ask polly

‘Am I Too Obsessed With My Nemesis?’

Photo: Albert Fertl/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’ve been with my husband for 13 years. We met when I was quite young, and I have to say, without tooting my horn, that we’re pretty happy. We have two sweet (but often annoying) kids, we both run interesting (but often challenging) businesses, and we have lived in four different countries together. He’s a seriously amazing co-parent, cooks like a professional chef, and only sometimes feels the need to lecture me about my inability to put the lid on the toothpaste. We fight now and again, but we’ve worked out how to do that without going nuclear. All in all, pretty great.

This letter is about him, but not really. A few years into our relationship, on a night out, one of his friends told me at length about a woman my husband had dated for a few years. I got all the gossip, the usual stuff around the fact that this particular friend disliked her and was happy to see the back of her when they broke up. Rightly or wrongly, it’s the sort of stuff you like hearing about your partner’s ex.

Most people might have just forgotten about it, but I’ve always had an unhealthy interest in my partner’s exes. So obviously, I committed it to memory and when I had some downtime at work went into deep internet sleuth mode and found her online. It turns out she was running a business at the time, which she wrote about in detail online. She has a know-it-all tone that sucked me in, if only in a train-crash type of way. I couldn’t help but tune in every day to find out what she was doing. It became almost like a tic that happened when I was bored.

This was back in the early days of the internet, and seeing what she was doing inspired me to spend a bit of time on my own passion. I launched a business that was in line with my interests and values, but ultimately I can admit that it was what she was doing that inspired it. Turns out, I was good at it, and after a short time I left my corporate job to work on it full time. I’ve had recognizable success in my field, and I’ve been doing this for over a decade. Three books, a podcast, hundreds of thousands of followers later, I’ve been staying completely abreast of what she’s been up to all the while: her breakups, her business ventures, her kids, the inability she has to just commit to one thing. I know it all, and have also spent a decent amount of time reading between the lines of her various blogs, tweets, and posts.

It might sound insane, but I think all the while I have been watching her, she has also been watching me. Often I would see a reflection of what I had done in her work, or a pointed jab made to something I had published or worked on in her posts. Recently, she started a business based on an idea that I had originally launched, in a similar format and tone and using the same contributors and tagline. And in case you think I’m just nuts, she also continually blocks and unblocks me on social media. Her life has been playing out in real time (as has mine) and it’s the ultimate form of reality TV. Bad and kind of boring but you can’t look away.

And you know what? It’s got absolutely nothing to do with my husband. He barely registers in this situation, and (before you say it) I don’t feel romantically threatened by her, or anyone. When I brought her up with him a few years ago (or any time since), he barely remembers her. It’s like she was a tiny blip on his radar, whereas for me she has shaped my whole existence. Albeit from afar.

She has become, without a doubt, my nemesis. On days she is doing great, I feel a little worse, and on days life seems to suck for her, I feel better. If she tweets something amazing and people love it, I feel empty inside. If she’s quiet for a few months, I gloat that maybe she’s struggling (although, as we now know, being offline is the biggest luxury of all). Sane me tries to remind myself that one of us doesn’t have to fail for the other to succeed, but the other, more Schadenfreude-ian part thinks that in life there are winners, and there are losers. But can’t we both be winners?

Recently my husband and I decided to move back to the West Coast to spend more time with my family (my father has a degenerative illness). Chances are we’ll end up living in some sort of close proximity to this woman. And although proximity doesn’t make much of a difference (I stay up to date on her no matter where I am), it does make me think that maybe it’s time to kick this habit. In some ways it feels so toxic to tune into this woman’s life, to watch her and also feel watched by her. But on the other hand, what she does encourages me to do better. When she does really well, I first feel jealousy, and then I work a little harder and vow to get a little better. In many ways she’s the competition I need to do what I do well. I freely admit that without her influence, I may have stalled and may not have created a business that not only gives me money but also flexibility and freedom. That said, perhaps I’ve been lazy in choosing my nemesis, given that she’s not exactly changing the world … Maybe I need a new one?

