Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole

The Parable of the Second Arrow

According to the Buddha, any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the bad event itself, which certainly can (and often does) cause pain. The second arrow is our reaction to the bad event, the suffering we attach to our pain. This secondary pain, he tells us, is always self-inflicted. 

What you might not have been told, however, is that there’s often a third arrow in response to that second arrow! And, sometimes, even, a fourth arrow in response to that one. In fact, every now and then, hundreds of them start raining down. So much so that you end up feeling like this:

(That feeling when someone criticises your blog post)

To give you an example, let’s say I step on my son’s toy lego (first arrow), but instead of accepting this pain, I react by getting angry (second arrow). But then, I get mad about the fact that I’m angry (third arrow). So now I’m really angry. As a result, I lash out at my children for failing to put their toys away, and also my wife, who I decide (because I’m über pissed) is too nice to our kids (fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh arrow). 

Eventually, in a moment of ever-so-brief clarity, I realised that I was being unfair and regret shouting at my family (eighth arrow). But then, guess what? This makes me angry (ninth arrow). So now I’m mad about feeling guilty because I got angry, about my anger, because of my pain, and then taking it out on my family. I think I got that right. Anyway, you get the point. 

You see, there is suffering, and then there is suffering. The first kind of suffering, as Buddha taught us, is equal to pain times resistance. The second kind of suffering is equal to pain times resistance to the power of arrows fired. (That’s real maths!)

Of course, the emotion doesn’t have to be anger. To use a real-life example (I swear I made the last one up) earlier this year, I started to feel sad because of the pandemic. As a result of not being able to get home to see my family, I began to feel isolated.

But I didn’t just feel sad; I felt bad that I felt sad. I did this by painting a picture of what I thought life should be like. Then, eventually, I felt bad about doing that. So, I told myself I shouldn’t feel sad because other people have it much worse. Then it occurred to me that I should be happy even though I’m not. Therefore, I concluded, something must be wrong with me. 

And this sent me down the emotional rabbit hole. 

Secondary Emotions = Suffering

Now, there’s a psychological name for these kinds of secondary emotions, and that’s, well, secondary emotions. These are the feelings we have about our feelings. Naturally, we’re the only animal on the planet who has these, and, naturally, they have a tendency to mess everything up (thanks consciousness). Basically, there are four major ones. Those are:

  1. Feeling bad about feeling bad (think self-loathing)
  2. Feeling good about feeling bad (think self-righteous)
  3. Feeling bad about feeling good (think excessive guilt)
  4. Feeling good about feeling good (think narcissism/ego) 

Of course, many complex reasons contribute to these secondary emotions, including our upbringing, cultural beliefs, past traumas, etc. However, to give you a simplified answer, I believe the essence of the problem stems from a belief that because an emotion feels good or bad, it must mean it/us/the world is good or bad, instead of seeing the feeling as just, well, a feeling. 

Now, how much of this has to do with what, exactly, is up for debate, but (to give you a few examples) one suspects telling boys things like, “men don’t cry” has something to do with it. One also suspects certain helicopter parents who worship their children’s feelings (instead of allowing them to struggle and fail in order to grow) might have something to do with it. The role of social media broadcasting everyone’s perfect airbrushed lives 24/7 can’t help either. 

“How come everyone else is so happy? Why am I not happy? Something must be wrong!

Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad Makes You Feel Bad

At any rate, this belief that something is wrong with us, in particular, is central to the issue of feeling bad about feeling bad. This is because that belief brings up more negative emotions (go figure), which we then see as confirmation that something is wrong with us. So, we end up in this emotional rabbit hole where we fire arrow after arrow after arrow – feeling bad about feeling bad – and on and on until, well, we have depression, or anger management issues, or an anxiety disorder.

Aside from forming a habit that becomes very hard to break, that first arrow pain is still there. So long as we keep firing second arrows, it will continue to do all manner of push-ups, pull-ups, and sits ups in an attempt to get out. That mother is getting ripped! Unless you give it the space it needs, eventually, it will break free and tear you (or someone else) apart.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been firing these secondary arrows for a long time, you may be unclear what your first arrow pain is really about. If standing on a piece of toy Lego turns you into the Hulk, for example, you can bet your bottom dollar that your primary pain has little to do with that piece of toy Lego, or your kids failing to put their toys away, or your wife being too nice. 

On the surface, we may believe our suffering is because of these things, but it’s rarely true. That’s simply the narrative we’ve written over the top of our emotional pain because we believe we shouldn’t (or should) feel the way we do. Of course, we need to drop this false narrative to escape the emotional rabbit hole and process our pain. 

To come back to my previous example, I felt sad for some very understandable reasons earlier this year. However, my belief that something must be wrong compounded my misery. The truth is these difficult emotions brought up secondary emotions related to low self-worth. This is a common reaction that has to do with past trauma rearing its ugly head. I wasn’t resisting my sadness so much as I was resisting my habitual response to that sadness. 

It’s at this point things started to unravel.

Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole

Having a clear understanding of the false beliefs/traumas driving our secondary arrow of choice is important for this reason. Not because it will stop that second arrow, necessarily – unless you’re a Buddhist monk, it probably won’t – but because it will, at least, prevent you from firing a third arrow. If not a third, then a fourth, fifth, or, in my case, twenty-seventh arrow. This awareness gives you an out. It allows you to transcend the false beliefs masking your real pain. 

Baruch Spinoza once said,Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” 

If you’re still suffering – if you’re still firing arrow after arrow – then you don’t have a clear picture of it, despite what you might be telling yourself. For some, it might require therapy to untangle the web of secondary arrows and see that picture clearly. For others, it might simply need a period of quiet introspection. Happily, there is a well-touted meditation that I’ve used to great effect on many occasions called RAIN. I like to think of it like this – when it’s raining arrows, I need to:

  1. Recognise it (become aware that you are firing arrows or experiencing difficult emotions)
  2. Accept it (allow your pain to be as it is/don’t judge it)
  3. Investigate it (look into it with curiosity)
  4. Not identify/Nurture it (understand you are not your pain/practice universal compassion)

After torturing myself for longer than I care to admit, I sat down and did this meditation. I soon understood what I was resisting (it’s always the same). Of course, it had nothing to do with my pain about the pandemic, but what I believed those emotions said about me. When I saw through this false belief – when I could see my demons in the light – the whole web of arrows I’d been firing crumbled to the floor. 


You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot

25 thoughts on “Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole

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