I recently filled my ears with a podcast in a moment when I needed a distraction – when my own thoughts were leading me to unhealthy places. On this particular day it was Glennon Doyle’s “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast which often leaves me both smiling and quietly contemplating after I venture into an episode. During this recent episode a Buddhist parable was explained. The message sunk in deeply when I heard it and has stayed with me ever since.
Imagine yourself walking through a forest when you are suddenly struck by an arrow. The arrow causes intense unavoidable pain. Then a second arrow strikes causing even more pain. Could the second arrow have been avoided?
Each time we suffer a misfortune two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is an event or circumstance that is out of our control. We don’t get the job, receive a bad medical diagnosis, or a global pandemic happens. This arrow causes inevitable pain. It is out of our control. The second arrow is how we respond to the first one. It’s the one we have control over. If we respond to the first arrow in an understanding, open, and compassionate way we can avoid the strike of the second arrow. But if we respond in a way that simply adds more pain then we are essentially stabbing ourselves with this second arrow.
Recently while out for a run with my leashed dog I encountered a couple walking their own dog. I approached them from behind and made a quick pass, swinging out into the middle of the road as I went by them. Their dog, on a leash as well, reacted aggressively but was restrained by the owner. Immediately after I passed them I heard shouting. I stopped and turned and then proceeded to receive an earful of barking from this couple who was upset because they felt that I didn’t give them enough space when I passed them. They were loud and abrasive. Surprised by their anger, I listened and apologized for not giving them adequate space while also reminding them that they turned around and saw me coming, which assigns a shared responsibility for each party to know their own dog’s behavior and respond accordingly. My dog was not the one that reacted aggressively in this situation so it seemed off to me to be blamed for their dog’s behavior. Nevertheless they felt I passed too closely, so I apologized and was on my way. No harm done – so you would think.
I carried on with my run with my dog by my side and proceeded to replay this encounter over and over and over again in my mind. At first I was proud of how I handled it. I thought they were unreasonably angry and confrontational, and my reaction diffused the situation and got me out of there quickly. But I was angry too. So as I ran I began to play out in my mind a variety of responses I could have said – some polite and direct and others not at all helpful but tremendously satisfying to think about. Then I started to feel less proud of the way I handled the situation. I let these unreasonable people yell at me. I didn’t even fully stand up for myself. I accepted all of the nonsense they were shouting by apologizing when I didn’t even believe I owed them an apology. I began to feel more angry and self righteous. I then started playing out scenarios in my mind about what I would say or do if I came across them again. This went on for my entire run. A time that I rely on to clear my mind and settle my system, and there I was getting all worked up over something so very small. When I got home it continued in my mind for quite some time. I kept catching myself going back to this story in my head again and again. It went on for hours. I couldn’t stop it no matter how many times I told myself to let it go.
After listening to Glennon’s podcast and hearing about this tangible idea of the arrows I realized how often I repeatedly stab myself with the second arrow. I do it in really small situations, like with the couple and their dog where I let those moments steal hours from me in rumination. And I do it with much bigger and more consequential situations where I let those moments become evidence of my brokenness and worthlessness. I take that second arrow and stab the hell out of myself with it until the next one comes. Then I pick that one up and repeat the process.
This blinding dose of self awareness makes me notice two things. First, it makes it seem more possible to change how I feel and how I self destructively respond in different situations. It may be a huge undertaking, but breaking it down into this simple example of arrows offers a sense of control over the outcome – a path towards less self inflicted pain. It also makes me feel bad, almost shameful, to notice how often and how strongly I react this way and how much energy and healthy thinking I rob from myself in the process. Just recognizing how much of a self-destructive default pattern this is for me ignites a natural urge to stab myself with an arrow for it.
This parable is such a simple lesson. We get hit by arrows every day. Things happen. Our car breaks down, we don’t get the job, a relationship fails, a couple yells at you on a run, or (as I am coping with this week) your therapist takes a vacation. We can’t control any of those things. But each time we respond in a way that doesn’t serve us well we are simply allowing ourselves to be struck by a second arrow.
My daughter went through a phase when she was young where she brought a backpack with her everywhere she went. I’m sure this was a phase born from a variety of factors. For one, she was really excited about this new brightly colored backpack that was given to her. She also watched and wished to emulate the grownups in her life who carried important belongings with them in various bags. And she watched just enough kids tv shows, like Dora the Explorer, to know that she wanted to be ready for adventure at any time. So naturally her backpack was filled with everything that her young mind considered essential – a stuffed animal, a toy magnifying glass, a purple beaded necklace, and an empty metal mint container repurposed just in case she needed a place to collect and protect something very small. In her mind she was prepared for anything and carried these valuables with care wherever she went.
