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Should You Give Someone a Taste of Their Own Medicine?

Revenge may be sweet, but too often it’s self-defeating. Here’s why.

Key points

  • Harm inflicted by someone else does not have to negatively influence one's self-worth.
  • Questions to ask before seeking revenge include whether the person meant the offense, and if the revenge will trigger negative consequences.
  • Reconciling any emotional or material disturbance caused within oneself is generally a wiser response to seeking revenge.
Source: Cairomoon/Pixabay

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” —Confucius

The idiom “give someone a taste [or dose] of their own medicine” has a long history. It derives from the fables generally attributed to Aesop, a slave and storyteller who allegedly lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE. In this story, the medicine referred to is real medicine—though, in reality, it’s actually fake. Reduced to its essentials, the fable centers on a con man who swindles the townspeople out of their money by hawking a nostrum he touts as a miracle drug that can cure anything. But when the trickster falls ill himself, folks in the village treat him with the same medicine (which hasn’t worked for them and which the trickster already knows won’t work for him either).

A beautifully succinct tale of poetic justice, no?

Still, as that expression has evolved, the taste of one’s own medicine has become evermore metaphorical. It doesn’t connote anything like tasting caster oil, which may be unpleasant to swallow yet prove effective. Rather, it’s simply about getting back at someone who’s harmed you. As such, it can be compared to other maxims, such as “turnabout is fair play” or “what’s sauce [yes, not medicine but sauce!] for the goose is sauce for the gander” (see John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 2009).

From this perspective, it becomes clear that present-day implications for this directive are that when you’ve been wronged, seeking revenge is legitimate and justified—if not, straight-out, to be advocated. But is it?

This takes us right back to the Confucius quote that begins this post, about digging two graves (obviously, the second for yourself) before seeking to get even. And although my preliminary research for this piece yielded very little as regards writers’ examining this expression from a psychological/ethical viewpoint, I had no problem turning up dozens of quotes poignantly suggesting how giving someone a taste of their own medicine is a bad idea—that it’s counterproductive, self-defeating and that, though it can feel extremely sweet initially, it can end up tasting not just unsavory but downright repulsive.

Consider the quotes below, which (however indirectly) all suggest the associated costs of attempting to even the score with the person(s) whom you feel have injured you:

  • “Don’t you love it when you treat someone the way they treat you, and they get mad about it?”
  • “People hate when you show them how it feels to be treated the way they treat you.”
  • “Apparently, when you treat people the same way they treat you, they get offended.”
  • “You call it betrayal; I call it giving you a taste of your own medicine.”
  • “I love it when I give people a taste of their own medicine [and] they have the nerve to be pissed off. At least they know how I feel.” [But the real question here is whether this person’s retaliatory payback actually increases the odds that the other individual will empathize with her, meaning they'll emotionally identify with her hurt. Ethically, this should be her primary objective.]

In short, if you’re following the vengeful dictum implied by this all-too-common “medical” expression, is your strategy for teaching the other person a lesson likely to be effective? Or are you, though unwittingly, simply arousing their own (retaliatory) anger? While engaging in such a vengeful tactic may reduce feelings of victimization, aren’t you now putting yourself in the role of the perpetrator, bringing yourself down to their level? Besides, if you seriously offend them—and so trigger their defenses—what would possibly make you think that somehow they’d be more sympathetic to the distress they precipitated in you?

Understood from this perspective, regardless of how much someone may have hurt or taken advantage of you, can you nonetheless self-soothe and self-validate? If so, then the harm externally done to you will in no way negatively influence your sense of basic self-worth. And isn’t that what’s most important? Remember, too, that if you lose your cool and heedlessly develop an action plan to avenge yourself, you may be undermining your own best interests. So consider the following quotes:

  • “Give them the taste of their own medicine, and you’ll be imprisoned for poisoning them.”
  • “You give them a taste of their own medicine, then they tell everyone you poisoned them.”
  • “I thought to give you a taste of your own medicine. Now people think I’m heartless.”
  • “I decided to put as much effort into contacting you as you do with me—that’s why we don’t talk anymore.”

One author summarizes the various quotes I’ve used to illustrate the problems with reacting vindictively to those who’ve hurt you by stating that while it’s certainly understandable [if not instinctual] to want to harm someone who’s harmed you, locking horns with them “only perpetuates anger, hate, sadness, and fear” (Stacey Alcorn,, 04/07/2015). And another way of putting this is that while it’s only natural to want to get even with your (at least, supposed) adversary, finally it’s extremely unlikely to resolve anything.

