What your nemesis says about you

<i>Mad Men</i>'s Don Draper, (Jon Hamm) hates Ted Chaough, (Kevin Rahm) because Ted does a lot of what Don wishes he ...

Mad Men's Don Draper, (Jon Hamm) hates Ted Chaough, (Kevin Rahm) because Ted does a lot of what Don wishes he could do and Ted hates Don for the same reason. Photo: AMC

We’ve all got a nemesis somewhere. It might be one person, it might be a group of people – just being in the same room with them makes your skin crawl and your fist clench. But in the era of positivity, admit to having a nemesis (or two), and people will call you the most horrible 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 only by a low partition. I hated her perfect blond foils, her ostentatious veganism and her expensive but subtle boho jewellery.  I hated her droll wit – she was the master of the seemingly innocent but catty put-down. But eventually, hating her so much made my tummy hurt. So I ran some diagnostics.

Carl Jung said that the people we react too mostly strongly actually 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 false self to cover up the other aspects. But by driving parts of ourselves underground, we’re telling those shadow parts – the selfish, angry, jealous parts, the human parts, that we’re ashamed of them.

Trouble is, all our parts want to be heard, and if we deny them they just go underground, then 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. Even after drug tests proved otherwise, Lance Armstrong continued to credit hard work and positive affirmations for his ‘prevailing against the odds’. Think of homophobic preachers who behave inappropriately toward underlings because they’re ashamed of fairly straight-forward desires. Think revolutionaries who fight oppression, yet have a tyrannical streak themselves. 

We can even be part of a collective shadow, when there’s pressure to wear a mask and deny certain traits en masse.  I wondered why I felt homicidal rage after spending a weekend with a group of yoga teachers. “It’s the ‘divine feminine energy’,” I complained to my mentor, a senior teacher. “If I hear ‘love and light!’ one more time, I’m going to commit violence.” “That’s because the world isn’t love and light, much of the time the world is a shithole,” she crowed. Funnily enough, my rage vanished. 

“There is no pattern of behaviour that can’t be changed if we are willing to expose the emotional upset that caused us to reject the shadow part in the first place,” says Ford. “The challenge is to find its value and to bring the light of compassion so you can defuse its ability to dismantle your life.”

It’s not only our bad qualities we project onto others, but also our good ones. My other nemesis is a Facebook friend who took her shitty film script to America where it’s been picked up by a big producer. Yesterday’s status update included a breathless account of meeting a Lannister at a fancy lunch. When I really looked at why I loathe her, I realised it was because I was taught to downplay achievements, and so I hate it when other people broadcast and get attention for theirs.

This, according to Ford, could be symptom of the ‘light shadow’ in action. Along with our disowned crap qualities, we also project our disowned good qualities onto others, in the form of both envy and idolatry. “There is no quality that we respond to in another that we lack,” says Ford. Instead of seeing the people we admire as separate, the qualities we admire in them are often ones we haven’t acknowledged in ourselves. What I actually admired 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 which I could probably cultivate more in myself.

We’re encouraged to rid ourselves of negativity, purify our thoughts. What if we didn’t have to flush our brain with a beetroot and milk thistle cleanse every time we had a negative thought? What if instead of denying our crappy parts we owned up to them, claimed them as ours? What if we found a way to express the shadow parts of ourselves, so we don’t end up engaging church parishioners in ‘sensuous massage’?

So be grateful for your nemeses, the annoying people 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.

Next time you see your nemisis, give them a kiss, feed them a vegetable and stub out their cigarette. Pray for their prosperity, and a long and happy life. It’s in your interests.  

Alice Williams is an author and yoga teacher. She tutors in media writing at the University of Melbourne and blogs at Alice-williams.com @Alicewillalice



  • It's true, I have often wondered why some people get under my skin more than others and I believe there is a degree of recognising some of my own bad qualities in them. It's unpleasant to acknowledge but nobody ever said personal growth is easy did they?

    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 12:22AM
    • Paul Newman - "A man with no enemies is a man with no character."

      "If you are without an enemy in the world, you may be a lamb or an ass, but you are not a man."
      AUSTIN O'MALLEY, Keystones of Thought

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 8:45AM
      • Why would you stub out someone's cigarette? That just seems rude.

        Date and time
        July 18, 2013, 9:15AM
        • When are we going to move away from knowledge through authority (Jung said it so it must be true) and towards knowledge through experiment?

          Until you can design a series of experiments that show there is a "shadow", that there is in fact a "projection" and all your parts do "clamor to be heard" then the knowledge or insight gained is of no more value than declaring that you have a little too much choleric humor and need to bled appropriately.

          I think my nemesis is the level to which people are willing to take intellectual shortcuts "cause it feels right"

          Deus Ex
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 9:50AM
          • "Even after drug tests proved otherwise, Lance Armstrong continued to credit hard work and positive affirmations for his ‘prevailing against the odds’."
            The drug tests never proved anything, they kept coming back negative. That was the biggest reason why Armstrong was such a scandal.

            And why wouldn't he continue to credit hard work and positive affirmations? He overcame testicular and lung cancer and returned to cycling at the highest level, you don't manage that without a lot of self motivation.
            Performance enhancing drugs aren't some magic shortcut to success either, that allowed him to conquer the world while sitting on his butt 24/7.

            Date and time
            July 18, 2013, 10:21AM
            • Great article - if you want to know more, take a look at the work of Drs Hal and Sidra Stone, the creators of Voice Dialogue, a development of Jung's work which has in fact heavily influenced Debbie Ford's work (and other well-known self-help authors). And you have your very own Voice Dialogue teachers in Australia, all highly respected on the international stage but little-known here, such as Paul Gale-Baker, Ana Barner and Astra Niedra. Check out the latter's latest book Which Self Are You? to discover more about your nemesis and many other parts of your psyche.

              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 10:32AM
              • I think I made a colleague's "Employee of the Week" foil balloon burst with my mind once. She was saying something about young people expecting to have everything without working for it. I'd directed a certain amount of silent angst towards her a millisecond before it happened. Come to think of it, I might have had help.

                Date and time
                July 18, 2013, 8:42PM
                • Everyone has one; its definately not a myth. i have more nemasis (s) than friends, they all meet up a couple of years ago behind my back and actively conspire against me now.
                  Unfortunately in these days of social networking it is harder to remove them from your life. They still haunt me.
                  I have no desire to lead their lives.

                  Date and time
                  July 19, 2013, 1:25AM
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