Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

A recurring theme in therapy is the Buddha’s second arrow. It refers to the fact that whatever is difficult or painful in life is exacerbated by the negative self-judgment we inflict on it.

This is a crucial concept for separating pain from suffering. As the Buddha supposedly said: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. There are many things in life that can cause emotional and physical pain, but we exacerbate it when we put ourselves down for how we react, when we think we shouldn’t feel what we feel.

Focusing on the Buddha’s second arrow is helpful because it reduces our suffering, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the first arrow, while not a mortal wound, hurts. Sometimes, it hurts a lot.

The whole point is that we can’t always control the first arrow. Most of the time, it’s simply life having its way with us. The second arrow is another story. When we put ourselves down for anger at feeling emotionally overwhelmed, or anxiety about a health issue, we don’t allow the natural flow of emotions to a truly difficult or painful situation. By acknowledging how we really feel about something, whether it’s anger, grief, or anxiety, we can process it more fully, and we can still deal with the challenge du jour (the first arrow).

The Buddha’s second arrow can be very sneaky. It hides in plain sight when we think things like:

Buck up!

Stop being a wimp!

Self-pity is emotional indulgence.

Plenty of other people have it worse than you do.

There’s no reason for you to feel this.

Stop being so negative.

You should be grateful for everything good in your life.

You can do better than this.

You have no reason to be depressed, anxious, angry, etc.

Get over it already.

It’s easy to see how putting oneself down for reacting to difficult life experiences only magnifies pain. Sleuthing out those deeply held, yet often hidden, self-critical beliefs can be incredibly challenging. One way is to ask yourself: 

Can I allow myself to experience this, whatever it is, without thinking that I should be experiencing it differently? 

If I am angry, let me allow myself to feel angry. 

Let me give myself permission to feel all my emotions, even if they seem unproductive; and, especially, if they seem disturbing. They won’t last. Nothing does.

Some might say what’s the point in feeling angry,? It won’t change the situation. The point is to feel the feeling.

Here’s an example:

A couple of months ago, I heard a very loud noise outside one of my windows. I took a look and noticed that somebody was chopping down a very old, beautiful pine tree on my property. They had started at the top, so there was no saving it as they were already halfway down the trunk. Unbeknownst to me, my neighbor noticed some of the branches were touching his house and he would get rid of the whole tree. This neighbor is not somebody with whom I want to engage. I know that nothing will bring the tree back and it’s unlikely anything good will come from confronting him. So, what to do? On a practical level, I hired somebody to dig out the stump and clear the land, and I’m in the process of trying to figure out what to plant there. But what about my anger? It’s clearly my property and he had no legal right to do that, but I can’t bring back the tree, and I can’t turn this person into someone who will think differently. It’s a done deal. Actually, when I looked at it, I realized anger was one of the ways my grief was showing up. Intellectually, I knew that expressing my anger to him, or expressing it in some other physical way, like hitting a pillow, would be a fool‘s errand, so I didn’t do either one. On numerous occasions I acknowledged I was angry and let myself feel sad. Yes, it’s only a tree, but I was bullied, and I didn’t like it. Allowing myself to feel anger and grief didn’t bring back my tree, nor did it change my neighbor, but being honest with myself helped move the experience along.

At no time do I recall thinking I shouldn’t feel my feelings, though I knew that no matter how much I felt them there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation.

In a case like that that, I could have easily suppressed my anger and grief, since expressing it wasn’t conventionally constructive. But that’s not the point. The point is to feel our feelings. They are there for a reason. They help us process life experiences. No one works to stuff their joyful, happy, or delighted emotions. Why not assume that the darker ones are equally important?

Getting back to the Buddha’s first and second arrows. If we allow ourselves to fully react to the first arrow without self-downing, we might be able to avoid the pain of the second arrow.

Giving ourselves permission to feel everything, even when those feelings challenge our sense of who we are, scare the hell out of us, or seem as if they will never end, is the path to less suffering. Reacting to the first arrow may feel unpleasant, but it’s honest and real. When we think we shouldn’t feel anger, for example, because it’s pointless, unproductive, and probably won’t change someone or something, we cut ourselves off from our feelings. This would be OK if they vanished, but they just go into hiding and accrue. Eventually they come out in physical symptoms, addictions, or self-defeating behaviors.

The Buddha said there were only three important things in life: kindness, kindness, kindness. He also said there is no one more deserving of compassion than you. Allowing yourself to feel your feelings is the kindest, most compassionate thing you can do for yourself in any situation. I know it’s hard, but you’re worth it.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.