And before you tell me to quit this and get another hobby, I’m a gal with plenty of hobbies. In fact, I turned one of them into a business and then a franchise. That’s work now but still, I do lots to keep me sane. When I spend time with friends, I realize that I have more interests than most women — I do yoga, run daily, read a wide range of news, and sing in my spare time. (My other hobby is general existential dread about climate change and the fate of the planet, but that’s for another time.)

I guess what I’m asking, Polly, is whether or not you think this is an addiction that’s ruining my life. Should I try my hardest to give it up? What would life look like without my daily check-ins? Do I need to go on some sort of 12-step program? Or is it normal and kinda good to have a nemesis that encourages you to do better?

Looking back, part of me wants to thank her for sending me down a path I love, but the other part knows that maybe it’s time to let it go. But how?

Nemesis Anonymous
Dear NA,

I’ve never been that motivated to succeed in a vacuum. I need success to feel personal and emotional. I can only understand success if it strikes me as a kind of sensual pleasure, something to grip onto, something to savor. Likewise, I never valued money or popularity until I could link it to something visceral: romantic love, or an experience I craved, or the sensation of being secure or adored or admired or respected in a specific place, by a specific person, in a specific way. For years, even these things were impossible to touch because I was sure, at my core, that I wasn’t worthy of any of it. I wasn’t even worthy of imagining it.

I think you have trouble feeling your way forward, too. Your letter is extremely factual. I looked for clues about your relationship with your husband and your friends and yourself, and I found very little there. I tried to find impressions of how this obsession is affecting you emotionally — hurting you or distracting you or possessing you — and I found nothing. Aside from how it started, your situation boils down to the kinds of rotating professional rivalries most writers and creative people flirt with but never completely succumb to: She’s doing well, you feel worse. She’s doing badly, you feel better. There’s this notion (common, as far as I can tell, among those with nemeses) that less for her means more for you, as if attention and success are scarce resources.

You even created an email address for this letter so I’d never figure out who you are. So even as you stalk your nemesis, learning more and more about her perspective and her experience, you erase your own steps. You’re a clear communicator; your letter is detailed and never murky, and rarely ambivalent in any impeachable way. Even though we’re talking about your husband’s ex, your husband himself “barely registers in this situation.” You don’t mention anything juicily enviable about your nemesis. She isn’t wittier or more beautiful than you. She copies your ideas. She makes pointed jabs at you, but you don’t respond. She blocks and unblocks you on social media. You serenely continue to follow her without indicating what it might mean that you do so. You calmly say nothing to your husband about your daily habit of consuming more and more information about his ex, encyclopedic knowledge of her career and her life and her petty resentments, even. Your husband knows nothing. Your nemesis knows nothing. You hoard all of this information, and savor it, even. Now you simply want to ask: Is it time to let her go? Why do you ask this? You’re worried that maybe what you’re doing is unhealthy. And it would be embarrassing if someone knew about this. Maybe there are technically healthier ways to stay motivated.

None of these ways you’re behaving are remotely pathological. I’m not trying to paint you as unfeeling or unwell in any way. You strike me as someone I’d like a lot if I met you. You’re a very clear writer and I think you’re also someone who avoids big trouble by making careful choices about where to invest her energy. You have pretty consciously avoided mixing your feelings for your husband into this situation. That might come off as cold, but given what you do say about the health of your marriage, I think you’re just making smart, careful choices — which is what being happy within a marriage is all about, after all. In spite of this one obsession, you have a lot of self-control. But I can’t possibly answer the question of whether or not you should drop your nemesis without asking you to dive deeper into what she does for you, what role she plays in your life, and why she remains unlikable to you after all this time and after all of this exposure to her ups and downs. I wonder who she reminds you of. I wonder if you believe that you two would hate each other if you met. I wonder if she suddenly approached you and said, “I’ve admired your work for years,” you would savor that and become friends, or cackle privately and never give her the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve admired her, too. I wonder what her rejection of you would feel like. I wonder what it would be like to tell your husband all about your fixation.

