If we’re completely honest, there’s a dark delight in seeing someone embarrass themselves, especially if we think they deserve it. When our irritating boss stomps by our cubicle trailing a few feet of toilet paper from his shoe or a controversial politician is caught in a sexual picadillo, we’re likely to stifle a laugh or at least enjoy a self-satisfied sigh. We can define schadenfreude as joy in someone’s shame or misfortune.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Humor is just schadenfreude with a clear conscience.” It’s true! Most comedic scenes involve some form of hilarious undoing. The iconic Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy lands herself in ridiculous circumstances like a spectacular failure at the chocolate factory job or getting fall-down drunk selling Vitameatavegamin. Audiences still laugh uproariously, especially when the repercussions are mild, but what about serious injury?
Malicious delight in observing or participating in the suffering of another can reach sobering intensity. Audiences were shocked when Betty Davis laughed as she served the crippled Joan Crawford, a dead rat for dinner in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’. When a US presidential candidate contemptuously mocked a disabled reporter his supporters jeered, and the nation balked. We naturally monitor the balance of justice and do not find it funny when a vulnerable person is the object of schadenfreude.
Researchers suggest this behavior follows observable rules of a sort. We feel pleasure when an envied person is shamed because it tarnishes their status, making them seem less superior. We delight in the failure of the opposing team because we feel enhanced by the success of our side. Distributing humiliating information about a public figure across social media delights certain influencers, and those who pass it on feel a secret joy in expanding the denigration. Dehumanization is at the core of this kind of schadenfreude.
Jung infers the presence of this and other dark traits when he discusses the collective and personal shadow. Children as young as six display signs of pleasure in seeing peers fail but are pressured to hide their delight. Compensation restores inner balance when we go too far, and we’ll dream of arriving naked for a test to put us back in our place.
Contemporary culture encourages schadenfreude when historically unsuccessful groups, carrying painful feelings of inferiority, externalize their anger towards a competing group. When the latter is harmed or humiliated, their rage can convert to pleasure. It temporarily relieves inner anguish.
But we should feel sobered by all antisocial qualities and meet them with ethical restraint. Religious texts offer warnings that suggest the unconscious will react to unrestrained schadenfreude. In Proverbs, we read:
“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.”
(Proverbs 24:17-18, King James Version).
This suggests that delight in our enemies’ harm can turn the Self away from its preserving and protective role, leaving the ego vulnerable to collective shadow and unpredictable tumult. Then, we may find ourselves possessed by dark impulses and behaving even worse than our adversaries.
The only remedy for schadenfreude is empathy. When we outgrow our feelings of inferiority, rage, shame, competition, and malice, we may discover a grace that emanates from the Self. A spiritual quality of kindness that grants us the ability to suffer-with. Grounded in understanding, we can find the power to stand side-by-side with the accused, the misfortuned, the scapegoated, the exiled, the abandoned, and the shamed. Offering them comfort and good counsel as they go on to what lies before them.
~ Joseph R. Lee
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“I am in my childhood bedroom with my boyfriend. He is lying on the bed, and I am standing facing him. I wear lingerie, white fishnet stockings, and a cobalt blue lace bra. I felt good about how I looked, and I felt desired by him. There was sexual energy and anticipation. I said I’d be right back; I needed to go to the bathroom. I exit the bedroom, turn the dark corner, and stumble upon a creepy doll in the darkness. She was hand sewn, looked like a kind of rag doll or like Sally from ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’, and she notably had two embroidered circles on the top right of her head, which were unfinished, the needle and thread still hanging from there. I wasn’t scared of how she looked, but this doll evoked a faint sense of horror in me. Her presence felt jarring, emotionally charged, and possibly ominous. I turned around the corner with it in my hands to show it to my boyfriend.”
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