Listen to this story
Second Arrow Syndrome: How We Multiply our Own Suffering, and How We Might Avoid It
Spiritual traditions are big on fables. One of my favorites comes from the Sallatha Sutta in the Buddhist tradition.
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.
I find myself easily frustrated these days, and it has everything to do with making myself suffer because I’m suffering. I inadvertently double down on my suffering.
This happens to all of us: we get hit with arrows every day — arrows of disappointment, arrows of loss and sorrow, arrows of dissatisfaction. Then we feel bad about feeling bad, and we shoot ourselves with a second arrow. We feel bad, then we feel worse. We spiral, and exhaust ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Problem is Pleasure
If I am really honest with myself, most of my stress, frustration, and lashing out comes from a feeling of discomfort. But it’s not the discomfort itself, it is my bad feeling about discomfort that creates problems.
I am so obsessed with pleasure and comfort, that I cannot even handle the thought of discomfort or pain. I contort myself in myriad ways to avoid them. And that is precisely the problem. Because in my push to chase pleasure and comfort for so long, I have robbed myself of one of the most beneficial traits that anyone can have: being able to accept and work through discomfort and pain.
And I am not alone. I am surrounded by fellow pleasure seekers, who’s inclination toward satisfaction and desire for continuous pleasure are being constantly reinforce by a deluge of media and marketing efforts. We swipe left and right, we refresh, and reframe. We skip past the waiting, we circumvent moments alone and moments of silent unstimulated introspection. We inadvertently block ourselves from becoming something more resembling whole.
A Step Toward a Solution: Favor Discomfort
The more I think about all this, the more I think that rather than pursue comfort and pleasure, I should favor discomfort. What I mean by that is that when I am presented with a choice to expend the effort to pursue pleasure or to allow pain and discomfort, I should choose the latter.
And this is not to punish myself, or to go full bore into the land of ascetic self-denial. It is merely to practice at something that I am currently terrible at doing. It is exercise, but exercise for my spirit. The hope is that by becoming more, well, comfortable with discomfort, I will not feel so on edge all the time. If I don’t feel on edge all of the time, I won’t do things I’ll later regret — which I only did thinking that they’d make me feel better.
In short, by becoming okay with discomfort, I can become a better person.
Because at the end of the day, the cycle ends up being the same. You feel badly for some reason or another. So you attempt to soothe yourself with something that makes you feel pleasure. But that pleasure is short-lived. And usually, that thing that you relied on for the pleasure was actually the kind of thing that harms you long term. It sets you back in achieving a long-term goal, or it breaks a promise to someone (or to yourself), or it is just plain unethical.
So really, it is in becoming okay with discomfort that we can come to be better people, and to achieve more. And we become more comfortable with the kind of things that others wouldn’t be. So we become stronger. And on this, we can build.
Only One Arrow
Going forward, I will try to embrace discomfort. I will make due with less, and toss away the urgency to try to soothe any little feeling of desire or deficit that I have. I will most certainly be hit by arrows, but I will not shoot myself with any.
This is not “being hard on myself” — if anything, it is the opposite. Most of the “second arrows” we are hit with are the direct result of too many desires — which have become expectations. When we expect something — especially something that will give us pleasure — and we don’t get it, we inflict even more pain on ourselves.
So the best way to avoid that second arrow is to pinpoint that moment when your desires become expectations. Desire all you want, but don’t let that desire turn into an expectation. All that expectation is is more weight on you, and it adds up. You continue to put weight on yourself — expecting too much from yourself and others. And if anything, that’s being hard on yourself. Learning to expect less — and even desire a bit less — is actually going easier on yourself. But that’s the weird thing: it’s actually really hard to go easy on yourself.
So do the hard thing, and go easier on yourself. You’ll have a much lighter spirit as a result.