The Feedback Second Arrow

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In one of the Buddha’s teachings, he tells the story of two arrows. The first hit you; it was beyond your control.

You feel the sting of it.

You hold another arrow in your hand. It’s made up of your judgment for being hit with the first one.

“I’m so dumb,” you think to yourself. And with those words, your thoughts serve as the energy force that stabs the second arrow into the wound caused by the first one.

This second arrow causes the sting to turn into suffering that feels unbearable.

Now imagine the first arrow not as something that pierced your skin but as a natural feeling that arose in you, such as fear, greed, or craving.

The second arrow, then, is our judging, ridiculing, or even hating ourselves for feeling the first arrow.

Instead, what if we brought awareness to what the first arrow might have to teach? What if we spent time acknowledging and feeling the feelings it evoked?

“Hi there, fear, familiar friend. This is what you feel like. I see how my heart races a bit. I feel my palms sweating. I can be with you and breathe through you right now. I know you will pass as you always do. What else might you be able to teach me?”

Here, we’ve allowed the first arrow to serve as a period of practice. In this practice, there are a host of potential learnings, including:

  • how to feel our feelings rather than react to them
  • how to be with rather than run away from what’s uncomfortable
  • how to be resilient rather than self-harming
  • how to avoid the second arrow

These are practices in the truest sense. Intellectually understanding them is not enough. It takes practice to form the habit of pausing rather than reacting, of taking a breath (or two or three or far more) between stimulus and response. This is one reason why mindfulness practitioners keep showing up for practice—they feel their skills improving as they do. As the Buddha encouraged: don’t take his or anyone else’s word for it. Experience it, test it, and see if it works or not.

A common rebuttal goes something like:

“Well, I am stupid for being scared to present tomorrow. I’ve done this a million times, so it’s truly idiotic for me to feel this way.”

Here, you see someone trapped. For various reasons, they believe they must ridicule themselves and forcefully insert the second arrow to feel some accountability.

But, as clinical psychologist Tara Brach writes at Psychology Today, there’s wisdom in admitting that “it’s not my fault” because it usually isn’t. These initial feelings arise naturally out of the primitive parts of our being. Ridiculing only denies our human experience and pulls us away from actually understanding how this human experience works. Brach writes:

“When we can say,’ It’s not my fault’, it actually enables us to be more responsible and more accountable. It’s the self-blame that actually locks us into repeating the patterning. Realizing that the first arrow is out of our control and releasing self-blame is the beginning of bringing forth the awareness that can free us from the pain of the second arrow.”

The Buddha’s teachings on the second arrow (Sallattha Sutta) have immense application today, far beyond the mindfulness communities where they are often shared. It’s a parable that helps us bring awareness to, take ownership of, and understand the forms of second-arrow suffering we get stuck in (and many times try to blame on others).

The second arrow of feedback

What does this have to do with feedback?

Have you ever received negative feedback, felt bad about it, and then metaphorically beat yourself up over feeling so bad about it?

Have you ever not received positive feedback when you thought you should, felt the sting from its absence, and then felt anger arise at yourself or your manager as a result?

Have you ever felt anxiety or fear about seeking feedback and then judged yourself so harshly for those feelings that you took no action?

In my experience as a feedback receiver, team leader, and feedback trainer, these are a few very common examples of how we use the second arrow to inhibit our learning and professional growth.

Over time, using the second arrow builds it into our habit. As the neuroscience quote about synaptic strengthening goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” When this happens, we may think we seriously dislike feedback. The reality, in many cases, isn’t that we dislike feedback; it’s that we dislike and want to avoid the second-arrow self-harm we cause around aspects of it.

For many, this story, its lessons, and the practice can be the first step toward a healthier, more reality-based path forward in their life (and certainly in their relationship with feedback).


Continue reading

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  2. Leveraging Asynchronous Feedback
  3. Facilitating Employee Feedback Training