When we think of progress we immediately think of numbers- how much more money did I make, how many pounds did I lose, how many words did I write? We like progress that we can quantify. Ironically, one of the things holding us back from progress is something unquantifiable and quite abstract.
So what could it be, this mystery hindrance?
What is Schadenfreude?
It’s something that we all do, but no one admits to. We all get it. That mischievous, internal fist-pump when someone else does badly. You know it, I know it and we all try to pretend we don’t get it. It’s called schadenfreude in German. You might get it when your cheating ex gets cheated on, when the usually high achiever gets a bad grade or misses a goal in footie or when you see your ‘model’ friend out and they look like sh*t.
“The emotion of pleasure in others’ misfortune (Schadenfreude in German)”
When I say we all get it, that includes me.
My only and older sister, Beck, has forever been my role model. She’s stunning, charismatic, intelligent and is an incredibly hard worker. As I was clawing my way through high school she was finishing up college and university. By the time I got to college, we were really close. She’d pick me up and we’d go driving with a playlist jumping from emo rock to pop to Irish folk.
Lovely right? There’s no way I could internal fist-pump at her failure!
WRONG! That’s exactly what I did. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a really long time, but I just knew if she’d been drinking the night before and looked rough as toast, I felt good about it. Beck was my imagined rival, blissfully unaware of the web of comparison I’d created between us.
“Jealousy is over what one possesses (or has possessed) and fears to lose and “in jealousy there is always a rival, believed or imagined, but the focus of concern is the valued object.”
I’d argue that schadenfreude comes as a mishmash of those sickly feelings we get- competitiveness, insecurity, envy. These feelings are nobody’s favourite and schadenfreude itself, feeling pleasure at someone else’s misfortune, sounds almost sadistic. Needless to say, it’s not a feeling we tend to openly admit to. Until today!
How is Schadenfreude a Hindrance to Progress?
At this point you may be thinking- ‘ I get this. I am a horrible person and this emotion is hindering my progress because I am literally Satan incarnate’. You aren’t and it isn’t.
Pleasure at other people’s misfortune sounds worse than it is and from the research I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had with friends and family, it’s something that most people get. Which is a relief because it’s pretty normal– as long as you’re not wishing for (or causing) something seriously bad to happen to somebody.
“When we consider pleasure in others’ misfortune as pertaining to minor misfortunes and involving our belief that justice has been done, and we are not responsible for eliciting the misfortune, then this emotion is not so reprehensible from a moral point of view.”
It isn’t just me and it isn’t just you. People have been yearning for, or at least secretly celebrating, their peer’s inconveniences since the beginning of our species.
So, how is it stunting our personal growth then? As a recovering failure spectator I can tell you that it happens in two ways. One is how you react to the feeling and the other is how this reaction causes you to behave.
~Reacting to the thoughts
So we’ve already established that you are not Lucifer, but thinking that you are is going to lead to this first hurdle.
If you think of these feelings as ‘evil’ you’re going to try and repress them. In this way they’re kind of like intrusive thoughts, those random and sometimes scary thoughts we all get- like opening a car door on the motorway. Trying to repress them gives them more power and makes things worse.
Think of a little kid. They’ll do whatever gross thing they think will get your attention. The second you gasp at the pencil shoved up their nose or the frog that they’ve pressed right into your face you’ve given them the reaction they wanted. Ergo, expect more nose-pencils and frogs in your face. It’s the same with schadenfreude. Gasping at the horror of your feelings just gives them more power.
The result of this is that you’re going to judge yourself harshly, see yourself as a villain and close more and more parts of yourself off to people in fear of them ‘finding out’. You are not a villain. And while the feeling isn’t controllable- your reaction to it is.
My advice? Accept that you’re having these thoughts. Like sure, you felt good when your friend got a question wrong, what of it? This lets you decide how much power the feeling can have over you. Think of the little kid analogy again. If you ignore the kid or, even better, address them and question why they’re shoving a pencil up their nose you reintroduce logic. Same thing- address the feeling and treat it like you would an intrusive thought or a little kid, either dismiss it or question why it’s affecting you.
Chances are the person you’re feeling schadenfreude towards is ‘better’ than you at something you’re insecure about. This isn’t their fault. In fact, the person whose failure you’re looking for is most likely someone that you see value in. I know that’s definitely the case with Beck.
“Most of the time people are going to feel motivated by you or be too bothered about themselves to worry about you for too long. The only people who are going to react negatively to your efforts are uncomfortable with some part of themselves.”
If you’re bad at chess, playing a game of chess with a chess-champion is going to make you aware of your faults. You can either see the value of it and look at what you can learn from this person and therefore progress yourself, or you can sit and silently curse them. The latter seems a little unfair, especially when the chess champion might not even know it’s a competition.
