Why We Secretly Wish for Our Friends to Fail
Michelle paused as she typed the name of her college acquaintance into the Instagram search bar. She wished she could suppress her voyeuristic urge to know the outcome of her estranged friend’s latest IVF cycle. Instead, she silently chastised herself as she tapped on the handle, and thought, “I don’t even follow her, so why do I care about her pregnancy results?” Suddenly an image of deep ocean waves splashed across her screen and declared “like the tide, we cannot be stopped, we will try again…” followed by a public update revealing the failed IVF attempt.
Instantly, a surge of satisfaction washed over Michelle. She was confused by her reaction. She had no ill will towards this girl, and was all too familiar with her own pain from unsuccessfully trying to conceive. She wondered why she felt pleasure in reading about this public struggle? Her impulsive joy quickly dissolved into guilt as she tried to undo her automatic cognitions.
Michelle’s thoughts are not shady, they are schadenfreude, a powerful psychological phenomenon in which one derives pleasure from learning about the misfortune of others. The mind elicits a pleasurable response when our own experiences and struggles are normalized. When we see others mess up, we are reminded they are human and that we are not alone in our fallibility. Social media constantly barrages us with heavily curated feeds that project idealized existences, so when we see a public misstep, it can feel like an antidote to that perfectionism.
Emotional Power Tools
Trying to conceive can be a fraught journey that is often plagued with anxiety and sadness. We do not need to pile on with more self-criticism. You can break the schadenfreude cycle of pleasure/guilt by beginning to raise your internal happiness levels. Look inward for your personal gratification instead of engaging in outward comparison. We can set ourselves up for success by increasing our self-compassion (greater patience, less judgment) and rewarding ourselves for our short-term successes. Throughout the day, note each of your personal achievements, no matter how large or small. Then at night, reflect back on these events either aloud or in a gratitude journal (or in a note on your phone).
Research supports that actively focusing on your gratitude will not only improve your optimism, but “reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders” (Edmund, University of California Davis). Individuals who wrote in a gratitude journal (daily) found that after two weeks, they experienced a 23% reduction of stress hormones (cortisol).
Choose Sunshine or Schade?
Schadenfreude can be a helpful tool to remind you to deepen your emotional attunement. If you are seeking out stumbling blocks, try looking inward and focusing on your own struggles. Remind yourself that it is never too late to turn around the situation. So even if catch yourself giggling at a coworker who trips on her new sky-high heels, try to give her a hand getting back up. You will find that doing good will actually make you feel better than thinking those naughty thoughts.
Lindsay Liben, LCSW, has a private therapy practice near Union Square, focusing on women’s issues including infertility, depression, anxiety, and life transitions. She believes that by helping her patients get in touch with their most authentic selves, they can make choices that set them up for personal success. Learn more about Lindsay and her work on her website.