Know Your Enemy

We call people who harm us enemies, but is that who they really are? When we see the person behind the label, say Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, everyone benefits.

Sharon Salzberg  •  Robert Thurman
9 March 2021
Photo by Mathew Schwartz.

Crushing the Competition

Sharon Salzberg

Competition today is tantamount to a blood sport—and not just on the playing field or in the ring. The psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney introduced the concept of hypercompetitiveness as a neurotic personality trait almost 70 years ago. She characterized the hypercompetitive coping strategy as “moving against people” (in contrast to moving toward or away from people). Her observations are now all too evident in our culture. Extreme us-versus-them behavior has created a lonely world. There is always some new adversary to move against, so we get locked into a vicious circle of measuring our strength by disparaging others. I remember watching the ice-dancing competition at the Winter Olympics one year. One couple had barely finished their intricate dance when the commentator barked out, “Lacks artistry!” Although bolstering our status by dismissing the efforts of others is presented as normal behavior by our culture, the feeling of superiority it produces is hollow. In contrast, mutual respect and appreciation among competitors breed a sense of solidarity.

The Insight Meditation Society once held a retreat for our board members, during which a consultant we were working with gave us an exercise. We were separated into pairs to play a game resembling tic-tac-toe. Each player was to tally his or her points. Most of us figured we were competing against our partner to see who could score more points. But one of the pairs got the idea that if they cooperated rather than competed and pooled their points, their combined score would be higher than everyone else’s. Unlike the rest of us, who had assumed that every twosome would have a winner and a loser, this cooperative pair decided not to play as if they were battling each other. They outscored the rest of us because they had chosen to work together.

Competition is natural, a part of the human arsenal for survival, but when it creates enmity, we need to question its power in our lives. This is where sympathetic joy — joy in the happiness of others — comes in. If we’re in a competitive frame of mind, when something good happens to someone else, we think it somehow diminishes us. It doesn’t really, of course, but being consumed with jealousy and envy clouds our judgment.  Even when we’re not in the running, extreme competitiveness makes us feel as if we were.

If we approach life from a place of scarcity, a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. – Sharon Salzberg

However, if we approach other people’s successes with an attitude of sympathetic joy, we can genuinely and wholeheartedly receive happiness from their good fortune. Instead of running an internal monologue that goes something like, Oh no, you got that, but it was meant for me! It should be mine, and you took it away, we can accept that the prize was never ours and rejoice in the other person’s success. If we approach life from a place of scarcity, a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. But when we can rejoice in other people’s happiness, we realize that joy and fulfillment are not finite quantities we have to grab while we can. They are always available because they are internal qualities that flow naturally if we allow them to.

An accessible path to sympathetic joy runs through compassion, or the movement of the heart in response to pain or suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering. Compassion is an energized and empowering quality. As Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera says, “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.” Looking closely at the life of someone we consider to be the competition, we are bound to see hardships that the person has endured or understand how tenuous status and good fortune can be. When we can connect with a perceived enemy on the level of human suffering, winning or losing seems less important.

A few years ago I led a meditation group at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. The walls of the school corridors were plastered with homilies: Treat people the way you would like to be treated. Play fair. Don’t hurt others on the inside or the outside. The message that stopped me short, however, was Everyone can play.

Everyone can play is now the precept I live by. We may not agree with one another. We may argue. We may compete. But everybody gets to play, no matter what. We all deserve a shot at life.

Co-creating the Enemy

Robert Thurman

Our perception of others as enemies is influenced by how we have interacted with them in the past and how they have interacted with us. Our view of them is seldom an objective reflection of their qualities but tends to be a projection of our own aversion. Maybe someone harmed us in the past, so now we are afraid of them. Maybe we did something a person didn’t like, so now they are angry with us. We have a mental template of what we consider harmful, injurious, and frightening, and, with or without provocation, we project that onto people, turning them into enemies.

When someone looks unpleasant or threatening — when they fit our mental image of a frightening person — then we assume they intend to harm us, and we can’t wait to get rid of them. And if we can’t get rid of them, we feel frustrated and angry, which reinforces our view of them as an enemy.

