I once had a boss I really disliked. After leaving the organization, I learned that he got demoted after a major mistake. As a shiver of delight worked its way up my spine I consciously fought the urge to smile as my colleague, who liked the guy, shared the news. The difficult-to-translate German word schadenfreude, combining schaden (damage) and freude (joy), describes a universal human emotion: taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It’s what keeps us glued to reality TV and those star bashing magazines, with the endless, fabulous mess-ups of the Snookies or Kardashians of the world.
Schadenfreude stems from our human tendency for comparison. In our society, where conventional and social media have spawned a multitude of arenas for people to compare themselves with one another, schadenfreude abounds. Those who may have made us feel puny by comparison (think domestic diva Martha Stewart) make us feel pretty darned good about ourselves when they fall from grace.
Before you accuse yourself of heartless insensitivity when you feel that little shiver of delight, remind yourself that every person feels it from time to time. Feeling envy toward someone or someone’s life is as normal as feeling simple happiness or contentment. Unlike those positive emotions, however, it can change into something ugly, especially when it becomes envy.
Envy occurs when we wish we possessed another person’s attributes, achievement or possessions or wish they did not have them. Although a natural human feeling, envy can cause some serious suffering when we compare ourselves to people nearby and find ourselves on the short end of the stick because it:
- Highlights what others possess
- Reminds you what you lack
- Triggers unpleasant or destructive behaviors
- Can interfere with successful, productive work relationships
- Makes you feel ashamed
Envy can also violate an equally powerful desire to see oneself in a positive light, as a good person who supports others and enjoys their successes, as opposed to a bad person who harbors envious or malicious thoughts about someone else’s achievements. The resulting cognitive dissonance (holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously) can create some difficult emotions to deal with. Envy also triggers that part of our brain that deals with conflict, emotional pain and rejection, experiences we all find unpleasant. The pain prompts some nasty behavioral responses that can undermine or even ruin trust, team cohesion, interpersonal relations and the general health of an organization’s culture.
So what do you do when these very natural feelings begin gnawing away at your self-esteem, self-worth, and self-image? First, remember that emotions are not good or bad, they only become problematic when left unmanaged. Second, admit to yourself (or a trusted advisor) that it’s happening and that your ego has been bruised. Then pay attention to the tactics you are using to protect yourself by taking personal inventory. Have you been playing the victim role? Have you been acting like a gossipy teenager? Have you been backstabbing or sabotaging the target of your envy? Once you have gained a little insight into your feelings/behaviors, you can begin to dissect the problem by:
- Pinpointing the cause of your schadenfreude or envy and the events that led to these feelings.
- Describing your expected outcome before you felt these emotions.
- Identifying the people (intended and unintended) who might suffer from your actions.
- Considering advice you would give to a friend about coping with similar emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
- Identifying one or two steps you can take right now to rise above your circumstances, take ownership of your situation, and achieve your desired results.
Even though it may be humbling to admit your feelings, left unmanaged they can get pretty nasty. Talking through these steps provides some of the psychological distance we need in order to regain perspective. Nothing cures a bad case of envy like a healthy dose of reality and some perspective taking.
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