From Schadenfreude into the Light

You have to love the precision of the German language in naming an emotion with no real English translation. We have all experienced it at some point in our lives, but are ashamed to admit when we feel “schadenfreude”. The feeling is one of “bad joy,” which comes when we somehow derive pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. It is not when misfortune comes to the average person—we all cheer for her. It is when the most popular girl in the class does not make the basketball team or the most beautiful girl does not do well on her geometry test. Our humanness takes over, and we may feel the urge to smile to ourselves that the playing field has been leveled in that instant. To linger in this den of thinking can be self-destructive on so many levels and exactly the opposite of what we work to create in an all-girls environment.

photo by ellie truitt ‘18

We all compare ourselves to each other far too often. Last year our upper school students completed a survey regarding confidence, and last week our current 9th grade completed the same survey. The students were asked to choose what they believed to be their greatest inhibitor to building true confidence, and the majority of students in each class chose comparison. Of course, these challenges with comparison are not reserved to teenage girls. Someone across the room is always smarter, more beautiful, and more talented than we. When students begin to compare themselves to each other, that tendency toward schadenfreude can seep through our best intentions.

What can we do when that darker side of humanity begins to creep into our thoughts? Corny as they may sound to a fifteen year-old, the best antidotes to comparison are gratitude and sisterhood. When we are tempted to wish we had what someone else has, whether it be talent, brains, or personality, we need to stop and think of two or three things for which we are grateful. Shifting our focus to gratitude can create a reset button for all of us in our moments of intense comparison.

Changing our default from “me” to “we” is another powerful antidote to schadenfreude. As our students grow and mature in the upper school, they realize their classmates can become their allies and sisters. When we move from worrying about how we are stacking up to linking arms and moving forward together, it can be a powerful thing. When our girls leave the confines of Harpeth Hall, they often discover that sisterhood is an important tool to carry with them.


In 2013, Ann Friedman wrote about something called “the shine theory.” In a nutshell, Ms. Friedman explains that when we meet that woman who is the smartest, most charming, or most articulate in the room, we should not feel the need to compete with her; instead we need to become her friend. Contrary to our misguided belief, the amount of success in any room is not fixed. If one person is shining, it is best for us to be by her side and encourage her success. The idea is that the light will also shine brightly on those around her. “Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison,” she said. “It makes you better. True confidence is infectious.”

When we lock our arms in sisterhood, we can accomplish anything. From the classroom to the board room, sticking with our sisters is the answer. Our girls reap the benefits of the “shine theory” before they graduate. No long claws come out when our sister succeeds, no thoughts of schadenfreude. The truly confident young woman knows that we all shine when our sister shines.


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