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Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
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Don’t Shoot Yourself with the Second Arrow: How not to Turn Pain into Suffering

By Lynne Gots, posted on January 30th, 2022.

Imagine walking in the forest, lost in contemplation, when suddenly you feel a searing pain in your calf.  Looking down, you see blood pouring from a wound and an arrow sticking out of your leg.  Far ahead, behind a tree, you catch sight of an archer, bow and arrow poised to shoot a deer in the clearing. How do you react?

You are in pain, of course. An arrow piercing your flesh is no trivial matter. But what you do next will determine how you cope with the wound. If you clean it, bind it to stanch the bleeding, and hobble home to tend to it, you still will feel the pain. But if you start berating yourself for not seeing the archer, or getting upset with yourself for having gone for a hike instead of staying home to tend to neglected chores, you will be shooting yourself with a second arrow.  

The Buddhist parable of the second arrow is metaphor for how we turn pain into suffering. We often add insult to injury by blaming others or ourselves for the consequences of an action, feeling guilty or dwelling on regret for choices we have made.  The suffering the second arrow causes magnifies the pain one hundred-fold.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to practice not shooting myself with the second arrow after I fractured my ankle when my dog pulled me over onto the ice.  In the first two days after the accident, the second arrow really wounded me. I beat myself up for choosing to walk the dogs that afternoon instead of opting for a trip to the grocery store. I told myself I was a failure as a dog trainer (ironically halfway through an online course, 21 Days to Stress Free Walks.) I lamented having to delay a trip I’d been eagerly anticipating. But three weeks into my recovery, I am coping with the inconvenience and, yes, the physical pain, better. 

What has changed? I still have a broken ankle. I can’t walk my dogs or ride my exercise bike. Going to the grocery store and even just taking a shower require major efforts and logistical maneuvers.  I have no idea how long I will have to wear a walking boot or when I will be able to return to my normal activities. 

But I am practicing an attitude of acceptance.I recognize I have no control over the situation and very little ability to influence the outcome, aside from following the doctor’s orders.  Do I like it? No, but I am seeing it for what it is without adding to the discomfort and inconvenience by shooting myself with the second arrow. 

A little gratitude and perspective also help. I am thankful my fracture, on scale of 1-10 was only, as my orthopedist put it, a 2.  A neighbor told me of her leg injury, much more severe than mine, requiring surgery. I also learned of someone else whose dog pulled her down, causing four broken ribs and a broken arm.  

Removing the second arrow has allowed me to attend to the slow process of recovery without the weight of added emotional baggage. I almost feel lucky.




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