jealousy, insecurities, and negative thoughts. Vindictive people experience this drive because of their insecurities and low self-esteem. As a matter of fact, sometimes, just seeing others succeed stirs up frustration in them and a desire to hurt.
  • Lack of empathy and difficulty managing emotions. Another variable that defines this profile is the inability to handle emotions such as anger. When they feel angry, they don’t hesitate to pile their feelings onto others. This acts as a cathartic mechanism for them.
  • Show of power and sadism. This is another darker and more worrying factor. Sometimes, vindictive people perform harmful acts for the mere pleasure of doing harm and also to impose their power on others.
Woman looking into a broken mirror thinking about vengeful people

How to deal with vindictive people

Most of us empathize with many of the revenge stories we see on the big screen. Nevertheless, this is just a way of projecting ourselves into realities that, as we well know, aren’t always permissible in our daily lives. As Confucius pointed out, before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

We can seek justice through legal mechanisms, but never through violent acts. That’s why we must be careful with the vindictive personality profile because if there’s one thing that defines these kinds of people, it’s acting out of irrationality. However, how can we defend ourselves against these problematic profiles?

It’s important to take into account that men and women with these impulses may be suffering from a personality disorder. Nevertheless, people who are vindictive and obsessed with causing harm always present a potential risk to us and we must protect ourselves from them. Therefore, we should avoid them whenever possible.

These people really aren’t worth mixing with. Their lack of empathy will only intensify our discomfort and despair. Indeed, they’re dangerous figures and it’s better not to have them around. As Albert Einstein said, “Weak people revenge. Strong people forgive. Intelligent people ignore”. Let’s keep this in mind.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brown, Ryan P., “Vengeance is mine: Narcissism, vengeance, and the tendency to forgive,” Journal of Research In Personality (2004), 38, 576-584.
  • Carlsmith, Kevin M., Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, “The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge, “Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes (2008), vol.95 (6), 1316-1324.
  • Chester, David S. and C. Nathan DeWall, “Combating the Sting of Rejection with the Pleasure of Revenge: An New Look at How Emotion Shapes Aggression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2017), 112(3), 413-430

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.