Most of all, I wonder how much energy it takes to stay clean and untouchable the way you do. I wonder what insecurities are fueling that effort, and I wonder whether or not it’s worth it. Does that feel accurate, that you’re pedaling furiously to stay above the fray? You say you don’t feel romantically threatened by your husband’s ex, or by anyone. Can you imagine a person or situation that could threaten your sense of yourself, if you had to be near that person regularly? You say, “I have more interests than most women.” Do you imagine that most women don’t have many interests? Do you experience yourself as impressive? What would it mean to fail to impress a person you really wanted to impress?

I’m trying to dig into something a little dirtier than what you’ve presented, because I have a gut feeling that’s what you need, too. Not everyone needs to show the world their full self. You can make judicious choices about how much other people see without necessarily hiding from who you are. But the incredible walls you’ve erected to protect yourself from being discovered as a person who feels competitive with another woman make me think that you’re reaching a juncture where your walls are starting to oppress you. It’s almost like you’ve succeeded at emulating this woman and maybe even surpassing her, and now you want her to know it because otherwise the spoils feel a little hollow. You write that “part of me wants to thank her for sending me down a path I love,” but I don’t feel real gratitude there. What I feel is an urge to make some connection with a human being who’s dictated your choices for so many years. It’s just not clear whether you want to love her or hit her in the face.

I believe that what you really want to know is why you can’t feel your success. I think you’re wondering if there’s more to life than this. Maybe you need a new nemesis, which is just another way of saying maybe you need another way to feel your way forward, toward a new goal or a new life that might fulfill you more than this one does. You’re doing everything right. So why does everything feel so empty?

I love the idea of acquiring a nemesis — or even an army of nemeses — in order to motivate you. I detest the notion that being competitive is shameful and that women, specifically, should never compete with each other. Wrong! Sure, it’s always a good thing to try to rise above it when we find ourselves holding another woman back or talking shit about her or hurting her in more direct ways. But privately, for the sake of motivation, why shouldn’t women use their competitive spirits however they want to? We get to be petty, aggressive animals just like men do, particularly when it gets us the fuck out of bed in the morning.

Personally, I have to admit that I always have someone serving the role of nemesis inside my head somewhere. For a while it was someone who wrote things similar to mine. Then it was an old friend. Then it was someone much younger and more respected (in my imagination) than me. Each nemesis reflected something I was worried about at the time. The writer reflected my anxieties about how much I mattered in our field and whether or not I was as good as or even better than her. The old friend echoed my feelings about being emotionally rejected by someone who always treated me like I was never quite good enough for her. The younger nemesis was a manifestation of my fears about aging and becoming irrelevant. I could tell you 15 things I dislike about each of these nemeses, and 50 things I admire about each of them. I could tell you 150 things I have disliked and felt ashamed of in myself.

And I could tell you a million and one things that I realized I want from this world, things I can feel much more viscerally than I could before I decided that I was allowed to want things. I can dare to want things now because I feel I deserve them. I don’t have to be better than anyone else to deserve them. I just have to be.

I’m not dissing anyone who loves to have a bastion of nemeses at their fingertips, for entertainment, for an addictive fix, for amusement, for someone to blame when things go wrong, for someone to remind you how you DON’T want to proceed. Roxane Gay has mentioned her nemesis often, and I love that she’s willing to unapologetically admit that she’s a competitive person and she’s pragmatic about giving herself what she needs to move forward. I honestly think that’s good for women: to admit that we’re not sweet, loving support animals, to admit that we experience a wide range of emotions that can feed us when we stop feeling shame about them.

I am extremely competitive and I will have more nemeses moving forward. But I no longer find them quite as intriguing or as motivating. What I find much, much more motivating is getting to know people I admire. I don’t mean only wildly successful or well-known people. I just mean people who have something confident and or something intellectually or emotionally curious about them. I love becoming friends with people whom I suspect are a tiny bit more organized and motivated and thoughtful and thorough than I am. I love knowing people who have big ideas about how the world should be and aren’t afraid to say so. I no longer feel fearful in the company of truly great people. I no longer feel bad when someone who is a lot more successful than I am barely knows who the fuck I am in the first place, or hardly cares, or cares a tiny bit but not that much.

