The Second Arrow: Therapy diary, Sept. 4-10, 2020

The Two Monks and the Girl

Once upon a time, there were two monks traveling through a forest. In the morning they came across a river in flood. There was a young woman standing at the ford, unable to cross, as she was too small to brave the rushing river. The older monk asked if he could be of assistance, & taking the woman on his shoulder, carried her safely across.

Late that afternoon, the two travelers arrived at their lodging. The younger monk had been silent all day, & the elder asked what was troubling him.

The young monk hesitated, then blurted out “we have taken a vow of chastity, but you took the young woman on your shoulder across the river.” 

The older man smiled and replied “yes, but I put her down on the riverbank hours ago; you are still carrying her.”

There is what happens. Then there is what we carry with us.

The Second Arrow

There is a parable in some Buddhist traditions that talks about the second arrow. There are several versions, & it is easily found online, so I will leave it to you to read a few versions. None of the versions are very long. As I recall the story, there was a warrior who was struck by an arrow. The healers saved him, & the only external trace was a pair of small scars. But for a long while after, the warrior was beset by thoughts of his errors and the decisions that led to his injury. He thought about it frequently and he was often in distress over the mistakes he had made that day. A friend asked him why he hadn’t removed the second arrow. The warrior replied that he’d only been hit with a single arrow. The friend pointed out gently that the second arrow, his regrets, had caused much more pain than the first arrow. 

When I am submerged in guilt, self-recrimination, regret, remorse, & blame, I am often unaware that I am the one causing myself this pain; I’m wielding the second arrow. I’m unaware because trauma has trained me to react this way. These reaction patterns are really old & were hammered into me when I was young. 

Laying down that second arrow is not as simple as it seems from the outside. For a long time I just thought that this was how the world is.

For me, for most of my life, the self-recrimination was at a level that verged on self hatred. For years, from 4th grade to 12th grade, and on into my military service, bullies made it clear to me on an almost daily basis that I was worthless, & that that state of unworthiness was my fault. My fault, because of everything I wasn’t… I wasn’t athletic, or strong, or tough, or aggressive. I wasn’t interested in the right things. 

To them, every aspect of who I was in my childhood was more evidence of my defective state, proof of my uselessness.

I trained myself to watch myself for the slightest mistake, hoping to avoid doing whatever ‘wrong’ thing might bring the bullies down on me. Decades later, and hundreds of miles from my childhood tormentors, my inner voice continued to berate me. 

Overcoming conditioning like that is not easy. For me, the start came when my stress became nearly intolerable. I was so exhausted that someone trained in crisis management noticed and suggested that I speak with a therapist. I’ve been at it for two years now, & I think that I’ve made real progress. I don’t know for sure where the end is, if such a thing even exists. I believe that I will eventually internalize the tools I’m learning in therapy & increase my awareness; that I’ll learn to notice when I’m going into those unhelpful, unhealthy thought patterns & stop.

One of the things that therapy allowed me to do was to say out loud what my inner voice had been whispering to me most of my life.

Hearing those words helped me to realize that I don’t actually believe those things. 

Here’s an example: I never thought of myself as having any perfectionistic tendencies, but here was my inner voice, berating me not just for real mistakes, real harm I might have done to others, but even for things like not pulling out my shoes from under the bed the right way. 

Because I was so tightly wound, any additional stress was often enough to tilt me over into rages bordering on physical violence. This was particularly evident when I was driving, where I was apparently ready to go into full-blown road rage in seconds.

Sketch of a volcano showing the pressures inside me that lead to eruptions of rage

But gaining awareness of the source of my rage wasn’t the same as gaining control of it. One of the things about my anger was that it seemed to have no precursors. I couldn’t see how to stop something that erupted in seconds.

In therapy, I’ve been able to talk through situations where I’ve had a history of losing my temper, and I’ve started seeing patterns. One of the things that has brought clarity for me was being able to take the ‘personal’ out of the situations where I get so angry. It turns out, I get angry when I’m threatened or think I’m being threatened. As it also turns out, I’ve apparently been perceiving neutral events as personal threats for most of my life. Starting to recognize that there’s no actual animosity toward me in something like a traffic jam, or someone cutting me off in traffic, has been a minor revelation. I’ve started to see that the ‘personal’ here isn’t on the part of the other person. It’s me.