“Enemy,” then, is not a fixed definition, a label permanently affixed to anyone we believe has harmed us. It’s a temporary identity we assign people when they don’t do what we want or they do something we don’t want. – Robert Thurman

The last thing most of us want to hear is that we might have any responsibility for creating our own enemies. After all, it wasn’t our car that drove over our newly sodded lawn. And we’re not the ones who spread that malicious gossip about a loved one, nor are we the one who seemed to take great pleasure in stealing a colleague’s clients. But if we are ever to get rid of our enemies, or at least render them powerless over us, we will have to own up to our part in creating the enmity.

Every person has the potential to be unpleasant and harmful, just as every person has the potential to be pleasant and helpful. Think of someone you love dearly; if you look back, you can probably find a time when they did something that harmed you, even unwittingly, or a time when you were angry with them or they were angry with you.

“Enemy,” then, is not a fixed definition, a label permanently affixed to anyone we believe has harmed us. It’s a temporary identity we assign people when they don’t do what we want or they do something we don’t want. But whatever others have or have not done, enemy-making always comes back to us.


Sharon Salzberg

A friend who was raised as a Christian once told me that from a very young age, whenever he heard the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” his heart would soar. Then inevitably, his next thought would be the troubled question: But how?

How, indeed. What if you actually hate your neighbors, or are afraid of them, or simply find them unappealing? What if you actually hate yourself or don’t find much good about your actions when you evaluate your day? What if all too often, when confronted by a decidedly unneighborly world, you feel defensive, hostile, cut off, and alone? We can start unraveling this response by looking at our conditioning.

We have a strong urge to dichotomize human beings, to separate them into opposing categories. Stereotyping is an evolutionary mechanism designed to enhance survival, a form of shorthand for getting by in a dangerous world. We try to manage the messiness of life by creating an orderly zone of recognizable types characterized by certain traits that are associated, however loosely. Then we generalize our preconceived typologies to all members of a class or group or nation.

The problem is that once we have organized everyone into tidy categories, we may be unwilling to look beyond those labels. We commonly designate our own group as the norm, the Ins, while everyone else is the Other. Designating our own family or group as the standard, while assigning everyone else to categories that are somehow inferior, boosts our feeling of self-worth. But it also locks us into the us-versus-them mindset, virtually assuring us an unending supply of enemies.

We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic. – Sharon Salzberg

Familiarity can stop this cycle of enemy-making. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion does. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” amity travels like a benign virus through opposing groups. This effect is so powerful that, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, bias can evaporate in a matter of hours. Peaceful exposure to the Other, the “enemy,” is key. As just one example, a Palestinian-Jewish summer camp known as Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam enables Jewish and Arab youths and their families to spend time together in shared activities and dialogue amid natural surroundings.

Such organizations offer clues to how larger-scale initiatives might be devised to break down the us-versus-them stockade.

We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic. Think of the Dalai Lama learning about Christianity from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Archbishop Tutu learning about Buddhism from the Dalai Lama. Neither of these spiritual masters appears to be out to convert the other, nor do they need to agree in order to feel connected. Each maintains strong loyalty to his own traditions, creed, and people, but they are very good friends who are not constrained by the cult of either/or.

Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us, and immediately we’ll fear and dislike them.

Taking action toward the good is the best way to expand our attention and dissolve the boundary of us-versus-them. Even simple things like working in a soup kitchen and helping feed the hungry, or having thoughtful conversations with the people next door, can ease feelings of separation from those who are unlike us on the surface.

By aligning ourselves with issues larger than our own selfish concerns — “turning off the Me and turning on the We,” as Jonathan Haidt puts it — we transcend alienation through simple human contact. In the spirit of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” more and more people start to seem like our neighbors, and we learn in real terms how to love them.

Working with the Outer Enemy

Robert Thurman

Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, “other” is filled with potential enemies. Even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us in some way, and immediately we will fear and dislike them.

