seated woman contemplating feelings of Schadenfreude

How to Avoid Intra-Industry Schadenfreude as a Woman in Business

8 min read

As a creative entrepreneur with a deeply personal artistic practice, it’s normal to experience a range of emotions about yourself and others operating in your industry. But how you manage and act on these feelings is key to professional and personal development. Many of us view the failures of others as opportunities for our own success. While you might feel validated initially, this perspective can be damaging, both to ourselves and to our community. Dealing with feelings of Schadenfreude, which is the experience of pleasure or joy at someone else’s misfortune, can be challenging in any professional setting, including creative industries like interior design, architecture, or the fine arts. Schadenfreude is especially common in professional spheres, due in part to the inherently competitive nature of business. Enjoying the misfortune of a colleague is an easy way to elevate oneself without “putting in the work.” As Dean Burnett writes in an article for BBC Focus, “When we see someone mess up in ways that cause them to lose face, and thus lose social status, we can feel a burst of satisfaction as our own status is raised, at no cost to us.” In this article, we explain how to shift your mindset so you celebrate the success of your peers instead of reveling in their failures. Read on to learn more!

What Exactly is Schadenfreude, and Why Do We Feel It?

Schadenfreude is a complex emotional phenomenon where one experiences pleasure or joy from observing or learning about the misfortune of others. This term is borrowed from German, where “Schaden” means damage or harm, and “Freude” means joy. While it might seem counterintuitive or morally questionable to feel joy in response to others’ suffering, Schadenfreude is a common, albeit often unspoken, human experience.

The Origins of Schadenfreude

The roots of Schadenfreude lie deep in human psychology and social dynamics. One primary reason we might feel it is due to a sense of justice or perceived balancing of scales. For instance, seeing a perceived wrongdoer experience misfortune can evoke a sense of satisfaction or a feeling that justice has been served. This is especially true in scenarios where formal systems of justice might not provide resolution, and thus, the misfortune serves as a form of cosmic justice.

Another reason for Schadenfreude is related to self-esteem and competition. Witnessing the failures or setbacks of others can, in some cases, elevate an individual’s sense of self, particularly in highly competitive environments like workplaces, academics, or social settings. When others fail, it can make one’s own status, accomplishments, or situation seem relatively better, thus providing a boost to self-esteem.

Social comparison theory also plays a significant role. This theory suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. When others fail or face setbacks, it can make an individual feel better about their own position or achievements. This is particularly pronounced in environments where there is direct competition for resources, recognition, or success.

Lastly, evolutionary psychologists suggest that Schadenfreude might have roots in our evolutionary past. In the context of survival and competition for limited resources, the misfortunes of others could have indirectly benefited individuals by reducing competition.

Despite its prevalence, Schadenfreude is often seen as a socially and morally undesirable emotion. It can lead to guilt and self-reflection, as individuals grapple with the implications of finding joy in others’ misfortunes. Understanding Schadenfreude is important for self-awareness and emotional intelligence, as recognizing and managing these feelings can improve interpersonal relationships and promote a more empathetic and supportive social and work environment.

When Does Schadenfreude Become Harmful?

Schadenfreude becomes harmful both to ourselves and to others when it crosses the line from a fleeting, internal feeling to a driver of behavior or a persistent attitude that negatively affects interpersonal relationships and personal well-being. Let’s take a closer look at some of the negative impacts of frequently indulging in Schadenfreude.

Impact on Relationships

Regularly experiencing and acting on Schadenfreude can damage relationships. If you’re known to take pleasure in others’ misfortunes, it can erode trust and respect among colleagues, friends, and family. People might start to see you as unsympathetic or cruel, which can lead to social isolation and conflict.

Creating a Toxic Environment

In a workplace or any group setting, expressing Schadenfreude can contribute to a toxic atmosphere. It can lead to increased competition, decreased collaboration, and a culture where people may feel they need to hide their failures or vulnerabilities, stifling growth and learning.

Impact on Mental Health

Habitually feeling Schadenfreude can be indicative of deeper psychological issues. It might be a sign of low self-esteem, where one needs the failures of others to feel better about themselves. Over time, this can lead to persistent negative thoughts and feelings, impacting mental health.

Ethical and Moral Implications

Regularly indulging in Schadenfreude can lead to ethical and moral dilemmas. It might desensitize you to the suffering of others, which can impact your decision-making and actions in a way that’s harmful to those around you.

Reinforcing Negative Behavior

If Schadenfreude becomes a significant part of how one experiences joy or success, it can reinforce negative behaviors like gossiping, backstabbing, or sabotaging others to see them fail. This behavior can damage one’s reputation and personal integrity.

Missing Opportunities for Empathy and Growth

By focusing on others’ failures, you might miss opportunities to learn from their experiences or to develop empathy. Empathy and understanding are crucial for personal growth and for building strong, supportive relationships.

