Note: TW on this post for some fat-shaming talk by others.
When I was in high school, my mom, who has always been a big fan of motivational quotes and aphorisms, pasted this above a desk in our house. At the time I rolled my eyes, but it’s been a quote that has stuck with me throughout my life and I’m starting to realize, nearly 15 years later, that I do think this way. And the more I try to catch myself doing it, the more I see it in others.I just noticed myself now, while Facebook-stalking a former friend and seeing that she is taking yet another high-priced trip, probably bank-rolled by her parents, as is her norm. I feel jealous and bitter. A trip across the country isn’t really in the cards for me right now… and forget about six or more trips to see my family a year. I found myself wishing that her trip would fall through, that her parents would decide to cut her off, that she would have to face the reality that so many people do. So then what? So that I can go home twice this summer? I mean, that’s still not going to happen. Her having shitty things happen isn’t going to make my life any better, so why is that my first inclination?
I’ve noticed this behavior in others too. A weight-obsessed friend who happens to be pregnant mentioned that she was sad that one of her slender friends had purchased a treadmill and planned to use it. “I can’t believe she is going to get skinnier while I’m going to get fat!” my friend lamented. *record scratch* Wait what? Your friend losing weight or gaining weight doesn’t make you thinner, so why does it matter? I believe that was at the core of the Very Special Episode moment in Mean Girls. Why do we want people to fail as though it makes our lives better.
Schadenfreude, which we all love, is defined as joy in others’ misfortune. For me, this goes deeper than that, but I think they both have the same root – envy. Social comparison theory, (according to Wikipedia) says that people have an innate desire to compare themselves to others, and that this is actually helpful. In the ’50s, Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who coined the term “Social Comparison” hypothesized that it’s necessary to compare oneself to others and that if you stop comparing yourselves to others it creates “hostility.” I can kind of buy this in the schema of what they call Upward and Downward comparisons. Upward comparisons being those where you compare yourself to people you see as above you, and Downward being where you compare yourself to those who are worse off. Those seem healthy enough. Upward comparisons allow you to aspire to ideals which you feel are achievable and make you feel better about yourself, and downward comparisons would make you feel better by keeping your own problems in perspective. But where does my problem fit in? What is the social value of feeling better about yourself when someone else fails, or feeling worse about yourself if someone else succeeds.
And I should clarify that I’m not talking about say, feeling bad about yourself because your coworker got a promotion over you. I’m talking about feeling better about yourself when someone fails in an area completely unrelated to anything that really affects you, as in the example of my former friend taking a trip. This is a case where someone’s success or failure has absolutely no bearing on my life. It’s also not a case of where you want someone to have their comeuppance, because that also makes more sense to me. In the case of my former friend, she hasn’t done anything terrible to warrant having bad things happen (besides be kind of a crappy friend). So again I ask: Why? What is the point of wanting people to fail so that I can succeed… in a completely unrelated realm that has nothing to do with that person. I am not sure.
I have to say though, that when I catch myself thinking those thoughts I try to stop them. And when I see other people doing the same thing… I kind of feel a little smug that I am doing so much better at not thinking like that. I might have a long road ahead of me on this one.