The Second Arrow – how we wound ourselves with self-criticism3 min read


The voice of self-criticism

When was the last time you criticised yourself after something bad happened?  Maybe you had an awkward exchange with someone at work, snapped at a loved one, or had an accident – then criticised yourself for not doing things differently.  It’s the kind of thing a lot of people do, and with great regularity.  But how helpful is this self-criticism?  I know, and I know you know – it’s not helpful at all.  So what can we do about it?

There’s a lovely parable from within the Buddhist tradition that perfectly captures what’s going on here, and how to stop it:  the parable of the two arrows. And it goes something like this.

The first arrow

Painful experiences are an inevitable part of life. It could be physical pain, like hitting your thumb with a hammer, or emotional pain from feeling rejected, criticised or inadequate. Now, that initial experience is like a metaphorical arrow hitting you. It hurts. Maybe it hurts a lot. But what comes next will often make things much worse.  That’s when the second arrow hits.

The second arrow

Say Joe finds himself walking along and he stubs his toe on the kerb. That hurts – and that’s bad enough. That’s the first arrow hitting home. Now let’s say he tells himself that he kicked the kerb because he’s an idiot who can’t walk properly. Well, that hurts too and, unlike the first arrow, this one’s self-inflicted. That’s the second arrow. Next he might say to himself, “You can’t walk properly, but then you’re not really good at anything, are you”, and – you’ve guessed it – that’s a third arrow hitting home. What’s Joe doing here? He’s telling a story about himself. And it’s not a particularly happy one.

The power of storytelling

This kind of self-criticism can go on and on and on, until you suddenly notice that the ninety-ninth arrow has hit home. And for what?  What purpose has it served, other than to deepen the hurt?  But what happens when you realise all you’re doing is telling a story about yourself?  Maybe it’s a story you’ve been telling yourself for a long time, after all we all have a life script, but it is just a story.  What happens when you strip away the story-telling? “Oh, I just kicked the kerb (and there’s no need for more commentary)”, “Oh, I just had an accident (and there’s no need for more commentary)”.  You’ll find that most painful experiences will just drift away if you stop yourself from getting tangled up in the stories you tell yourself about them.  Over time, you’ll also notice that you’ll fall out of the habit of automatically criticising yourself as well.

Recognising that an arrow has hit and saying “Oh, I’m storytelling again” is often enough to bring this kind self-criticism to an end. It doesn’t matter if it’s the second arrow or the ninety-ninth – the point is to recognise you’re criticising yourself and stop the story-telling.

Stepping out of the story

The next time you find yourself getting into this kind of cycle of self-criticism, try telling yourself that you’re just storytelling and see what happens. You may even need to tell yourself a few times, and that’s just fine – because some of us are among the most persuasive of story tellers. But we also have the power to step away from the storyline we’ve written for ourselves. Try it – you’ll see.

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