Risk of Retaliation or Conflict

If others become aware that you take pleasure in their misfortunes, it can lead to retaliation or conflict. This can escalate to more significant issues, both personally and professionally.

As a Female Creative, Why Do I Feel Schadenfreude When a Peer Fails?

As a woman in a creative field, you might wonder if you are more likely to experience Schadenfreude. After all, creative women are often operating in contexts where they have historically been marginalized or faced barriers (i.e., business, academia, and the fine arts). This question touches on complex social and psychological dynamics. Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Scarcity Mindset

In environments where women have historically been underrepresented, such as certain industries or academic fields, a scarcity mindset might develop. This mindset is based on the belief that there are limited opportunities or ‘spots’ for women.

In such a context, women might feel that the success of one woman might limit opportunities for others, potentially leading to feelings of Schadenfreude when a peer encounters setbacks. This is not unique to women but can occur in any group where members feel that opportunities are scarce.

Competition and Comparison

In highly competitive environments where people are vying for limited resources or recognition, feelings of Schadenfreude might be more common. If women have been conditioned to view each other as competitors for the few available opportunities, this could potentially increase the likelihood of experiencing Schadenfreude.

Social and Cultural Factors

Women, like all individuals, are influenced by their social and cultural environments. Cultural narratives about success, competition, and scarcity can impact how individuals perceive and react to the successes and failures of others.

Response to Injustice

In some cases, Schadenfreude might arise as a complex response to perceived injustices or inequalities. For example, if a woman has faced significant barriers in her career and observes a peer, who may not have faced similar challenges, experiencing a setback, she might feel a sense of vindication or justice, which could be interpreted as Schadenfreude.

Here’s How to Avoid Schadenfreude When a Colleague Fails or Struggles

To mitigate the harmful aspects outlined above, it’s important to recognize and reflect on feelings of Schadenfreude when they arise, understand their roots, and consciously focus on more positive and empathetic ways of relating to others. Developing emotional intelligence, fostering positive relationships, and seeking professional help if needed are ways to address and reduce the impact of Schadenfreude in your life.

Reflect on Your Feelings

Understanding the reasons behind your Schadenfreude is crucial. It could be rooted in a variety of emotions such as envy, competitiveness, or residual feelings from past conflicts. By identifying the source, you can address the underlying issues. For example, if it’s jealousy, working on self-esteem and self-acceptance might help. If it’s competitiveness, reassessing your values and what you consider success can be beneficial.

Focus on Personal Growth

Redirecting your focus from others to your own journey can be empowering. By concentrating on your own goals and achievements, and viewing your failures as learning experiences, you can derive fulfillment from your own progress rather than others’ setbacks. This approach helps in building a sense of self-worth that is independent of others’ successes or failures.

Build a Supportive Community

Engage with colleagues and peers in a positive and supportive manner. Creating an environment where everyone can share successes and failures openly and without judgment can reduce competitive tensions.

Foster Empathy

Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others. By empathizing with someone who is experiencing failure, you might appreciate their situation and challenges, reducing feelings of pleasure in their misfortune. This shift in perspective can lead to a more compassionate view of others’ struggles and an appreciation of failure as a natural part of the creative process.

Practice Mindfulness and Gratitude

Mindfulness keeps you grounded in the present, helping to manage negative emotions. Gratitude shifts focus from what others are doing to appreciating your own journey and accomplishments, regardless of others’ failures or successes. This approach can significantly reduce feelings of Schadenfreude.

Seek Professional Advice or Counseling

If feelings of Schadenfreude are overwhelming or impacting your professional relationships, consider seeking advice from a mentor or professional counseling. They can provide personalized strategies and support.

Celebrate Others’ Successes

Actively celebrating the achievements of others can create a positive environment and strengthen community bonds. It also helps shift your mindset from viewing success as a zero-sum game to one where multiple people can succeed simultaneously.

Learn from Others’ Failures

Instead of feeling joy at others’ missteps, try to learn from them. Understanding what went wrong and how it can be avoided in your own career can be a valuable lesson.

Maintain Professionalism

Regardless of personal feelings, maintaining a professional attitude in all interactions is crucial. This not only helps in personal growth but also in building a respected professional reputation.

Develop a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is about viewing failures, yours and others’, as chances to improve and learn. This perspective fosters resilience, encourages a positive outlook on challenges, and reduces the tendency to experience Schadenfreude, as failures are no longer seen as a source of pleasure but as part of the learning process.

Final Thoughts on Limiting Feelings of Schadenfreude as a Creative

By understanding the roots of these feelings, focusing on our own journeys, and seeing the value in others’ experiences, we not only diminish the impact of Schadenfreude but also enrich our professional and personal lives. Celebrating successes, learning from failures, and maintaining a growth mindset are essential steps towards cultivating a more inclusive, collaborative, and fulfilling creative environment. As we embrace these practices, we pave the way for a culture where success is shared, failures are learning opportunities, and the creative journey is a collective, enriching experience for all.