Roxane Gay has 10 of them, but how healthy is it to obsess over a rival or enemy? Stylist investigates.
They are our secret adversaries. They make our blood boil on Instagram. Their ever-growing LinkedIn connections really drives us mad. Pit us against them on a sports pitch and we turn gladiatorial. They are our nemeses, and they are also completely normal to have.
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Guest editor Roxane Gay is the undisputed queen of conjuring up adversaries. She can have 10 nemeses at any one time, simply because she likes having them. “A nemesis is someone for whom you harbour an abiding, relentless dislike,” she writes in her essay on the pleasures of having an imagined rival.
They might not know we exist, but that hardly matters. Roxane’s primary foe, for example, “smiles too much, is thriving professionally and exists to spite me. It is almost too much to bear.”
Our rivals exist solely to grind our gears, but we also can’t get enough of them. It might not have quite the thrill of Eve versus Villanelle, but more than half of us have a work enemy, according to Totaljobs. And social media has gifted us access to our adversaries out-of-hours. There are close to 300,000 Instagram posts dedicated to the #nemesis.
From YouTube beef to Twitter feuds, nemeses are trending in real life. So why do we have them? “Our nemesis often shows what actually matters to us. They reflect back our own values and ideals,” says psychologist and life coach Honey Langcaster-James. “It’s often someone who is doing what we would secretly like to. Or perhaps they appear to be living their life in a way that we aspire to. Your nemesis is a mirror, reflecting back what you want to be doing with your life.”
We tend to pick nemeses that are quite similar to us. They are us but with a better CV, #friendshipgoals and great hair (how do they do that?). Social media puts all of this pettiness in the palm of our hands.
Yet nemesis-collecting can be a noble pursuit. We pick workplace nemeses according to how willing they are to throw others under the bus, Totaljobs found, suggesting we’re keen to protect colleagues who have been wronged. There are other good reasons for having an adversary. Long-distance runners cut five seconds off their race times when competing against an arch-rival, according to a 2014 study from New York University. Nemeses are motivational.
“Think of a nemesis as grit in your oyster,” Langcaster-James suggests. “They might really wind you up, but they also might represent something that is against your own values. They can make us think, ‘What do I want to be doing more of? How should I be investing my time?’ You can use your nemesis as a springboard to differentiate yourself from. You can even turn a nemesis into an inspiration.”
Here, four women offload about their arch-nemeses.
“I’m petty, so revenge really motivates me”
Jen Corrigan – Writer and Tech Worker