Dodging the Second Arrow

We discuss the Buddhist parable of the second arrow – the additional pain we cause ourselves when unwelcome things happen – and how to dodge it. 

Listener Feedback

We wanted to share some listener feedback. Sophie emailed us, saying:

“I just wanted to say thank you for your latest podcast episode.

First, because I realize that I am *definitely* in the highly sensitive category, which makes things make a lot more sense now. This was not something on my radar. Who knew my sensitivity to loud noises, need for organization, and constant draw to productivity overlapped so much? 

And, secondly, for mentioning Woebot. I have been using it every day and it has been a game changer in identifying the root causes of feelings that I may not be able to identify myself.” 

In case you missed it, Melia recommended Woebot in our last episode. It’s a free app that uses tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help you identify and cope with stress and symptoms of mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, loneliness and grief. Sophie said it’s really been helping her and her loved ones lately.

Dodging the Second Arrow

The concept of the second arrow can be summed up by an old Buddhist saying made popular by writer Haruki Murakami: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” In life, there will be pain. But our reaction to it is what can create suffering.

We feel the first arrow when we experience something painful, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that pain. But often we shoot a second arrow into ourselves by resisting the pain and turning it into anger, shame, criticism, rumination, etc.

This excellent Vox article by Sigal Samuel unpacks the second arrow parable very well in the context of COVID times. We highly recommend reading the whole article:

In other words, if we can be brave enough to sit with the original painful feeling (the first arrow) even though that feels hard and scary, we can avoid spinning up a narrative around that feeling that will cause us to suffer (the second arrow). Unburdened by guilt, we can be more productive and proactive and actually be effective actors in trying to ease suffering. Taking care of our own emotions can make us better at helping others.

Melia’s second arrows of choice tend to be annoyance or anger stemming from how she thinks things “should” be. And when she turns the second arrow on herself, it’s usually in the form of criticism, “You haven’t gotten much done today,” that turns into shame, “Why can’t you be more productive?,” that can slip into self-loathing – “You’re worthless,” and then despair, “You’ll always be like this.” That’s beyond the second arrow – that’s four of them! 

Gill also gets angry and overwhelmed by the unfairness and injustice of all of the ways things “should” be in the world and in her life, big and small. When she directs the second arrows toward herself, they often manifest in regret, rumination and criticism. 

Tips for Dodging the Second Arrow

Here are a few tips we can all use to break our own patterns and dodge the second arrow that can cause additional harm.

1. Practice radical acceptance and compassion

Accept what is happening and validate all feelings about it — yours and other people’s. A lot of people don’t like the phrase “it is what it is” – but for Melia, it sums up radical acceptance. It doesn’t mean you have to like it or approve of reality, but it’s in your interest to accept it. As the saying goes, what you resist, persists.

Psychologist, author, and meditation teacher Tara Brach recommends using the acronym RAIN to practice mindfulness and self-compassion during difficult emotional moments. This helps you accept reality without fighting it. Rain stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. 

  • Recognize the first arrow. Feel the pain and note what you are experiencing, without judgment.
  • Allow the thoughts and feelings to be there, without trying to avoid or fix them, or getting swept away by them. Pause and accept them and name them.
  • Investigate with curiosity and compassion. Ask questions to start to unpack your emotions. What is behind this? How am I experiencing these emotions? What are they trying to tell me?
  • Nurture yourself and others. Look for ways to practice self-care and care for others. Say a soothing or supportive message to yourself out loud. Exercise, journal, or meditate. Reach out to support a loved one, or donate time or money to a cause you care about.

2. Let go of the “shoulds.”

Most of us carry around an invisible list of criteria about the way things “should” be, and when something happens that “shouldn’t” have, we experience that as the first arrow. We don’t like it one bit! 

This can be anything from a daily annoyance – like the neighbors who “should” turn their music down – to a reflection on what’s happening in the world – we “shouldn’t” have such terrible COVID numbers. Here’s where we can dodge the second arrow — remembering that there is no “should” — there’s only what happens, and how we choose to respond to it.

3. Stop playing The Blame Game.

Do you remember the Berenstain Bears kids’ books? Melia jokingly calls them “those moralizing Berenstain Bears” because each book teaches a lesson on behavior or safety, and it can be heavy-handed sometimes. But they do a good job of weaving them into a story in a memorable way (side note – she especially likes the The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers book). 

In The Blame Game, Sister and Brother Bear are playing baseball inside and break a lamp, and they’re pointing fingers at each other when Papa Bear walks in and says, “There’s always enough blame to go around. What matters is how we work together to fix the problem.”

It’s been helpful for Melia to have the framing of “The Blame Game” when her kids are doing it, or she slips into it herself. Especially with family and friends where you know you’re on the same team, it’s a waste of energy to blame each other instead of channeling that into problem solving.

We’ll leave you with a beautiful Rumi poem that can help us avoid the second arrow by welcoming all feelings without judgment, allowing them to flow in and out:   

It’s called The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness
comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for
some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that we’d like to work on and something that’s going well for us right now.

Melia Get It Together: Not doing annoying but quick tasks right away

Melia’s Got It Together: Adjusting her schedule so she can exercise in the mornings

Gill’s Get It Together: Not sleeping well

Gill’s Got It Together: Making time for music and reading 

Get In Touch

What are the first arrows that you’re dealing with right now? What are your typical second arrows, and how do you dodge them? Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com or send us a voice memo.

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