We’ve all experienced “difficult” people in our daily lives. The angry clerk at the bank. The co-worker who’s always talking over us in staff meetings, the professor that’s impossible to please.

The difficult people that affect us most deeply, though, are rarely strangers or casual acquaintances. Often they’re people we love. People we respect. We feel tied to them, not out of obligation, but because they bring something special to our lives that we haven’t been able to find anywhere else. We need them somehow.

And yet?

They also have opinions that infuriate us. They take action that hurts us. There are times their indifference actually feels like a slow and painful death. Sometimes they lack boundaries. Other times they fail to show up when we need them. But almost always, their judgment of our truth makes us question ourselves.

Our natural inclination, when we come face to face with these kinds of people, is to either fight them or ignore them. To take them on or cut them out. We want so desperately to be able to characterize them. To label them as “bad” or “good,” to determine if they’re one of “us” or one of “them,” thinking this will somehow make their actions and intentions easier to understand.

The truth, though, is that like all of us they are both. They are supportive and challenging. They are easy to love and hard to understand. They give us what we need, yet at the same time manage to withhold what we need. And it is that tension– that inability to characterize them as belonging to one distinct category or another– that can, at times, make these relationships feel unbearable.

But friends, what if I told you these people are our messengers?

That that whoever triggers us is brought into our lives by design. That our most challenging relationships were put here to unearth our inner darkness and make us confront it. To reflect back to us the places where we still need to grow. To force us to witness the behaviors we see as toxic and destructive, then explore the subtle and not so subtle ways we exhibit those very same behaviors ourselves.

Because the truth is, these messengers show us that just as they cannot be labeled, neither can we. That the categories into which we’ve placed ourselves and the people around us are just an illusion. That just as we all have light to spread, we also have darkness to confront. And that, in fact, it is often this darkness– the buried fear, guilt and shame we’d rather avoid– that, when unearthed, serves to best connect us to each other, our path, and the world.