Eliminating the second arrows of suffering

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a variety of nonfiction audio books as I work. These cover a wide range of topics within the self-help and psychology subject areas, including habit formation (and changing those habits), reducing anxiety, developing better boundaries, dealing with life’s obstacles, prioritizing our highest values in our decision making, and increasing stillness.

What’s fascinating to me is that every single one of these audio books across this wide variety of topics wound up coming back to our thinking being the root cause of our difficulties. Every. Single. One.

It reminds me a story that the Buddha is said to have told. In distinguishing the difference between pain and suffering, he said that pain is caused by the things that happen to us in life. He likened this to be shot with an arrow and the pain that would cause.

Suffering comes when our thinking minds assigning negative meaning to the pain. He likened this to shooting ourselves with a second arrow.

For example, if I am attempting some new venture, and it doesn’t turn out the way I had hoped, the first arrow is the pain of disappointment. The second arrow comes from my thoughts that this makes the venture a failure, that it’s unfair, that life “should be” different than it is, that I am a failure, that I am not worthy enough (or good enough or smart enough or talented enough), that I will always be a failure, that this is proof that I will surely go bankrupt and be homeless and die alone of starvation.

Our minds veering off into this drastic worst case scenario, resistance to what is, and all the self-blame and self-degradation is what causes the pain of disappointment to turn into suffering and the kind of trauma-based beliefs I wrote about in my last post.

These books that I’ve been listening to have helped me realize that a lot of my thinking happens on auto-pilot and are nothing more than habits of thinking.

That doesn’t sound like a big deal until I recognize just how much my thoughts create those second arrows (and third and fourth and fifth arrows) that cause suffering.

Yes, life’s broken places (life’s losses, disappointments, heartbreaks, traumas, etc.) cause me pain, but I’m the one turning those painful experiences into prolonged suffering with my (often unexplored) habits of thinking.

That’s an empowering realization!

I can’t stop the pain life sends my way. That’s not in my control. The only thing I can control is my thoughts, and changing my mental habits allows me to eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) my suffering in the future.

Part of kintsugi living is looking for the gold in our past healing. One way I can do that is to look at past suffering and seek out the ways that my thinking habits contributed.

Even if I’ve healed from the pain of the experience, there’s a good chance that I haven’t changed the thought habits, unless I spent time becoming aware of them (which therapy is often helpful with). Seeking out those thought habits allows me work on changing them to reduce future suffering by avoiding those second arrows the next time pain arises.

By mining our past brokenness for these thought habits and changing them, we have the opportunity to turn old pain into gold.

What thoughts have caused you suffering (second arrows) in the past when life gives you broken places (first arrows)?

Are there any thought habits that frequently become the second arrows in your suffering?

How can you change those thought habits to keep them from contributing to future suffering?


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  1. Sending to a friend. We were just talking about this today!!

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful! Thanks for sharing!!

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