The Second Arrow: how we multiple our suffering

How often do you experience something painful – either emotional or physical – and you fairly quickly find yourself getting dramatic about it? Or maybe you don’t get worked up, but you start to create a story about what this incident must mean about you, your life, your past or your future?

When the shitty things of life happen – the breakup, the job loss, the debt, the depressive episode, the loneliness, the toxic boss – we feel bad, not OK, unsettled or upset. And as humans, we have a tendency to very quickly hunt for the reasons why the shitty thing occurred. More often than not, we tend to blame ourselves – “There’s something wrong with me. I’m unlovable. I’m not good enough. I’ve failed somehow.”

When something painful strikes and we create a story around what it must mean, we take the thing that is making us suffer and turn it into suffering.

The Buddhists refer to this as shooting the second arrow.

The Second Arrow

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?”

The student replied, “It is.”

The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?”

The student replied again, “It is.”

The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”

When the first arrow strikes, we feel pain.  But, if the second arrow strikes in the same spot, the pain will be ten times worse.

You can’t always control the first arrow or the triggering event:

You can’t control who likes you or what others say about you.

You can’t control whether or not your heart will be broken.

You can’t control if you’ll get promoted or be let go from your job.

You CAN control the second arrow, the story you tell, because the second arrow can only be shot by one person…YOU.

The concept of the second arrow immediately hit home for me as I’m finding myself easily frustrated these days – and it has everything, and I mean everything – to do with making myself suffer because I’m suffering. I’ve been shooting the second arrow (ha! And in some instances, I’ve shot that damn arrow over and over and over again. What can I say? I’m a glutton for pain).

The lack of direct communication in my personal and professional life, the uncertainty of what my career looks like despite knowing where I want to go, the heartache that comes from not feeling good enough, the worry around what other people are doing or saying about me all trigger feelings of worry, fear, loss and not-enoughness. And in those instances, when the pain strikes, when the first arrow hits, I raise the ante and inadvertently double down on my suffering by assessing what it all means about me, my future, my life as a whole.

Not shooting the second isn’t easy. But with practice and compassion we can learn to soften around our suffering.

Soften Around Your Suffering

Notice the First Arrow

In order to not be pulled into the drama or create a story about the event, we need to first be aware of what is causing us pain. This is a rather difficult thing to do as when something painful arises, we have an aversion to feeling the uncomfortable feelings.

You might notice your arrows as emotional pains, physical pains, irritations or frustrations. And when they arise, pause. Take a moment to just sit and be still. Then recognize what is actually happening in the moment. Not what you think it means about you but how it actually feels, what is actually happening inside your body and your heart in that moment.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.

Victor E. Frankl

Recognize the Second Arrow

Start to observe your pattern of behavior when something triggers you and how you naturally respond.

What’s your second arrow? Do you go to complaining or blaming? Do you get overly emotional? Do you close off and start creating stories in your head about what it means?

Recognizing this pattern takes practice because the pattern of self-blame – the stories we create around our unworthiness – is pretty deeply ingrained in us. And when we’re in the thick of the feelings, it can be tricky to rise above it.

Next time you find yourself in the grip of it all, call it out and acknowledge your second arrow. When we “out” the thing that’s happening, we strip it of its power. The things we’re afraid to acknowledge or take ownership of, have much more power in our silence. Simply by saying to yourself, “Second arrow, I see you” sometimes is enough to release the second arrow from your hand in that moment. It doesn’t mean it will take away whatever you’re feeling. And it doesn’t have to. The goal is to circumvent you from creating more unnecessary suffering for yourself and to remember that this part of suffering, anxiety or stress is something you can have control over.

Practice Compassion Towards Your Suffering and Yourself

Even when we can notice the first arrow and recognize the second, which certainly helps take some of the sting away, it’s not enough. In order to really turn the second arrow upside down, we’ve got to indulge in self-compassion.

Being softer to ourselves, in the same way that you would to your loved ones when they are struggling, is hard.

When the second arrow arises, ask yourself: If this happened to my sister, best friend, partner, mother or child, what would I tell them?

And then try to have that same conversation with yourself. Remind yourself it’s OK and that you are OK.

Unsticking self-blame can be hard. Not being pulled into the black hole of our emotional story can be difficult. Awakening self-compassion in these moments can feel like a real hard ask. In these moments we must remember that even though we can’t control what happens around us and to us, we can always adjust our reaction and whether or not we shoot the second arrow.

What shifts will you make this week by not shooting the second arrow? How will you use this concept in work, with your family, in your stressful situations?

I’d love to hear the sensational shifts you experience when you ask yourself, “Do I really need to shoot the second arrow?” Share your insight or story in the comments below 🙂