A few years ago a funny thing happened… I say funny, but at the time I didn’t see the funny side. I had invited my Dad and my step mum up to Leamington (from Hampshire) to go and see A Christmas Carol at the RSC in Stratford.
We had just settled into our seats when someone said, ‘Excuse me, I think you’re in our seats.’ Obviously they were wrong- I’d checked the seat numbers carefully, so I got out the tickets to show them…and then I saw that our tickets were for 30 January, not 30 December.
Pow! That was what we might call the first arrow.
The first arrow
According to a Buddhist story or metaphor, sometimes the first arrow just hits us. Or to put it another way, sh*t happens. Of course I could have checked the tickets more carefully, but, really, it was just one of those things.
The second arrow
But, within seconds, the second arrow had hit me too. I felt embarrassed, stupid, and guilty about dragging my relatives halfway across the country.
I couldn’t do much about the first arrow, but the second arrow of self-blame was almost entirely avoidable.
I say almost, because that reaction happened so quickly that I probably couldn’t have stopped it entirely. Very well-trodden pathways in my brain jumped in to tell me that I had let people down, that I would as a result be rejected.
Despite what people may tell you, you can’t really choose how you feel.
Not if we’re talking about that lightning fast automatic reaction. That’s part of the wiring we have set up to survive.
What we can do, however, is to not take the ball and run with it. We can get better at noticing our reaction, and instead of going along with it, we can step away.
This takes practice, because the brain loves to explain things and attach stories. We might start telling ourselves the story of how it was all out fault, how stupid and careless we are and so on. Alternatively, we might start blaming someone else, in an attempt to avoid feeling bad about ourselves. My husband should have checked the tickets, for example.
But with practice and the will to shift the way we’ve always done things, we can start to spot the second arrow coming, and considerably reduce, or even eliminate the pain it causes.
Escaping the second arrow
The first step is to notice it happening. The more often you notice the second arrow, even if it’s after it’s hit you, the better and faster you’ll get at spotting it in future.
The second step is to be compassionate with ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we suddenly decide we don’t ever make mistakes, but that we can learn from them without making ourselves suffer. (You’d better believe I checked the dates the following year).
This doesn’t just reduce our own suffering, but it also has a positive effect on those around us, as everyone becomes a little kinder on themselves.
I love this metaphor, and the example you are offering. It takes time to practice this skill, as you said. I realize now that even though I knew the story, and even posted about this idea on my blog years ago (https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/not-shooting-the-second-arrow/), I am still learning not to do that. It is true about the professional context, but it is the same in the life outside the classroom, too!
Thank you for this reminder.
P.S. Love your blog!
Thanks very much, Zhenya! I’ve just read your post too- spot on. I think this definitely (of course) applies to teaching, and I particularly like the way you link it to reflecting on what ‘went wrong’ in a lesson.