Complementing this outlook are the words of Tomas Böhm, a Swedish psychoanalyst who, along with his psychoanalyst wife, has written a book entitled Revenge: On the Dynamics of a Frightening Urge and Its Taming (2011). In an interview, Böhm opines: “I personally believe that revenge always ends badly.” Böhm added that when we give someone a taste of their own medicine, we administer it at a higher level, and that such a payback eventually causes “a revenge spiral allowing destructivity to reign freely.” That is, contrary to remedying a problem, our resentfully pushing back against it not only exacerbates the conflict but creates a boomerang effect. We become our own worst enemy, unknowingly imbibing the toxic Kool Aid we administered to our perpetrator.

Finally, another Swedish psychologist, Madeleine Gauffin, interviewed in the same article as Böhm, puts it this way: "Revenge means you allow yourself to behave badly. We all have a different threshold for how much guilt and remorse we feel, but harming someone is definitely going to come back to haunt you."

So, are there occasions when dispensing someone’s vile medicine back onto their tongue makes sense? And not just morally, but practically as well. My own opinion here is that if responding to their apparent wrongdoing in this antagonistic fashion could actually be beneficial, both of the two fundamental questions below would have to be answered positively:

  1. Are you certain that the person who hurt you actually meant to? That is, might you have taken something personally that wasn’t really aimed at you? Does the other person truly warrant your punishment—or your doing them “one better”? Are you totally convinced that they acted aggressively, hostilely, or maliciously toward you? Might they, instead, simply have been insufficiently sensitive about how their behavior would affect you? and
  2. Will your giving them a taste of their own medicine help or harm the relationship? Will such adverse reciprocation be largely immune to unfavorable—or maybe even disastrous—consequences to yourself? Can you be confident that the other person won’t retaliate against your retaliation, and in a manner that could make things worse for you?

Frankly, meeting both these criteria for retribution involves clearing an extraordinarily high hurdle. So it’s quite exceptional for anyone to do so. In addition, there are other things to consider before offering someone your own, well, “poisonous punch.”

For instance, is the person who injured you teachable? How much sense does it make to try to settle your score with someone who's immature, self-righteous, or so set in their ways that they just can’t take in the lesson you so much desire to impart to them? In such cases, when your motive isn’t merely tit-for-tat but to teach them something you think is essential for them to grasp, it’s foolish—or foolhardy—to give them a taste of their own (non-curative) medicine. Rather, dealing with them in an assertive but much gentler and non-blaming manner will greatly increase the possibility of getting through to them.

If making them more aware of how they hurt you isn’t your key motive, then is harming them back no more than your own self-righteously proclaiming that “two wrongs make a right?” If so, you’re forfeiting the high ground in the relationship and your act of revenge won’t really reflect particularly well on you. And if their presumably bad behavior was done unawares, if it wasn’t really malicious at all, then it’s you who's become the aggressor and they the victim. And they’ll probably experience themselves as totally within their rights to square accounts with you.

Having said all this, when could it make sense to invert the golden rule in responding to another? Here I’d venture to say that returning that person’s noxious medicine back to them might well be useful when your main motive is diagnostic—when, that is, you’re trying to decide whether a relationship is worth keeping, can be improved . . . or ought to be abandoned.

When you’re not yet sure whether it’s time to cut bait and leave someone, giving that person a taste of their own medicine could assist you in making the right choice. Mostly, what you’d be doing is testing whether that person is capable of developing greater empathy for you, so they won’t continue hurting you. When nothing else has succeeded in getting them to sympathetically understand your viewpoint or empathize with your emotional distress, then—as a last-ditch effort to ascertain the relationship’s possibly unrealized potential—you could test their limits to see whether they might then be better able to grasp your own.

In short, they may only be able to emotionally identify with your hurt by feeling some of it themselves. For instance, if they’ve left you alone many times when you really needed their support (and in fact told them so), you might try absenting yourself from them when they really need you. And, assuming they complain about your having abandoned them, you can explain that you purposely removed yourself to see whether—finally!—they could appreciate how much it’s hurt you when, in the past, they were themselves “truant” from the relationship. And if they still can’t fathom why you would be hurt, then you’ll know for sure that leaving the relationship is the healthiest thing to do. Moreover, as another quotation pointedly suggests, “If your absence doesn’t affect them, your presence never mattered.”

On another, perhaps less critical note, if they’re regularly late in, say, meeting you for lunch or some important, already scheduled event, you can return the (tardy) favor and note whether, in their own distress, they can better comprehend the frustration they’ve regularly been causing you. And if their only reaction is anger—to read you the riot act—then it’s yet another indication that this relationship will probably continue to hurt you.

Two last points that deserve emphasis here are as follows: In general, rather than seeking revenge on another, it’s a lot wiser to find ways of reconciling within yourself the emotional or material disturbance they precipitated in you. Secondly, if you believe you can productively approach them, it’s best (tactfully!) to set limits and boundaries on their behavior, so as to increase the likelihood that you can succeed—and hopefully, thrive—in your relationship with them.

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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