The Power of Naming Your Nemesis

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While doing some professional development on different coaching methods for clients recently, I completing training in a particularly helpful method for dealing with problems that feel overwhelming. While the theory of Narrative Therapy is complex, and probably a bit boring, the practice is as simple as it is powerful. It all comes down to Naming The Problem.

The Idea In Brief

When faced with a problem that feels overwhelming the process involves giving it a name. Imagine your problem was a character in a kids’ cartoon , a nemesis, if you will. What would it look like? How does it behave? How does it affect you? When does it come? What techniques does it use to get under your skin?  And most importantly, what is it called?

You can go through the process yourself in the following steps:

1.       Describe your ‘Nemesis’ and give it a name

2.       Work out when the Nemesis appears and how it pushes you around

3.       Think about a time when you’ve gotten the upper hand (or at least reduced it a bit)

4.       Experiment with a strategy to take on your Nemesis.

To give you an idea of how you can make it work, I’ve shared my recent experience identifying a Nemesis I did battle with.


My Nemesis

I go through most of my personal and professional life in a fairly confident manner. I often bite off more than I can chew, and I love it. I’m not perfect. I don’t generally aspire to be, but I’m passionate and motivated, and love giving things a really good go, and for the most part I’m pretty happy with how they turn out. …. But every now and then, doubt takes over, sometimes advancing slow and steady, sometimes in a sudden lightning flash.

Most recently it came in its creeping form, and I found myself procrastinating when I should have been working. The mountain of work in front of me seemed so big that I just didn’t have the motivation to take the first step. There were a few items on my To-Do list that worried and intimidated me. I felt overwhelmed and powerless. Happily for me, I managed to procrastinate with something constructive: my study. It had been my solace for a couple of weeks over the Christmas period, because it allowed me to feel I was achieving something as I ticked off each reading or exercise in turn, and it also provided a good excuse to avoid those few scary items on my To-Do list. It was in my studies that I came across the Narrative Technique and thought I might give it a go.


Step one: Describe your ‘nemesis’, and give it a name.

Here’s what I discovered about my Nemesis:

‘I don’t yet have a name for it, but it feels like walking in a fog. The air is thick and it weighs on my shoulders. It presses on my head. It means that I can’t see ahead of me, I don’t know where I am going, I can’t see where I have come from. It even makes the hands in front of my face fuzzy. My eyes are tired from trying to focus in on the grime. Sounds are distorted, muffled and amplified. The immediate sounds of panic and fear seem so close and overbearing, while the sounds of reason and hope are dampened and far off. There is a whisper so low that I can barely hear it, but it’s the sound of doubt and judgement. Every step that I take is filled with danger, but so is standing still. When I don’t move I am courting calamity, when I do take action in one direction I am racked with concern that I am not moving in the other direction. I feel tired, drained, cannot feel hope. I don’t know how to get out of this Pea-Souper*.’

Step two: Work out when your nemesis appears, and how it pushes you around.

For me these ‘Pea-Soupers’ come when I have an underlying worry that I can’t easily resolve. Last week, I knew there was a problem that I was nutting out subconsciously.  There was no easy answer but I was doing what I could, and I had to use patience and determination to get through. I was fairly philosophical about it and was generally dealing with it rather well until the Pea-Souper descended and took away all my energy and clarity, and generally made me feel really rather crap. My usual method of getting my act together is to regroup using a cut-down To-Do list which has just the most important items I really need to get done. But what I found was that during a Pea-Souper, my To-Do list was my worst enemy. I would start one item but then be distracted by another; I would work on one item, but become distressed about the others that I wasn’t currently tackling.

Step three: Think about a time when you’ve managed to get the better of your nemesis (or at least reduced it a bit).

Last week was not the first time I’ve felt overwhelmed, so I thought back to last time it happened. The feeling hadn’t stayed there forever: it eventually lifted. Last time, it seemed to lift after I decided to focus on One Thing completely. I had found that by shutting out all the other items and just focused on that One Thing, I was able to concentrate and give it my full attention. My mind didn’t wander, it wasn’t stressed about the other things I wasn’t doing; it was just fully present. I had made sure that the task in front of me was all that there was to be done.

Step four: Experiment with a strategy to take on this nemesis.

Instead of getting all worked up about what I wasn’t doing, and why I was being so inefficient, and how I was a Big Failure, I tried out a strategy to defeat the evil ‘Pea-Souper’. I ripped up my To-Do list and I chose One Thing to achieve. I nearly added a second, because I am, by habit, a list-maker, but I stopped myself. I physically wrote that One Thing on a card and stuck it on the wall in front of me. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to do anything else until I finished that One Thing. Within an three quarters of an hour I’d finished that One Thing, so I wrote up another One Thing. By the early afternoon I had managed to complete four One Thing’s, and I felt pretty good. I wasn’t worried about the time I had spent ‘not-doing’ all the other things on my list because my list had only ever consisted of one item at a time. I had completely finished four separate Things, rather than just a few items from a long list. I felt confident, the fog had lifted, and I even had the confidence to tackle one the items from my earlier To-Do list that had caused me anxiety and was partly responsible for bringing on the Evil Pea-Souper in the first place.

The Verdict – Did it Work?

Absolutely. By naming and personifying the problem I was having, I separated the problem from my myself. It meant I didn’t have to feel guilty that the problem I was having was a reflection on me. I can see a whole new set of possibilities and when the problem comes back (as it inevitably will), I’ll have a new set of secret weapons to gain the upper hand and send it packing.


*Pea-Soupers were the thick fogs that used to descend on London.

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