<i>Mad Men</i>'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.

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