Quiver the Second Arrow- The Paradoxical Power of Self-Compassion

Quiver the Second Arrow- The Paradoxical Power of Self-Compassion

February 14, 2022

Think about the last time you experienced some sort of a failure or disappointment, how did you respond to it?

For many of us, our natural first response is to be self-critical. Despite the advice we have all heard about treating ourselves like we would treat a friend, we berate, blame, and judge ourselves. "I'm so bad at this…I should have known this would happen…Things are never going to change, so why even try?"

While we can't always control the situation or circumstances we are in, it can be helpful to shift to the controllable- how we respond. Consider this Buddhist parable-

If a person is struck by an arrow, it is painful?
If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?
In life, we can't always control the first arrow.
However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first.
This second arrow is optional.1

Rather than choosing to take another painful hit, what if we chose self-compassion instead? While this recommendation may sound placating or over-simplified, it is actually backed by a major body of research, pioneered by Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.2

Read on for a list of some of the top scientifically-established benefits you could enjoy if you were to quiver that second arrow, so to speak, and opt to give yourself some love instead:

Mental Health and Wellbeing - It should come as no surprise that people who are more naturally inclined to respond to mistakes or personal shortcomings with self-compassion are less likely to experience anxiety or depression, and more likely to report general life satisfaction. Generally speaking, self-compassion breeds psychological resilience in the face of life's challenges.2

Motivation and Performance- A common counter-argument against this approach is that self-love might lead to laziness or low willpower. Don't we sometimes need that inner critic to motivate us to make necessary changes? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite to be true! Through a series of experiments in 2012, Neff found that people with high self-compassion show greater motivation to correct their errors, improve on their personal weaknesses, spent more time studying for a test after failing the first time, and even displayed more determination to make up for a perceived moral transgression such as betraying a friend's trust.2 While it might seem paradoxical at first, self-compassion seems to create a sense of safety that allows for us to confront our personal failings rather than becoming overly defensive or succumbing to feelings of guilt and shame which usually only drives more of the undesired behavior.3

Physical Health- Want less back pain, headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems? Try being more compassionate to yourself! We often forget how closely our mental and emotional wellbeing is tied to our physical health, but indeed, in a 2018 study by the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers found these physical ailments to be much less common in people who tend to practice more self-compassion.4 This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that people with higher self-compassion tend to take better care of their bodies through their behaviors.4 Additional researchers suggest that avoiding that 'second arrow' can help reduce the release of common inflammatory stress hormones in the body which can damage our tissues in the long term.2

If you read the above, and your first thought was, 'Well, that's great for all the self-compassionate people of the world, but what if I'm just not one of them?' Don't worry, there's hope! Self-compassion is a skill, not a permanent trait, and like any other skill, it can be trained with consistent practice. When situations arise and you have that second arrow aimed and ready, take a moment to acknowledge the feelings you're having, remember that you are probably not alone those feelings, and do your best to choose kind words in your self-talk. And be patient. No one will do it perfectly 100% of the time, and the last thing you want is to be berating yourself for not being self-compassionate enough.3

1. Mindfulnessmeditation.net, January 2022

2. BBC.com, January 2021

3. TheGrowthEq.com, January 2021

4. Evolvingminds.org.uk, January 2021