How we deal with our enemies, then, is to see them as human beings and to see ourselves from their perspective, being conscious of our own prejudices and preoccupations and realizing that our enemies are operating out of their own prejudices and preoccupations. “Working with the Outer Enemy,” the exercise that follows, will show you how you create outer enemies and how to reverse that process.

When it comes down to it, the outer enemy is a distraction. Focusing on someone who seems to have it in for us allows us to ignore the real enemy, the enemy within. But when we can see the enemy’s hatred as a challenge, it becomes a spur to our own growth, a gift to wake us from our complacency.

Think of someone you don’t like, someone you feel real antipathy toward. It may be someone you find frightening, someone you find challenging, someone you see as a rival, someone who has harmed you in some way. Bring the person clearly to mind and visualize them sitting before you. Really get in touch with your feelings toward that person. Feel the anger or fear or distaste as it arises in you.

You can see your enemy in a different way. Try to imagine how their loved ones see them, how their child sees them, or their pet dog. – Robert Thurman

Now put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine being that person, sitting there looking at you. See yourself from your enemy’s perspective. Realize that your enemy is mirroring your feelings toward them. Just as you see your enemy, your enemy sees you the same way. Perhaps you are jealous of them, if they seem to be one-up and looking down at you. Or you may feel superior and therefore have a condescending attitude toward the enemy. Look at yourself through eyes of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and condescension.

When you have thoroughly immersed yourself in the negative feelings you have for your enemy and your enemy has for you, realize that you don’t have to harbor those feelings. You can see your enemy in a different way. Try to imagine how their loved ones see them, how their child sees them, or their pet dog. If your enemy seems particularly bad, imagine how their partner in crime sees them — as an ally, a co-conspirator, a friend. And then note how stressed your enemy feels on seeing or thinking of you. It is the same stress that you feel when you see or think of your enemy.

As you look at yourself through this other person’s eyes, note the tone of voice you are using in your mind. Be aware of how your condescension, competitiveness, contempt, or jealousy is conveyed in the little things you do and say. Your emotions emerge in your voice and speech and gestures and body language, just as your enemy’s emotions are written all over their face and behavior.

Now try to see something beautiful in your enemy. Imagine that person being really happy at having fallen in love or won an election or won the lottery. (If you’re really daring, imagine your enemy winning the battle with you. That should make your enemy feel good!) Imagine your enemy being happy to see you, or if you can’t quite summon up that vision, imagine them at least as not being angry with you. Imagine your enemy being happy enough with their own life to have neither the time nor the inclination to bother you. Think of what would make your enemy truly satisfied, truly pleased. It may not be what you assume your enemy wants — that is, domination over you. When you are no longer bothering your enemy, no longer standing in the way of what that person wants, then your enemy will no longer be interested in bothering you.

In visualizing yourself from the enemy’s perspective, you start to see that what makes you vulnerable to your enemies is your sense of being fundamentally different from them. But when you realize that in very basic ways you are the same — at a minimum, you share a desire to be happy and not to be in pain — then you don’t want to spoil the happiness of your enemies any more than you want them to spoil yours.

When you truly grasp that it is the projection of your own hurt and anger and fear that turns someone into your enemy, and you are able to recognize your kinship as fellow human beings, it releases the energy you previously invested in defending yourself and your ego. Now you can use this precious energy to work on rooting out the inner enemies, such as anger, fear, and jealousy. In this way, the enemy you so disliked becomes your ally: your teacher, your helper, even — dare I say it — your friend.

Eventually you will even be able to see the beauty in your enemy, and you will feel free of inner anxiety about them. Then, whenever you happen to meet that person, you will notice that they seem less troublesome to you. And your new attitude toward your former enemy will affect them, too, and they will be less antagonistic toward you, though they may not consciously know why. Now you can meditate on seeing your life as one of being among friends.

From “Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier,” by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. © 2013 by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. Published with permission of Hay House.

Illustration by Tiery Le.

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness; her seminal work, Lovingkindness; and her latest, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
Andrea Miller Buddhadharma Profile Richard Gere Robert Thurman Tibet Hous

Robert Thurman

Robert Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and President of Tibet House U.S.