I too carry a backpack. But mine is different than the backpack my young daughter carried, and it’s different than the ones you see on the backs of strangers walking down the street. My backpack cannot be seen. It is only felt.
I cannot absorb the kindness of another while in their presence. I try. I sometimes get close. But something exists within me that prevents these types of messages from fully penetrating and resonating in front of others. Instead I have learned that in order for me to feel the full impact of another person’s kindness or support I need to pack up their words and intentions and take them with me. Much like the prized possessions wrapped up and placed in my daughter’s backpack, these messages are protected and carefully carried with me. Later while in solitude I can safely set my backpack down, unzip it, peek inside, and slowly let the messages emerge. Here they can get closer to me, slowly reaching the places within that they were meant for. I can feel a softening inside that was not possible while in the company of others. It feels different. It feels warm and safe and inviting. So I take my time with this process. I let their words linger, fluttering around me at first, weaving and dodging the swift countermeasures that occur from the dark places within. Slowly and carefully they circle around me before landing and softly soaking in. I feel a weightlessness in my chest that makes it easier to breathe. I feel a quieting inside that is almost as startling as it is refreshing. I want to savor these moments. I want to draw them out and let them last forever. So I hold on tight and try to replay their words and their support over and over again in my mind. This often works for me.
Although I wish it was possible to accomplish all of this in the moment, in the face of the one whose words I wish to absorb, that is not a realistic expectation I can place on myself at this time. Maybe someday. But for now my backpack system will suffice. This process has been a part of me for quite some time now. It’s been part of a purposeful progression – of slowly learning to let the kind words of another reach a place beyond the protective surface that tries to filter and distort them. It’s an intentional practice, and one I wish to improve upon.
Lately I have found myself in a recurring place of heavy struggle. My sense of self worth and purpose feels continually challenged by self destructive messages from within. I reach for options and solutions that simply feel like trapdoors, leading me to an ever sinking feeling that the message I am receiving from the universe is that I have no value here. It’s a painfully lonely and desperate hollow feeling that keeps finding me. I can’t see clearly when these thoughts take over, and I feel as though I’ve exhausted all viable options to find my way out.
Surrender is not a choice I wish to consider. So although feelings of being a burden or a soul sucking leach to others are immense at times, I continue to convince myself to reach out for help in the form of therapy and friendship connection. The support is there. I can hear it when I am in their presence. The messages are strong. I can recognize that I need to hold onto them and take them with me. But something isn’t working the same. By the time I reach into my backpack for their supportive words in private it feels like they have disappeared. I can’t find them. They’ve vanished. It’s almost as if a hole has formed in the bottom of my backpack and every ounce of supportive kindness that had been carefully packed in there now trickles out long before I even have the chance to access it. By the time I land in solitude, unzip my backpack, and reach inside I find nothing but dark emptiness. The messages have fallen out somewhere along the way and are long forgotten. I am left with nothing but the internal dialogue that I was trying to override in the first place. I’m left questioning if the messages and support were even real to begin with. Were they ever really there? Were they even meant for me? And why would I think I deserved them?
I keep looking for external ways to pull me out of this dangerous head space I keep finding myself in. What can I do? What can I physically put in place outside of myself to focus on to move forward? While I recognize that external factors cannot fix something broken within, I do know that momentum can be gained from putting certain outside pieces in place for myself. But when I continue to fail in these efforts and begin to spin in thoughts of hopelessness, I wonder how I can possibly continue to keep digging, clawing, and searching to find another way. Maybe nothing can stick. Maybe nothing will help. Maybe there is no outside option right now. Maybe instead of trying to find a way out I need to focus my attention and figure out how to mend the hole in my backpack.
My shame is a shapeshifter. Its ever changing presence lurks nearby at all times. Like my shadow it feels almost a part of me, never missing a step as it creeps along by my side. My shame has evil desires masked by a comforting and soothing facade. It knows me by name. It can sense what I need, and its conniving ways enable it to convince me that it holds the answers I require. Its constant presence is worn like a blanket, draping me in the kind of familiarity that I no longer question while it continues its work to change and steal more and more of me.
My shame understands that patience is a necessary component for its success. It knows when its strength is greatest and waits for those prime moments to slither out of the darkness to strike. When it senses an environment of joy, connection, or engagement it carefully retreats to the background, not in defeat but instead with a sense of knowing that it must patiently wait to resurface later in order to be most effective. While in waiting, my shame compiles all that it needs in the darkness of its lair, gathering each soul piercing ingredient required to overwhelm me when it chooses. I can feel the undercurrents of these preparations. I know it is there and feel powerless to stop it. I know that no matter how much I try to resist and counter it my shame is too clever to reveal its full plan.
