That sounds like an awful suggestion, doesn’t it? But the truth is, life is painful. Buddhists share the parable of “the second arrow” to illuminate the inevitable pain of life built into the human journey.

All of us are hit with the first arrow, the pain of vulnerable life. The first arrow cannot be avoided because life is filled with losses and limits. That is just life. But suffering is optional. The sting of the second arrow, suffering, comes from all the things we do to avoid our pain.

The lesson here is when we FEEL the pain of the first arrow, we can come out the other side more resilient, having faced and felt the truth. But when we avoid feeling pain (by doing all of the clever, avoidant things we know how to do), the second arrow pierces us, and we suffer.

I love this parable because pain and suffering can be likened to emotion and defenses. Emotion is painful but time-limited (like a wave) and is transformational. Defenses (what we do to “not” feel) are less acutely painful than emotion (which is why they seem like a good idea in the moment we escape into them), but they create all the sticky problems that bring people in my door: anxiety, depression, intimacy problems, disconnection, numbness, compulsive behaviors, addiction, loss of meaning and purpose… the list goes on.

If we can feel emotion, whether joy, sadness, shame, or anger, we can ride it through to a growth-promoting place. But when we resist the pain of emotion, we are struck by the second arrow and stuck in suffering.

It is so human to resist feeling the pain of vulnerability. That first knee-jerk resistance is not the problem. We simply need to notice our resistance. Then we need to do the hard work of loving ourselves in our limits. We need to do the counterintuitive work of embracing unrest and feeling emotion so we can be fully alive.

You are so worth it. Let’s do this.

Recent Blog Posts:

Embracing Unrest

I’m excited to announce my first book has a launch date! Out October 18th, 2022, Embracing Unrest: Harness Vulnerability to Tame Anxiety and Spark Growth answers the question: why is it so hard to “be here”?

View my “Embracing Unrest” column on Psychology Today!