During this month dedicated to suicide awareness, I wanted to talk about being a wounded healer.
Psychology along with “medicine exists because of a universal recognition of the terrible suffering caused by disease”. We are tasked with helping our patients comb through their suffering and find the positive possibilities within themselves. We accompany them on an arduous journey through the memories of the past, the effect in their present and desires for the future. We sit with them in their pain, struggle and tears, and hope to be a guiding light as they heal. Through the beauty of participating in someone else’s healing, recognizing how this will affect me as a therapist, mentally, emotionally and physically, can be overlooked, or worse, ignored.
The wounded healer is a concept that dates back to Platon. It is used to explain how health professionals can develop wounds and vulnerabilities, when being constantly exposed to suffering. It is based on a Greek myth about a centaur that was injured by a poisoned arrow but had been granted immortality by the gods. He became an experienced healer, because of this constant exposure to pain. Carl Jung, who founded Analytical Psychology, coined the term “wounded healer” to express this phenomena of deciding to heal others because of knowing what it is like to suffer.
Many theorists have referenced to this when health professionals, who have been hurt, succumb to depression, experience exhaustion, burnout, helplesness, frustration, and guilt, in some cases resulting in suicide. To avoid this, as professionals, we need to draw very clear lines in our work and seek help when is needed.
If I am exposed to suffering through my day to day work agenda, then it will affect me in one way or another. As a therapist in training, I’ve had to evaluate my own limits when it comes to investing my state of mind up to the point when it becomes unhealthy. This has been a constant struggle of developing an awareness and understanding that I am also a human. That I am here to help in any way that I can but, that I can’t save the person who sits on the other side of the desk. I need to receive them with empathy and respect, no judgement, and hold my patients in their pain as they heal with me not as I heal them.
For that, I strive to acknowledge how the environment of suffering within my profession will affect me. I practice self-care. Ask for help when is needed. I admit to my own vulnerabilities, in a way that establishes a more equal and emphatic relationship with my patients. I recognize that I can’t heal everyone and that trying against all odds is a danger to myself. I can make a positive difference in someone’s life by staying healthy and participating in therapy with a clear head, and that is a good step towards a greater beneficence.
References (worth reading):
Barr, A. (2006). An Investigation into the extent to which Psychological Wounds inspire Counsellors and Psychotherapist to become Wounded Healers.
Daneault, S. (2008). The Wounded Healer. Canadian Family Physician. Vol. 54
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.