My shame watches you. It is learning how to exist around you. It may reveal little morsels of its intentions to you – just enough to make you think it is possible to subvert it. But my shame smiles at these attempts as it hovers behind me with its dagger pressed firmly up against me. It dares you to step closer. It welcomes your attempts to pull me away from it. My shame will simply absorb and catalog your efforts to later assist with its mission when it is required. It knows that your help has limits. Your presence won’t always be there. Yet shame has unrestricted access to me. Your limits will become more fuel doused onto its fiery wrath when it finds me in solitude.
I have learned that naming shame can help to ease its strength. Calling it out by name shines a light on shame and makes it retreat back into its darkness. Its power wilts when this light can reach it. I feel the truth in this, and I try to offer myself this gift of relief by using my voice to dampen it. But my shame is learning too. Like a virus, it keeps shifting and adapting to grow in strength. It is finding new ways to maneuver in plain sight in the midst of a glaring light in its direction.
I need a new strategy. I need a new angle. I feel myself stumbling and submitting. I understand that there is no future beyond surrender, and this is not an option I wish to consider. But my shame has infiltrated my eyes, and I can’t seem to see a path forward from here. My shame is winning, and it knows this. I need to find a new way out.
Everyone has their limit. Everyone has their own personal breaking point. What’s yours? Do you think you know? Do you think you could tell if you were getting close to it? What if approaching this limit was like trying to navigate through a thick dark fog after being bound up and spun around in circles a few hundred times? How are you supposed to know where, when, and how to move when you are unable to even recognize where you stand in space? How would you know if you were standing at your edge – at your own personal limit? Maybe it’s only a matter of one step forward, or back, or to the side that spells safety or peril. But how could you tell if you were that close, and how could you possibly determine which way you needed to go?
Maybe you test all conceivable options. You outstretch your leg in each blind direction all around you, mapping the edges of safety with your foot as it carefully reads each surface like Braille. You find that you are trapped and can’t make safe progress unless you find another way. Something from deep within urges you to keep trying – to find another way. So with only the resources on and around you, you build ladders and bridges and try to make them long enough and sturdy enough to connect you to safety. But everything you construct seems to crumble under your own weight. You try to reinforce your failing ladders and bridges with nuts and bolts and duct tape and super glue and silly putty and bubble gum – with anything that might help – with anything that could make a difference. You try everything you can think of to help navigate your way out of this space. Yet you come up short – again and again and again. This leaves you with nothing but disappearing options. So you stand frozen in place for a while, thinking that maybe a new path will emerge if you can just think hard enough and be patient enough – because hope drives you to believe that a way out must somehow still exist. This flicker of hope is what keeps you searching – keeps you driving towards a belief in what might still be possible. You hang onto this hope. You need this hope. It’s your only way.
But what if while you are waiting and searching and holding onto hope the ground begins to crack and crumble and disappear beneath your feet. As you scramble for new options the edge you fear continues to creep closer and closer to you. You try to get smaller. You try to occupy less space than you require, folding yourself into a ball of crumbling hopeless self protection. Your efforts feel futile. You fail time and time again. You begin to feel a sinking force take hold of you – a convincing voice that echoes a message you do not want to own. Yet this voice tries to claim you. It’s message is loud and very clear. It leaves you questioning everything you reach for and everything you search for because none of it can actually be attained. In the end you start to believe this message. In the end it starts to become a part of you. In the end you realize that maybe chasing hope and purpose is nothing more than a fool’s game.
I crossed the finish line, sweat pouring from me, exhausted and depleted. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know how to feel. I knew it in the midst of the race. I knew it deep inside when I was unable or unwilling to tap into the part of me that would allow an effort to dig deeper and go faster in the midst of hurt. I felt defeated. This was not my best race – not by a long shot. Disappointment poured over me, and this moment immediately attached itself to failure. I failed myself with a poor championship race performance. I failed my team and our chances of a top finish. I failed my coach – the one who I thought believed in me – the one whose approval I worked so hard for – the one who used his position of authority to manipulate and abuse me. I crossed the finish line that day and lowered my head in shame. I knew I let everyone down. I failed.
My mom was a spectator at this race. She approached me afterwards, proud of my effort, proud to be my mom. She didn’t know I fell short of my goal. She had no idea what my goals even were. But she was there cheering for me – no matter what. I hardly even acknowledged her in that moment. His lessons over the years ingrained a message deep within that no one else cared – no one else saw me – no one else paid attention – no one would support me like he could. To keep me close and obedient he taught me that everyone else in my life was failing me. So in that moment I followed his lessons and deliberately brushed past my own mom. I ignored her out of anger – anger towards myself and my own failure that day and anger towards her for failing to see me – failing to really know me – failing to care enough to know what I was aiming for that day. Whatever she wished to say, I didn’t want to hear. So I walked away from her.