But most of all, nothing is better than admiring someone and having that person help you to understand the world around you in a new way. Nothing is better than a person who isn’t afraid of telling you their secrets and their vulnerabilities and their petty feelings. Recently, I sat down with a friend like this and she told me some things that, I swear, I will carry around with me everywhere I go until the end of time. It only happened because I stopped trying to make sure I didn’t fuck up around her and I started to show up and ask her honest questions about what she thought about the world and her life and her loves and her future. I knew that she could see me. I wanted to see her, too. I knew that she wasn’t in the least bit afraid of an intense conversation about the world. I wanted to be present and have that conversation, because I’m less and less afraid of real connection now, and there’s nothing like it.

I guess I have to leave behind the question of what your relationship with your husband is like, or why you’re still a little fixated on being better than other people, but my guess is that there’s a lot of fear hiding just beneath the surface of everything you do. You’ve had some incredible success — which is excellent and deserved because you’ve worked hard and you’re obviously smart and you don’t let yourself get tripped up on bullshit very often. But for all of that success, you’re running a very tight ship emotionally. And honestly, I don’t know what the point of marriage is if your spouse doesn’t even know what you’re obsessed with, day after day. I think you’ve reached this crisis — even though you don’t call it that — because you’re about to move and your father has a degenerative disease. Instead of grappling with his sickness and loss, and the loss of the life you’ve built where you are, and the insecurities surrounding building a whole new life, you’re blithely pinning all of your angst on this intellectual exercise, this obsession, this daily puzzle that stands in for a daily reckoning with your emotions.

So I say drop this nemesis and never look back. Let her become a tiny figure in your rearview mirror. Let her disappear completely so that, if you saw her on the street, you’d wonder what the fuss was about. You might have to mourn her. You might feel empty without her, for a while. You might start to want her in your actual life, as an actual friend, even. You might start to wonder about finding a more worthy nemesis, one who does something honorable and admirable, or even slightly embarrassing for all of its self-revelation. You might aim a little higher in general — with your nemesis, with your career, with your marriage.

But for now, I would experiment with not having a nemesis at all. I’d think about finding a mentor instead. Who lives with an open heart and shows themselves completely without fear? Who doesn’t bother to cover their tracks? Who talks about how much they love their children without wincing or complaining? Who speaks directly about the death of someone they loved and looks you in the eye when you voice your fears about your father? Who can sit in silence and not flinch? Who can hear the truth of how small you feel and love you more and more for it? Who will take you without any followers, without any accolades, without all of your successes?

And if you said, “I might want to write poetry, on a ship with sails, out at sea for weeks at a time,” who would say to you, “That sounds delicious. That sounds like you. You have to do it!” When you befriend people who at first seem better than you, who threaten your superior sense of yourself, but who seem to enjoy your company nonetheless, you tap into a new kind of inspiration. Ask yourself if you’re too afraid to know someone who is larger than life. Ask yourself if you want to become that big, too, without apology.

Sometimes even a mentor can become a close friend. Instead, you simply show up for each other, and connect as two fragile human beings on a fragile planet, leaning in closer to find more truth.

I think you want to live a bigger life. It’s a threat to everything in your very organized, smoothly running, not all that emotional existence. I think you want to let go and breathe and weep and confess that you’re scared. I think you also want to dig a tunnel under the sea and hide there until the losses are over.

Come out and feel this fear instead. Look your father in the eyes and find out where he is and where he’s been. Find out what he wants until his days run out. Look your husband in the eyes and ask him for his help. Things are shaking apart. Look yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself what you love the most, and what embarrasses you more than anything else. If you could do anything under the sun, what would it be? What is keeping you from doing that thing? What are you afraid of?

Dare to inch your way forward, without a map. No one is right ahead of you. No one is right behind. It’s just you, and you have lots of time. How will you spend it? What will you make now? What would make you feel the most proud of yourself, even without an audience, even without a rival, even without success? What can you feel and grip onto and savor? Follow your feelings into a world of brilliant light.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Am I Too Obsessed With My Nemesis?’