November 17, 2014

Why Having a Nemesis Can be Good for Us.


We’ve all got a nemesis somewhere.

It might be one person, it might be a group of people. Whoever it is, just being in the same room with them makes your skin crawl and your sphincter clench.

But in the era of positivity when we admit to having a nemesis (or two), people call you names like ‘immature’, and ‘bearer of negative energy’. But what if your nemesis actually makes you a better person?

For two years I sat across from my nemesis, separated by a low partition. I hated her perfect blond foils, her ostentatious veganism and her expensive but subtle boho jewellery. Master of the seemingly innocent but catty put-down, I hated her droll wit.

Eventually, hating her so much made my tummy hurt. So I ran some diagnostics.

Carl Jung said the people we react to mostly strongly embody a quality about ourselves we don’t like. My nemesis is a bossy, controlling, bitchy perfectionist, all the things I am not. Yet surprisingly, no one else has a problem with her.

Why is it so? Jung called those qualities we deny in ourselves our ‘shadow’. We project them onto other people and create a persona with which to cover them up.

Trouble is, all our parts want to be heard, and by driving parts of ourselves underground—the selfish, angry, jealous parts, the human parts—we’re telling those parts we’re ashamed of them. But they come back to haunt us, like illegitimate children who show up one day when their teeth need fixin’.

In her book The Shadow Effect, Debbie Ford describes self-sabotage as ‘the unwillingness on the part of our higher self to get on board with the persona we have assigned ourselves.’ So we might project an image of uber competence, meanwhile our uncertain side comes out as procrastination. Think Lance Armstrong—even after drug tests proved otherwise, he continued to credit hard work and positive affirmations for his ‘prevailing against the odds’. Think homophobic preachers who behave inappropriately toward underlings because they’re ashamed of fairly straightforward desires. Think revolutionaries who fight oppression, yet have a tyrannical streak themselves.

We can even be part of a collective shadow. In groups there can be pressure to collectively don a mask and deny the traits deemed unacceptable. Every time I go on a weekend yoga workshop I come home feeling homicidal rage. There’s something about all that enforced ‘divine feminine energy’ and ‘love and light’ that makes me want to commit violence.

What if a certain degree of aggression or laziness is normal? “The challenge is to find its value and to bring the light of compassion so you can defuse its ability to dismantle your life,” says Ford.

I saw this in action in my friend whose estranged sister has recently returned to the family. “She calls ten times a day, using her dramas to get attention,” she complained. I asked my friend what it was about her sister that bugged her so much. “Her neediness.” she replied. Was my friend ever needy or vulnerable herself, I wondered? “I wasn’t allowed to be,” she said. “I had to be the responsible one because everyone else was busy catering to her.” When my friend recognised how trying to eradicate her needy and vulnerable qualities, her own relationships had suffered, she was able to bring some much-needed compassion to those traits.

It’s not only our bad qualities we project onto others, but also our good ones. My other nemesis is a Facebook friend whose film script has just been picked up by an American company. Yesterday’s status update included a breathless account of meeting so-and-so at lunch.

When I really looked at why I loathe her, I saw that it is because I have been taught to downplay achievements, I hate it when other people broadcast theirs.

According to Ford, we also have a ‘light shadow’ in action. We project our ‘bad’ qualities, but we also project our disowned good ones in the form of both envy and idolatry. “There is no quality that we respond to in another that we lack,” she says. The qualities we admire in others are usually ones we haven’t acknowledged in ourselves. What I saw in my friend was the ability to withstand knockbacks, push her work in front of intimidating people and be openly proud of her achievements. Qualities I should probably cultivate myself.

In our self-help culture of relentless positivity, what if instead of denying our crappy parts we found a way to claim them, so we don’t end up trying to engage church parishioners in ‘sensuous massage’? I channelled my homicidal rage into making badminton a blood sport, to the extent that I once dislocated my shoulder trying to smash the winning point across the net..

So be grateful for your nemeses, those bastards who hold up a mirror to our disowned parts. ‘Bossy, controlling perfectionist,’ I think as I gaze at my nemesis across the room, ‘There is room in my heart for you.’ Having said that, it’s a very small room. More of a cell really.

Do you have a nemesis – light or dark – and what have they shown you?


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Author: Alice Williams

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

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