What do you think of when you hear the word “enemy”? A rival? A nemesis? A villain?   

Enemy is a strong word, perhaps even too strong. You may be hard-pressed to pinpoint someone you regard as your outright enemy.

But a person who annoys you? Angers you? Makes you roll your eyes or fume? Yes, we all have “that person” in our lives: someone who gets under our skin or who we just can’t seem to get along with. Your “enemy” may be a gossipy coworker or an overly critical relative. They may not even be someone you know, but a group of people with different beliefs and opinions than you.

So how are we to approach our enemies?

Understandably, most of us try to steer clear of those we find unpleasant. But as the following spiritual leaders explain, our foes are as enlightening as any leader or mentor.

“…Merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble. So if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies our best teachers!” –The Dalai Lama

Compassion and patience are not values of convenience. They are values of necessity. We can’t choose to be patient only when it is easy. Our enemies give us the chance to put these values into action.

“If we were to make a list of people we don’t like – people we find obnoxious, threatening, or worthy of contempt – we would discover much about those aspects of ourselves that we can’t face… other people trigger the karma that we haven’t worked out.” –Pema Chodron

Enemies can be our mirrors. We may not like it, but sometimes the people who upset us do so because they reveal those parts of ourselves we haven’t made peace with yet. They are a rude reminder that we’re not as kind or tolerant as we’d like to be. Embrace and accept your enemy, and you may end up accepting yourself.  

 “To love our enemy is impossible. The moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion towards him or her, and he or she is no longer our enemy.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

Putting a seemingly unpleasant person in a box labeled “bad” is easier than getting to know them. Understanding your enemy is an exercise in going deeper, so much that your foe is no longer an enemy, but merely a person who grapples with their own faults and complexities.

Our enemies aren’t just rotten individuals we have to put up with. They are people, they are teachers, they are us*. Learn from your enemy like you would anyone else. Everyone comes into our lives for a reason, even those we’d rather not deal with.     

*Having compassion for an enemy is not the same as condoning any harmful behaviors. If someone in your life is outright aggressive, you can maintain compassion while drawing safe, healthy boundaries for yourself.