When I reflect upon this moment today, in the midst of a cyclone of feelings around facing a very recent grim prognosis for my mom, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My reaction right now is that I failed as a daughter that day – along with so many other days.
I don’t know what to do with all that I am facing. Memories of our relationship from throughout my life are replaying in my mind. Each moment leaves me feeling this sense of failure as a daughter. All of the anger I’ve carried about not being seen by her feels trivial. Instead I want to push all of that aside and focus on caring for, supporting, and loving my mom. But my brain can’t seem to do just that. Instead I pull apart each of these memories and find fault and self blame within all of them. Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my default response self judgement, self blame, and self hate? Maybe hating myself somehow feels like an alternative to facing the pain of losing her. Why can’t I just be sad? I’m losing my mom, and while our relationship has been complicated, I love her and don’t want her to die. I feel the helplessness of this situation driving me towards self blame, maybe because it’s something I can control and it’s something I know. I can hate myself for all of my shortcomings. I can be angry with myself because I’ve been doing that my whole life. That comes easy. But it is also hurting all of the parts of me that I am learning to tend to. Directing my anger inward is reminding all of these young parts what they have always believed. It is their fault. They are worthless. They failed again.
Recently we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. She is a teenager now. On the day of this celebration she encountered an issue with one of her gifts and became quickly and increasingly preoccupied with correcting the problem and making it just right. Tears began flowing from her out of frustration. All of this build up and excitement for this special gift that suddenly in the moment was not measuring up to her expectations. Then mixed with her own tears came self judgment. “I don’t want to cry. I don’t even know why I am crying,” she screamed. Of course she didn’t know. She’s 13 years old and her body is coursing with hormones and changes that make it hard to understand any overwhelming feeling. As a mom I know this. But in that moment my own ingrained messages got in the way of meeting my daughter the way she needed me. In that moment her tears felt ungrateful and spoiled to me. All of the energy, thought, and care I put into making her birthday special, and here she is crying that this one thing isn’t absolutely perfect. I could feel my anger rising inside. I just wanted to lash out and tell her to shut up – that she was being ridiculous, spoiled, and incredibly ungrateful. While I could feel myself boiling on the inside, I didn’t lash out at her. I didn’t say a word. I know my silence sent its own message to my daughter, but in that moment silence was the best I could offer. I found some space to quietly remove myself from the situation, and I allowed her dad to proceed with helping to solve the issue with the gift. As I gave myself this space I started to feel a shift. I began to experience anger towards my own anger. How can I not make room for what is very clearly a response in my daughter caused by an overwhelm of emotions and hormones? She was even telling me that in her frustration with her own tears. My anger and the way I wanted to respond to her in that moment felt so strong, so automatic, and so familiar. And the more I sat with it the more I realized that my knee jerk reaction was exactly the opposite reaction I wish to have for my child in this moment. My knee jerk reaction is what I experienced throughout my own childhood.
Don’t cry. Don’t be dramatic. Don’t be so self involved. Get over yourself. Your tears are weak. Your tears are pathetic. Pull yourself together, and get back in your place.
My reaction in that moment was nothing more than wanting to stuff my daughter’s feelings down and teach her that the tears she didn’t understand were ridiculous and should not be there. My reaction in that moment wanted to make me feel more comfortable by shaming my daughter out of her own expression of feelings. This anger I felt quickly turned to shame. By wishing to stuff her feelings, I am failing to meet her – failing to guide her – failing to see her – failing to show her a healthier way than what I learned. What if I am not equipped to model a better way for her? What if she will struggle in the ways I have struggled and experience the same level of lasting hurt? What if I am hurting my kids? This spiral of thoughts continued and attached to other pieces of evidence in my brain to convince me that I am failing the most important people in my life. And if that’s what I’m doing then what good am I to anyone?
After a little time, tears, and along with a heavy dose of caring support these strong feelings have subsided just enough to make it possible to look at these situations with a bit more clarity. I understand how quickly present feelings can get tangled up with old ones and make it nearly impossible for me to see clearly. I know that my daughter entering her teenaged years attaches to fears in my mind about what happened to me in my past. It makes me constantly overwhelmed and fearful that I am falling short of protecting her from the pain I experienced. It blinds me of all of my strengths and magnifies my shortcomings, convincing me that I am failing her. I know that my own mom is facing this prognosis that is ripping her away from life, away from me. I am scared, and I don’t know how to do this. I know that recent shifts and ruptures in the relationships within my own family of origin is making me feel more alone at a time when I need support more than ever. I know it all just feels like too much and makes it hard to say no to the temptations of numbing relief that simply result in an added layer of failure and shame. And I know I want to do better and be better for my kids as well as for the trembling hurting young one that resides inside of me. Sometimes I just don’t know how.