Near Enemies

–Emotions in disguise

You may have had the pleasure of reading the novels of Louise Penny. Her mysteries provide great opportunities to be entranced, not only by the solving of a convoluted murder but by powerful insights into what makes us tick, some of us more exotically than others.

She has a repertory cast of a half-dozen inhabitants of Three Pines, a fictitious village in Quebec. They struggle to understand the human condition, especially when confronted by homicide. In The Cruelest Month, Inspector Gamache and Myrna Landers, a retired psychologist who runs a bookstore, are talking about behavior:

The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposite. Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand. Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior. It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. As long as pity’s in place, there’s no room for compassion. . . .

And love and attachment? It’s friendships, marriages, mothers and children, any intimate relationship. Love wants the best for others, to live wherever they want and do what makes them happy. That’s love. Attachment takes hostages.

Finally, equanimity and indifference. I think that’s the worst of the near enemies, the most corrosive. Equanimity is balance. When something overwhelming happens in our lives, we feel it strongly, but we also have the ability to overcome it — an ability to accept things and move on. The near enemy is indifference — they just don’t feel pain. They don’t care about others. They don’t feel like the rest of us. They’re like the Invisible Man, wrapped in the trappings of humanity, but beneath there’s emptiness.

The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny, pp 197–199

What’s the difference?

The ah-ha head slap for me as I read this was the idea that as long as the near enemy is in play, there’s no room for the healthy emotion. I realized that if I couldn’t differentiate between an emotion — as it showed up in my reactions — and its near enemy, I’d be sowing dysfunction. Probably without realizing it, as the near enemy is also a near twin.

In my own leadership journey, I’ve found myself mistaking a positive practice for a near enemy. I didn’t know the label at the time — I just stumbled on this while reading through Penny’s novels. Often I would feel squirrely after an interaction and, upon reflection, realize I had been cutting a corner. I’d been acting out a near enemy because I didn’t know about the difference and because I didn’t take the time to clarify my own impulse.

Here are a few examples of the near enemy I have seen in myself and in others. I have made a list, with each positive behavior accompanied by its near enemy. I use this to help me clarify the difference and, with practice, to make better choices in how I show up as a leader.

Since I found out about this and graphed it, I find myself better able to keep to the healthier side of the equation. I need to remind myself that the near enemy is often elusive, as it feels very much like its positive twin emotion. A quick “dividing question” helps. For instance, Am I stepping up or disregarding possibilities? is my question for the first emotional pair. As leaders, teachers, parents, and friends, we can take a few moments to decipher the healthy/near enemy boundary and increase the shared power of every relationship.

Recognizing the difference

Leadership: Decisiveness — — — a willingness to step up
Near Enemy: Autocracy — — — an unwillingness to consider possibilities

Leadership: Standards — — — self-discipline, holding myself accountable
Near Enemy: Expectations — — — bias and blame, imposing my standards on others

Leadership: Supporting — — — listening and responding without judgment
Near Enemy: Enabling — — — stepping in to protect others from struggling or feeling pain

Leadership: Equity — — — treating each person as s/he asks to be treated
Near Enemy: Equality — — — pushing forward without taking individual needs into account

Leadership: Professionalism — — — role boundaries without exclusivity
Near Enemy: Disconnection — — — invulnerability without room for feedback

Leadership: Inclusion — — — evenly welcoming differences and agreement
Near Enemy: Co-dependence — — — gingerly walking the minefield of emotions

Taking action

Think about having a conversation with your spouse, children, peers, team members, your boss, about this idea of near enemies. Let’s say we accept that, on good authority, people do the very best with what they have. Yet anyone can get fooled by the camouflage of a near enemy emotion. As we become more focused in our understanding of ourselves — including clarity about near enemies — we can improve our relationships by choosing more often to operate in the Leadership practice of the paired emotions above. With that clarity, we gain confidence and trust, and that helps others to their own awareness.

As Ben Zander suggests, “Once a distinction is made, we have it for the rest of our life.” How can you start this conversation? Having better dialogue starts with a better understanding of how we talk and listen, right? BTW, listening costs nothing and pays back with high interest.


P.S. If you’d like to hear the podcast of this piece, simply click here. I think you’ll love the theme music as well. You’ll have access to over 50 other podcasts, including interviews with Sonny Magana, Robert Ward, Johnny Castle, Rich King, and Sir John Hargrave.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE