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Sexual Assault Awareness Month: The Second Arrow

Did it really happen that way?

El venado herido (The Wounded Deer), 1946 by Frida Kahlo

There is a Buddhist parable about suffering that goes like this: Any time we suffer, two arrows fly our way. Being hit by the first arrow is painful. Being struck by a second arrow is even more excruciating. But why?

When I was being trained as a rape crisis advocate, I was told that the first things a survivor hears after they begin disclosing sexual assault is incredibly important. How others first respond to us—whether right after, or days, weeks, or even years after—can have a huge impact on us for years to come.

What I am told the Buddha meant with the parable of the second arrow is that while the first arrow brings pain, the second arrow is optional suffering that we choose to engage in. But as my graduate school professor Kathleen Flinton put it in a lecture for our class on trauma, the second arrow can also be the response from others after the first arrow strikes us. Maybe you can also think about it as salt in the wound. Harm has already taken place—an arrow has hit us. But the second arrow is even deadlier. It is what we are told to think and feel about the wound from the first arrow.

So in this analogy, the first arrow is the violence we experienced when someone else made a choice to harm us. The second arrow can be what many of us commonly hear: the first arrow wasn’t that bad. Is there even really an arrow there? Are you sure you didn’t ask someone to shoot you with this arrow? Why were you in range of the arrow’s arc? Did you try to block the arrow? 

Sometimes we shoot the second arrow at ourselves. Before you begin the blame game, remember that you can’t change the first arrow that hit you and you can’t erase its mark. Wouldn’t it be great if you could? One day it will just be a scar you can live around. But what you can change is the second arrow. You can pull it out and tend to that psychic wound. You can remind yourself you never deserved to be abused. No one does.

I want to recommend the following resources if you would like to talk to someone about your own experience, or that of a loved one. First, people you are in community with, that you trust. Second, your therapist, if you’d like. There are also hotlines and advocates at local rape crisis centers whose job is to support you. I would also highly recommend Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name and other pieces of art created by survivors.

I truly believe the work of healing is done together. As author Stephanie Foo said in a recent interview

“In this capitalistic society, it’s all about fixing yourself. We prescribe you this medicine, with this treatment, and you take this and you sit there by yourself and you do your deep breathing and your yoga and you get better. That’s your responsibility because you’re the broken one. That’s not really how healing works. Especially because you didn’t become this shattered person alone. That’s the whole point. It was somebody that did this to you. It was a society that did this to you. You’re not going to be able to get better alone. You have to get better with other people. We have to heal each other.”

Frida Kahlo and her pet deer Granizo


Sam Barklow, LCSW, MSW, is a psychotherapist with a Master of Social Work (MSW) who provides individual and couples counseling. She is a warm and empathetic counselor who believes that all of her clients have the knowledge and abilities to feel more at peace and balanced in their daily lives. She views counseling as an opportunity for both her and clients to explore different perspectives, talk through emotions and practice new skills.

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