With my Beck situation, I did some heavy thinking and started to notice a pattern. From the times I felt schadenfreude, I traced it back to realise that it tended to source from my own embarrassment about feeling shy and unattractive. If Beck looked amazing, which she always does, or was the life and soul of the party, I’d feel bad. But just like the chess analogy, Beck didn’t even know there was a competition going. And neither did I, at first.
Realising that these negative thoughts came from my own insecurities meant I could shift the focus of my thinking. Instead of feeling frustrated with Beck for being so good at everything, I asked myself where my own insecurities came from and how to change it?
Shifting the attention away from the other person and onto myself was a major step towards personal progress.
“Comparison is the thief of joy”
~Acting on these thoughts
The second way this pesky feeling is hindering your progress is from the behaviour it causes.
As we said earlier, this feeling is usually just that, a feeling. But there are times that this feeling can start to influence our actions. It’s often quite passive. We might withhold something, usually information, to try and stop someone bettering themselves (or we think, getting better than us). For example, I might ‘forget’ to tell my sister this new contour tip I learned because she’s pretty enough as it is or you might ‘forget’ to send your classmate a really useful website link that would help them with their project.
A great example of this is from My Best Friend’s Wedding. It was this film that started to open my eyes to schadenfreude and helped me get to work on overcoming it! Think of the the scene (or click the link to watch it) where Julia Roberts gets Cameron Diaz to sing on karaoke, ‘forgetting’ she doesn’t like karaoke, in the hopes of winning her best friend over, who is also Diaz’s fiance.
Despite feeling nervous Diaz gets up and sings. As she does, we see Roberts’ internal fist-pump quickly fade as her best friend is completely spellbound. She’s left feeling worse than before because…?
It isn’t karma or divine justice. Roberts wasn’t punished for being a ‘bad person’. We aren’t in a Disney film ladies! You aren’t hindered by the ‘not-niceness’ of the feeling. You’re hindered because you let your negative feelings dominate your actions.
You’re growth into a self-loving entity is being damaged by your own insecurities and the methods you use to deal with them.
By acting in this way you’re pushing your insecurities onto other people, meaning that you aren’t dealing with them. Instead you’re asking: where are they at? What are they doing? Are they getting better than you? Instead of running your own race, you’re slowing yourself down to look around at the competition.
Back to morning-after-night-out Beck. She’s not looking or feeling 100%. At this point I might be feel quite good about it, I might even ‘forget’ to mention that we have people coming round to visit.
Instead I take my own advice. I address the thought and question it. I realise that it’s happening because I’ve always thought my sister was the most beautiful girl I knew and I was ugly by comparison. Then I dismiss the thought and think that she is still the most beautiful girl I know, but how she looks has nothing to do with my confidence or appearance.
With that cleared up, instead of throwing newt tails and rabbit ears into the couldron in my bedroom, shrouded in black robes and maleficent smoke- I might go downstairs and get her an orange juice, or plait her hair for her.
By owning my emotions and regaining control, I have more room to think about how she’s feeling.
The Bottom Line
Focusing on yourself is key. The only thing you can control is yourself and to do that, you need to be kind to yourself.
If there are only three things you take away from this post I hope that it’s-
- Schadenfreude, the internal fist-pump at other’s misfortunes, is common and usually harmless. But if you let it, it can damage your relationships, most importantly the one with yourself.
- Your reactions are everything- take notice of how you react to these feelings and how you act on them.
- It’s all about you! You’ve got this. Focus on yourself with a lot of understanding and you’ll turn this weakness into a strength!
Bonus tip? Owning your flaws is admirable and necessary for growth. I opened up to Beck about these feelings recently and felt so much better. I told her that I’d felt jealous about her for a long time. I started working on it a few years ago and my mind feels a lot lighter for it! It feels good to be able to genuinely celebrate her successes without that sickly feeling of conflicting emotions.
It turns out that she felt the same about me as I did about her and bringing it up meant that we could get it all out. I’m sure we’ll both get it again from time to time but at least now it’s something we can talk about. We’ve grown even closer as a result and it makes me so happy. So be open, be kind and be sure of yourself- then you can turn the situation on its head and think ‘what can I learn from this person?’. Make it positive.
I know that it isn’t just me and I want to know your examples! Who did you give the wrong answers to in school? Let us know in the comments- we’re all friends here!
“Why Are We Pleased With Others Misfortune?”, Psychology Today
“Jealousy: it’s in your genes”, The Guardian
“Relationship of Competitiveness, Jealousy, Disgust and Envy among Medical Students“, Research Gate, 2019
“Schadenfreude“, The Column
“Evolution and Competition“, F. B. Christiansen & V. Loeschcke
“Jealousy“, Michael J Wreen
On self betterment- “Why You Should Give Running Another Go“, Yōkina Living