Are you a wounded healer? You're not alone.
Q: I’m a licensed counselor who meets with about 30 clients per week. I’m in a tough place in my own life right now. I feel like a sham sometimes. People are coming to me for my guidance and wisdom but at times I feel more broken than they are. How can I be of much help to them when I am struggling so much myself?
Kevin: I want to invite you to think of yourself as a wounded healer. This concept, which goes back to the Greek myth of the wounded physician, was written about by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung: “A good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself. … It is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.”
The late Jesuit Henri Nouwen brought this idea to many readers in The Wounded Healer. Nouwen, who suffered from depression, wrote: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” and “The great illusion of leadership is to think that [a person] can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
Before saying more about being a wounded healer, I need to say that there are times when counselors or therapists get into such a difficult personal space that they need to scale back or take a break from their work with others. I can’t tell if you are at that point. I encourage you to consult with other professionals about how to best take care of yourself and those who come to you.
I detect some measure of shame in your feeling of inadequacy with clients. Your reference to feeling like a sham reminds me of a simple wordplay I share with some patients. When we remove the last letter from shame, we get sham. Yes, feeling like a sham is a pretty reliable indicator of shame! But notice what happens when we strike the final three letters from shame. We are left with just sh! This is a simple reminder of how to be with our self-shaming thoughts and feelings.
Try using your arms to imagine you are holding your wounded self like a crying infant on your shoulder. Just whisper “shh … shh,” as you gently sway and pat your wounded self on the back. Notice in this simple exercise that there are always two of you: one that is wounded and one that can lovingly hold your woundedness. When shame comes up, with practice we can move toward “sh …” and self-compassion with a few centering breaths.
If I looked around your counseling office I doubt I would see stethoscopes, x-ray machines, MRI scanners, or any other equipment. The only real tool you have in your line of work is you. Being in a process of healing your woundedness is an essential part of doing the work you do. This can include seeing a therapist yourself, but it is also part of why we need to show up to daily mindfulness practice, which teaches us to be aware of our woundedness without being completely identified with it.
I also encourage you to consider doing what I have gradually done more and more frequently during my life as a therapist: Let your clients know that you are wounded and are still in the process of healing. Many counselors are reluctant to be so real, but this is one of the most genuine and effective ways to help others. Be sure your clients know that they are not alone in finding life to be difficult and that everyone is working on healing something.
The American philosopher and psychologist William James differentiated between “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled” people. The latter group consists of those who feel the pain of life deeply. This is not a group anyone is lining up to join, but James felt such people can be more insightful and helpful for others who are struggling than can those who insist on constant positivity. I wish he had chosen something like “compassion-souled” instead of “sick-souled,” but people aren’t clamoring to become deeply compassionate either, because that requires an intimate acquaintance with suffering.
Read more from Kevin and his Soul of Therapy column.
For reflection or journaling:
- What parts of my life can I reframe as essential to becoming a wounded healer?
- What peace or joy have I found in life because of, not in spite of, my passage through dark times?
- Is there a particular chronic wound in me that blocks my experience of joy? Am I staying in the process of healing it?
- When people come to me with problems, do I give them the compassionate presence of a wounded healer or the git-’er-done energy of a problem fixer?
The first line of the nested meditation below came to me when a shocked and grieving person said a few days after a tragedy, “I need to get myself together fast.” Writing a nested meditation like this one leads to letting go of the logical mind so that a playfulness with words can take you somewhere surprising— and often healing.
the wound again and again.
the wound again and again
until it bleeds compassion for all.
the wound again and again
until it bleeds compassion. For all
who suffer, you are becoming a
From Now is Where God Lives © 2018 by Kevin Anderson
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.