Reflect on a time when you were in physical pain. Not an acute pain that took two aspirin to get rid of but rather a lingering, chronic type of pain that stubbornly won’t disappear. A good example may be when you threw your back out and it simply won’t heal the way you hoped for. It’s throbbing and diminishing your lifestyle where it becomes a major point of frustration for you and adversely affecting your daily lifestyle.
Let’s call that the first arrow, the arrow that hit a bullseye right on your back. You know it, you feel it, and it’s ruining your day. It’s the physical pain that you can easily identify. But often there’s a second arrow that actually causes you more suffering and this is the emotional pain. This second arrow is the despondent voice in your head that magnifies the pain. It is the mental commentary, the mental judgments you make with self-talk. It creates thoughts that reverberate in your mind, telling you You are never going to get better, You are getting old, You are broken, Everything in your life is falling apart, No one will ever love me. You may ponder questions like Why is God doing this to me, What did I do to deserve this, Why am I so unlucky, Why do I have to suffer so much? You now have two arrows to contend with, the one in your back causing physical pain and the other in your mind causing emotional pain. Incredibly, the second arrow can be far more harmful as it casts fear and doubt and creates a negative identity for you. It plays an internal narrative for you in your head, on a constant loop rewinding over and over again, reminding you that everything is wrong in your life. You can get so immersed in it that if you then stub your toe, then it all comes crashing down on you, overwhelming you with all this misfortune. The second arrow can psychologically bleed into other areas of your life and reinforce every little thing that is going wrong in your life at that moment.
But the first arrow doesn’t necessarily have to be physical pain. It can be emotional pain too, whereby then the second arrow doubles down on the emotional pain. For example, you just got in a fight with your partner. You’re agitated and angrily get in your car and drive off. A driver then swerves into your lane almost running you off the road. You explode with road rage, honk at the idiot and then speed off. As soon as you slow down at the next intersection, you pull over because you are a hot mess, crying on the side of the road wondering why all the world is against you. The second arrow magnifies the scenario, puts it all into a toxic cocktail that bubbles over with anger and confusion. You were distraught with the argument you just had with your partner, but the traffic scene threw you over the edge. You are all wound up, your mind is racing, thinking The world is cruel, Everyone is angry, Why is everyone so mean to me, Why can’t I have peace in my life???
Unfortunately, we often cannot control the first arrow. Stuff happens. You get migraine headaches, your sciatic nerve is killing you, you have chronic IBS issues. Or, equally, you have the emotional sting of going through a divorce, arguing with a loved one, getting fired from work. All these first arrows can create in internal dialogue that tells you You are broken, Not good enough, Never going to be successful in life. But this narrative are all elements of the second arrow and we CAN control this arrow; the second arrow is a reaction to the first arrow. You can make a conscious choice of whether you want to suffer. Pain from the first arrow is inevitable with life but the suffering from the second arrow is optional.
So, how can we possibly manage this? It starts with awareness, you have to notice the internal dialogue that is shaping a narrative in your mind and creating an identity for you. More often than not, the second arrow is a massive overreaction to the first arrow. Question the veracity of all the emotional pain you are feeling, all the thoughts you are having, are they really true? Are you really broken and unworthy of love because you are going through a bitter divorce? Are you really old and falling apart when all that really happened is you threw your back out badly and it’s taking a long time to heal? Try to mindfully disconnect the two arrows, separate the situation that happened from the dialogue that you now embellished and created an identity with. Look at it clearly, objectively, and often you will discover it’s not nearly as bad as the way your mind took hold of it and went off to the races with it. Ask yourself, Do I really need this second arrow, is this second arrow necessary or even accurate? If you can create a gap in your thinking, you are successfully learning a new pattern of response. You will discover you don’t need to dwell in the second arrow, you can release yourself from it and thereby deal with the first arrow more objectively. You cannot always control what happens to you, but you can manage and adjust your reaction to it simply by not shooting the second arrow.