Is it healthy to obsess over a nemesis? Stylist investigates

Posted by for Life

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. 

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

Jen met her nemesis Diane in a poetry class in college.

I met Diane in a poetry workshop in college. She was the best poet in class, so I was already impressed by her, but what really got under my skin was that she had faith in her abilities. I had never met a writer my age who was comfortable with her own voice, something that I was struggling with. When I met her, I was instantly jealous that I didn’t have her skills or her confidence. 

A nemesis has to be someone I respect, even just a little bit, otherwise I wouldn’t care what they think of me or if they’re better than me in some way. I tend to care too much about what people think of me, even the people I don’t like. My nemeses are always a projection of my own insecurities.

At the time, in college, I don’t think my envy of Diane motivated me in any meaningful way. It was a distraction, because I was young and hadn’t yet learned how to use my insecurities as fuel for self-improvement. It was only years later that I was able to revisit those feelings in a way that was more productive.

I have many nemeses of varying degrees now: ex-partners, former friends, smug acquaintances, people who are just better than me at something. They keep me focused on my goals. Some of my nemeses I want to emulate, some of them I want to impress, some of them I want to prove wrong. I’m petty, and revenge can be a great motivator. 

“I’ll toast my enemy’s demise in the pub”

Marie Le Conte - Political Journalist

Marie is motivated by her feuds.

I’m a big fan of enemies. I still have a nemesis from a previous workplace. The feud started out for quite dull work reasons, we both enjoyed having someone in the office to annoy. It just spiralled. Now, I will celebrate his demise when it comes. If he loses his job, I will be buying champagne in the pub. 

These feuds motivate me. I think, ‘I’ll prove them wrong’. I work best out of spite, when someone doesn’t think I can do this. I’m also proving to myself that I can do it. Having nemeses makes life more fun. I don’t follow people I dislike on social media, but once a week I will go on my nemeses’ profiles, screengrab their posts and send them to friends. 

I work in Westminster, where people hold grudges over the tiniest things. You’re quite free – and expected – to act like a wronged teenager even if you’re a 47-year-old man. One of my nemeses said that she would never attend the same events I would go to, and so I made a point of ticking ‘attending’ on every mutual Facebook event invitation, just so she didn’t go. It was a proper dick move.

I’m a Marmite person. People will dislike me no matter what I do. I suspect this happens a lot, especially to women who are outspoken, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people. You’re disliked for who you are. You can agonise over the fact that they hate you, or you can say fuck that, I’ll hate them as well. I’ll hate them first. And I’ll hate them better. 

“Nemeses changed my life in the best way”

Sally Thorne - Author 

Sally turned her nemesis story into a novel.

A friend requested I write a fiction piece as her birthday gift. When asked for a prompt word, she offered ‘nemesis’. That resulted in The Hating Game, an office romcom about two publishing assistants who play juvenile games of one-upmanship until it becomes clear the fighting is a cover for their attraction. The hate-to-love trope was fun to write. 

A nemesis stirs powerful emotions: jealousy, sabotage and a strange kind of obsession. It’s compelling in fiction, particularly the romance genre, because if it’s written right, all of these negative feelings can unexpectedly boil over into passion. Then we ask ourselves, how can they ever move past hate?

I do have flashes of envy when I see another writer hit the New York Times bestseller list. But I remind myself I’ve had achievements that others would envy. I wrote about nemeses and it changed my life in the best way.

“Some call it jealousy, I call it a driving force”

Vivienne Jeffers - Football Coach and Founder Of East London Ladies Fc

Vivienne think having rivals is healthy.

My nemeses are women’s football teams who use grassroots football as a vanity project; hip teams born from the hype and opportunities in women and girls’ football. They take money and attention from clubs like ours, teams that provide proper grassroots opportunities for women and girls to build confidence and self-esteem. 

Our team, East London Ladies, started from nothing and continues to grow without big endorsements from sports brands, who focus their attention on the teams with the trendy-looking girls without a hair out of place. These teams don’t know they are my nemeses. I’ve tried to get to know their story rather than judging a book by its cover, however, I’m not sold on what they are selling. Some may call it jealousy, but when you’ve been grafting, providing opportunities for over 120 girls and women a week, and it goes unnoticed to the point where you can’t even get equipment, it’s disheartening.

Want insider tips on happiness, health, relaxation and more? Sign up for the Stylist Loves Wellbeing email

At the same time, it becomes your driving force. It’s healthy competition. Every Instagram post of their fresh new kit from a well-known brand motivates me to go that bit extra.I meet my nemeses at games. Sometimes they can’t fulfil all the opportunities thrown their way and we are asked to step in. So why not take that moment to show what you do? A nemesis keeps me pushing and driving, but it is not as important as what happens on the pitch.     

Roxane says:

I have several nemeses – people who have slighted me in ways both real and imagined who are now mortal adversaries. May they be forced to fly only United Airlines for the rest of their days… 

Photography: David Harry Stewart/Trunkarchive.com

Share this article

Recommended by Colin Crummy