My life was more exciting when I had an enemy to fixate on
It’s almost exactly three years since I stopped working full time in a big office. I’m financially better off from not taking public transport, slimmer from not eating a slice of birthday cake every three hours, and – because I’m a maestro at putting off work – my kettle has never been more descaled. But lately I’ve realised something is missing. I can feel myself losing my edge. In the genteel cosiness of the new normal, I’m starting to miss the raw, spicy hatred I had for a colleague I used to work with – and how they inadvertently rubbed me up the right way, like a non-abrasive scourer in a kettle.
I was never confrontational with this person, ever. I just used to hate everything they said, did and thought. I would snap Biro pens under my desk whenever they spoke in meetings and would endlessly imagine rowing with them as I drifted off to sleep. I also palpably wanted to do better work than them, and much though it might have pained me to admit it, the howling agony of having to share the same solar system with them did – in fairness – spur me on a huge amount along the way.
Humans develop rivalries all the time at work, even in the most unlikely of jobs. For example, while MPs in real life frequently get on well across the benches, children’s TV presenters perversely have a reputation for being more cutthroat than a conference of pirates. We also develop rivalries that stoke our political beliefs, or at least we’re encouraged to by a starkly polarised media – from GB News on the right to Novara on the left.
Yet even though we know that love makes the world go round, I think on an individual and personal level that hate sometimes has a really useful place in our psyche too. Often it’s the smallest things that set people off, in line with what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. Because I live on a small quirky island called Great Britain, you can’t move for people who have wildly extravagant hatreds based on the tiniest things. For instance, I’ll never forget meeting a polite, genteel woman in her seventies who slowly unravelled a deep hatred for a fellow member of her local Women’s Institute group. She laid into her like a badger tearing into a BLT.
A positive and productive enemy needs to be someone at a distance from you to really work. I fall out with my best friend all the time, for example, but we’re not enemies. We can definitely seem it in public – witness a recent hungover train journey where we somehow managed to have a row over Nicola Sturgeon and didn’t talk for three hours. But we know deep-down that we’ll always reconcile, which isn’t the case with a really good foe.
It might seem extreme to admit that you actively have an enemy or a nemesis, but ask around: it’s more common than we like to admit. For an overlooked group in society, nothing makes them sharpen their focus, energy and attention as much as disagreeing with a worthy nemesis. It gives a real sense of ambition and drive that working in a chummy and uncritical bubble can often lack. It can rile you up so much that you absolutely, positively have to achieve something, where previously you might have been too lazy and apathetic to accomplish much of anything (albeit with a gleaming, limescale-free kettle). And even when success is a factor, say when you perceive a rival to be successful in a way you’re not, then this can even be a way of gaining a perspective on where you are in life – and where you want to be.
In small, controlled ways, I’ve also found occasionally being jealous to be an intensely positive thing in sexual relationships too. This is definitely not for everyone, but again, I think it’s a more common experience than we give credit for. Yes, playing with this dynamic is fiery and potentially deadly. But if done well, in a non-toxic manner and with superb communication, inspiring someone via a rival can motivate people in relationships to do incredible things.
History has given the concept of a rival or an enemy a bad rap. The days of duelling with our foes on a heath at dawn are long gone. Nowadays, if you have a stated rival, the worst that will happen is your mates will send you screenshots of their twatty social media posts all day long. Instead, I think it’s worth embracing the kick up the arse that having a good nemesis can give you – lest you end up with only a very clean kettle to show for yourself.