On being a wounded healer

Many doctors worry about treating people when they have had similar issues themselves. They often worry about being triggered. Or feel in some way that this life experience undermines their confidence or competence in treating others. It’s the equivalent of saying: “How can I help other people when I haven’t even got my life under control?” 

However, there’s another entirely different way to see this. As Carl Jung wrote in 1951 about the concept of a wounded healer:

We could say, without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply, consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient. It is no loss, either, if he feels that the patient is hitting him, or even scoring off him: it is his own hurt that gives the measure of his power to heal. (My emphasis)

As a coach, I can only help someone else deal with a challenge inasmuch as I’m aware of some similar emotional experience in myself. The situation does not have to be the same –  nobody else can ever replicate another person’s life experience. But a little like Miss Marple, in most cases I try to find something in my own life history that this ‘reminds me of’. A certain emotional energy that I tap into internally from where it feels to me, the ability to help others springs from.

This not only gives rise to empathy and compassion – vital for the process of healing and personal growth, but it leads to a sense of humility and shared humanity with the people I work with. A sense that we are all in this together – and we are all here to help and support each other manage this thing we call life.

This is so important – because time and again in the psychological literature it appears important the physician, or healer or helper is journeying with the person seeking help. 

But inasmuch as this is helpful for clients/patients. I believe the helper has as much, if not more to gain. 

In my experience – far from being triggering for pains long past, it is healing for me as well in some way. Sometimes in helping another person, it reinforces some previously learned tool or strategy. Other times, in the act of helping others, as I hear myself speak, I stumble over my own A-HA moments and gain a qualitatively different insight into myself, other people and the world. And so I find this sense of a shared cognitive and emotional space facilitates growth and healing for both helper and helped.

What does this mean for doctors

As much as this is true for people working in talking therapies based on relationship – I also believe it is true for other types of health professionals working in more technical or physical arenas. After all, healing involves not just fixing whatever ails the body in a dispassionate way – but for the vast majority of clinical encounters there is also a relationship and a connection between doctor and patient that facilitates and promotes healing – the therapeutic relationship.

Even when we are working with people with illnesses and problems that have (on the surface) nothing to do with mental health, there will inevitably be some lifestyle adjustment or identity change required. And motivation to adhere to treatment – which is especially important with those often difficult to sustain lifestyle changes. Relationships are critical for that – and so is the concept of a wounded healer. Because no matter our mental health – we all have challenges and tests in life requiring adjustment and courage.

For some it’s in financial areas, for other it’s to do with children or family, and for other’s it’s about health. But there does not seem to be any escaping the inevitable challenges that life throws up to us on a continual basis. 

So when we have someone we are helping in front of us, yes – do what needs to be done to ensure their physical wellness. But don’t forget to tap into the sense of shared humanity. Just as this is a person facing a challenge – so to you are a person facing an inevitable challenge. And for many doctors and health professionals the challenges can be great.

Embrace your woundedness

As strange as it seems, what I’m suggesting here is that we somehow embrace our own pain and wounds as an inevitable part of life rather than fighting against our challenges and wounds by pushing them away and denying them or using substances or sex to numb their pain. 

By embrace – I don’t mean to accept a situation you can change. But rather embrace the idea that suffering and pain are universal and can be an experience that you can use to help others in some way – and in so doing give the pain itself some meaning. Because, as Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering…

I think it’s worthwhile remembering -that as much as you have to give another person, inevitably they have as much to give you. In that point where two people communicate on a level of shared humanity – there is much love, compassion and wisdom that transcends both as individuals and can have the power to bring healing and comfort – but can transform you both.

So perhaps you in your pain have even more to offer others. Perhaps letting a little of our woundedness show may be healthier for us all.

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