It’s become chic to have a nemesis, or nemeses. Well-known writer Roxane Gay’s frequent—but tantalizingly anonymous—tweets about her nemeses have fans and Twitter allies following her rivalries like it’s “Downton Abbey.” (Monica Lewinsky went as far as to dress up as one of Gay’s nemeses for Halloween). This has sparked a trend of nemesis-related commentary and confessions on social media.
This is a pretty different kind of nemesis than the one I’m familiar with, which is rooted not just in rivalry, but payback. The word “nemesis” comes from 16th century Greek, meaning literally “retribution,” from nemein—“give what is due.” Yet Gay’s nemeses don’t even know they are objects of her ire and, in fact, just might not even know who she is.
The currently popular version of a nemesis isn’t the Potter vs Voldemort kind of relationship where both sides are aware of each other and believe retribution is owed. It’s more like Ahab vs the whale, where one party is investing a lot of energy and the other is, uh, a whale: unattainable, untouchable, coasting through the depths, oblivious to the enemy floundering in a little boat on the surface.
In my practice as a creative coach, I teach clients that envy is destructive. Rather than pushing you to work harder, as The Atlantic posits, being envious of a creative who has something you want suggests that their having of it deprives you, as if success is a non-renewable resource. It’s more productive to be encouraged by others’ success—if they did it, so can you!—than to put pressure on yourself to compete against another artist. We should foster a community of support and collaboration in the arts. Goddess knows, it’s hard enough to be a creative as it is.
Secondly, it’s a misuse of your passion. The flush of rage and want you feel when you look at someone else proclaiming their success on social media diverts energy from your craft and sends it towards the screen, where it bounces back, like feng shui gone wrong, and disappears. This experience encourages you to focus only on the outcome of work you produce, rather than the value of producing it. Remember the act of creation is different from the business of selling art.
Of course, social media is designed to fuel destructive envy. So maybe avoid or limit your exposure to social media if you find yourself feeling that sick-to-your-stomach sensation of toxic envy every time you scroll through your Insta feed. Mute your rivals and focus on pictures of adorable owls in hats instead. It might be fun and productive to even create a piece inspired by or in honor of your nemesis, allowing a chance for deeper reflection about the nuance of expectation and competition that goes into the feeling of envy in the first place.
And that’s just it, envy is only a feeling, or a composite of them: desire, frustration, disappointment, anger, jealousy. It’s natural and sometimes unavoidable and no one is beyond it, including public figures we admire, which is perhaps the most positive aspect of someone as well-renowned and respected as Roxane Gay openly discussing her envy.
It’s trendy to have a rival, but it’s healthier and more productive to have a role model or a collaborator. If gazing at someone else’s trophies and great skin makes you feel like crap, turn the gaze inward. Don’t waste the drive fueling that envy on someone else who doesn’t even know you’re watching.