Realizing that the other driver actually cares nothing about me has removed so much of the energy from the interaction. I’ve never been one of those people who sees natural events like floods as somehow being personal tragedies; I know they’re just natural processes. Now I’m starting to be able to see traffic in the same light. 

Taking everything personally was one of the arrows that I wounded myself with. 

I’ve slowly come to a place where I can see that a lot of what I assumed was reality was a sort of processing error. It was as if I had painfully & over a long period had had a filter installed, but rather than filtering out impurities, it added small doses of poison.

As I was figuring all this out in therapy, I also started to realize that I was actually causing some of the problems. Actually causing, not just interpreting neutral events incorrectly. 

Imagine me, a few years ago, having a meltdown in rush-hour traffic. To the old me, the pre-therapy me, this would have seemed like an inescapable nightmare. But from my current perspective, at arm’s length, things look a bit different. There’s traffic. I can’t do anything about that. There’s me, in my car. I’m probably yelling at the guy in front of me for stopping abruptly. I’m also yelling at the guy trying to get over one lane & cutting in front of me, even though there’s not enough room.

You know what? This is my behavior. Maybe I do have control over this aspect of my meltdown.

Let’s zoom out even further. Oh, look! I’m in this nightmare traffic because I left the house at 6:45 a.m. 

I know from experience that I have to be on the road by 6:20 at the latest. Why was I so late? Because I had a second cup of coffee. Why a second cup? Because I was up late the night before. 

This cascading series of decisions, most of which I’ve previously been unaware of even making, led me to sitting in heavy traffic, getting later & later for work. 

Changing the habitual decisions that lead me to being in high-stress environments will not be easy, but they’re literally within my control; at least, far more control than 7 a.m. traffic is. 

Sketch showing precursor emotions, the even, and the aftermath

One of the things that I’ve discovered about my anger is that a lot of it emerges from frustration. Frustration is interesting. I get frustrated at people not acting the way I hope or expect, or the way they’ve promised. I get frustrated with myself for not remembering things or not doing something well. I get frustrated at external things that delay me. Of all of these scenarios, the only one that’s really external to me is the one where someone doesn’t do what they’ve promised. Everything else is an expectation that I’ve layered on to reality.

Some of this is about fear. When I make a mistake, at some deep level I think that I’m going to be yelled at. That I’ll be a disappointment. That I’ll be unloved or even hated. 

That’s my fear of rejection, and as I continue to uncover my fears, perhaps I can see where the external reality & my internal state meet, and get a handle on the internal side. If I can dismantle the assumptions of worthlessness that have soured so much of my life, that fear of rejection may start to fade.

Some of this is a distorted expectation. I keep expecting traffic to be as it normally is. But an accident has tied things up three miles up the highway & I’m late. Other drivers are late, getting stressed, & tempers may be rising. The implication here is that if I had a more realistic view of traffic (for example: remembering that accidents happen) I might make sure to leave 20 minutes early, which should counter most common delays. 

It’s true that most of reality is not under my control. But if I’ve been mistakenly seeing everything as being beyond my control, then I can’t change the things that actually are within my influence.

It’s as if I’ve been seeing reality through a slightly distorted lens, a lens I didn’t know I had between me and the world around me.

All of these unexamined assumptions I had about the world were making my life a lot harder than it really needed to be; and the world is hard enough anyway.

Trying to figure out what’s ‘out there’ and what is a result of my distorted view of the world is hard work, and there’s no telling right now how many things I’ve been wrong about. So I assume there is still a lot of work ahead of me. None of this work implies any sort of guarantee that my life is suddenly going to be smooth going, either. Like I said, life is hard. I’m still going to make mistakes of all sorts. Life will happen. What’s the quote from Shakespeare? “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I’m doubtless going to find myself in high stress environments, & I might lose my temper. But I can see that as I learn and practice these skills of self-awareness, my rages will continue to reduce in number & severity. 

Of course, my BPD is more than traffic rage. Anger at least has the advantage of being dramatic & thus easy to spot. Figuring out other stuff like my day-long melancholies, my self-sabotaging behavior, or nihilistic moods verging on self-destruction may not be as easy. But I know now that these are probably not inevitable parts of my life, and I hope that success in one area might lead to successfully reducing trouble in other symptoms of my disorder.

The first arrow may be out of my control, but the second arrow… that’s on me.

A chart comparing the large part of reality I used to think was out of my control
There’s more in my range of control than I used to imagine.

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