The Tale of the Two Arrows

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When we face challenges or fall on hard times, when we are struggling in one or more relationships or experiencing some kind of professional or personal setback, what role does self-criticism play?

Read this when you need a reminder to transform self-criticism, blame, and judgement into self-compassion >

If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have said self-criticism was necessary so I did better next time. But is that true? This is one of the many inner critic-related questions I’ve been exploring over the last few years. Repeatedly (although my inner critic wants to convince me otherwise!) the answer is “No.”Recently, I heard an episode of the podcast Unruffled with Janet Lansbury in which she interviewed her sister-in-law, psychotherapist Tasha Lansbury. The podcast is about parenting so their conversation was specific to parenting challenges, but the analogy Tasha shared applies to daily situations that occur across every area of life. This inspired the post I share with you today:Imagine a bow with two arrows, one of which has already been released. The first arrow is a difficult life event, challenge, or issue. It’s arguing with your spouse or kid, it’s losing your job, it’s finding out you have a serious illness.The second arrow, which is in the bow, ready to be released, is your judgement, criticism, or negative thoughts about the first arrow. It’s beating yourself up, blaming yourself, sliding into a victim mindset, allowing your inner critic to take over and run the show. When you shoot this second arrow, you do so straight into the wound caused by the first, making it deeper, wider, more painful.You don’t need to shoot this second arrow. The first arrow is painful enough; you already have enough to deal with. Instead of shooting the second arrow into the wound of the first and making it worse, we can choose to begin healing. That starts not with self-blame or self-pity, but with self-compassion.So how does self-compassion help during challenging times? We all know having someone show compassion and empathy for us is more helpful than having someone criticise us when we’re already down, and the same principle applies to our relationship with ourselves too.Studies (such as this one quoted in Psychology Today) have suggested people who practice a self-compassionate mindset are more likely to take corrective action, improve on previous mistakes or failings, and do so with a greater sense of optimism than those who don’t. When I think back to times my inner critic has gone on the rampage in the past, the feelings of shame provoked by this inner voice made me more likely to bury my head in the sand and pretend nothing had happened than to course correct and learn from the experience.One way to invoke a more self-compassionate response, as demonstrated in the studies above, is to use journaling. The researchers asked participants to spend just three minutes writing their response to this question:"Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness/action from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?"So, when times are tough, put down that second arrow and pick up a pen instead! Look at the situation—and yourself—through a compassionate lens. Be open to exploring what steps you need to take to make things better, or what you could improve upon next time. And do so not from a place of self-blame or judgement, but from accepting the fact you are human and the best way forward lies in self-compassion.Further reading: Evolution, Growth, and Finding Your Golden Buddha & What Japanese Pottery Can Teach Us About Feeling FlawedPhoto by Denise Johnson on Unsplash