The meaning of the term “Wounded Healer” has expanded from Carl Jung’s original concept of the archetype to cover the study of any professional healer who has been wounded. This can include counselors, psychotherapists, physicians, nurses, social workers, clergy and educators. Jung based the term on the ancient Greek legend of Asclepius, a physician who in identification of his own wounds, creates a sanctuary at Epidaurus in order to treat others.

Those of us who are in the helping professions may find that experiences of illness, aging, trauma, death, or loss will bring us into the archetype of the wounded healer. There have been times in my own life when I experienced traumatic events, persistent physical pain and mental suffering. I am not a stranger to the feelings of hopelessness and despair, the darkness of depression and the paralysis of anxiety. This was my initiation as a wounded healer. Through acceptance, surrender, and a great deal of support, I found that the process of my own healing deepened my compassion and understanding of others who are wounded themselves. It has given me a deep desire to help others transform their pain in profound ways. I now shamelessly consider myself a “Wounded Healer”.

The truth is that we became healers, mentors and teachers because of our wounding.

Without honoring and acknowledging our own precious scars, we cannot know empathy or compassion.

Kintsugi, is a Japanese fine art of repairing–instead of throwing away–fractured pottery and ceramics with liquid gold or silver.

It is a beautiful metaphor for the wounded healer. It is a methodical, meticulous process that utilizes natural binding material called Urushi lacquer, which has been sourced from the Rhus vericiflua plant for thousands of years. This mending enhances the broken areas or “scars,” resulting in refined pottery that increases the value of the broken object. Forever changed, forever unique, forever magnificent .

As we go through life we will acquire physical, emotional and mental scars. It is a normal and inevitable part of the human experience. For some, it can be trauma from an unrelenting tragedy, a deep grief or sadness that lingers, a loss in the physical form (disability) that requires a new way of ability. Illness, trauma and loss change us. Kintsugi teaches us we cannot go back to the way we were before, but we can move forward with this new precious way of being, if we work the meaning of it. We can find profound healing that brings a deeper wisdom and appreciation for our existence.

Life is non-dualistic. It happens through us, not to us. It is never all tragedy or all happiness. We cannot know wellness without illness, happiness without sadness, joy without grief, darkness without light. With every scar, there is an opportunity to create anew from the parts that seem “broken”. We needn’t cover up or hide our scarring in shame or fear of judgement. Instead, let us take the lessons of Kintsugi and become the beautiful “human” art leaning into the power of suffering, rather than resisting it.

During my healing journey I persevered through the pain with an endless list of healing modalities and healers, my spiritual practice, and my longing for peace.

Over time, the pain became more bearable. I was able to walk alongside my pain rather than run from it. The despair required me to return to my faith and spiritual practice as if my life depended on it—because it did. The healing process insisted that I sit myself down in the “client chair” and deeply explore the meaning of my wounding through Jungian analysis. The isolation of separation urged me to reconnect with others and to allow myself to receive love’s golden light so that it could pour over the scars in my heart. The anxiety required me to be courageous and truly understand what it means to live in the here and now. The pain stripped me of the identity I thought I was, to become who I am here to be.

Healing is not a science.

Voltaire said that the physician’s role is to humor the patient while the body heals itself. We practice an art—one that is hopefully creative, inspiring, supportive, nourishing and authentic. It requires us to “trail blaze” our own healing journey and acknowledge our own wounding first, before healing others. This is the alchemy that fosters the healing.

I have had the honor of helping many wounded healers…

and what seemed to be similar among all of them is that they were all courageous enough to ask for help, while expressing fear of judgment—or far worse, self judgement for not being able to heal themselves. After all, Hippocrates said, “Physician, Heal Thyself.” In almost all of the clients I worked with that are healers, the profundity of feeling like an imposter or fraud, the shame for not being able to be the role model of health, was significantly severe. Each client had fear that they will no longer be allowed to practice if it became known they were not well. They were afraid that they would be seen as impaired if they showed they were wounded or unwell. I felt that way too during my healing process.

Let us remember the definition of impairment.

Impairment does not mean that a person is unwell. Impairment means that the person:

  1. Is not aware that they are not well and therefore makes decisions that put themselves and others at risk or harm.

  2. Does not seek the appropriate treatment to be well.

  3. Disregards the best interest of their clients/patients/students/congregantswelfare.

  4. Does not seek consultation or supervision and continues to practice  unethically, therefore possibly causing harm.

Yet, for some of us, the risk of acknowledging our own need for healing and asking for help to prevent impairment and protect our patients and clients, can come with great consequences. After all, we are the “experts!” We should know better, we should know how to be well. I can recall a time when my doctor said to me, “You’re a therapist, you already know this,” when I was seeking help. I felt ashamed and unsupported. His statement reinforced the belief I had of myself at that time. “There is something wrong with me, I have done something wrong. I should be able to overcome it alone with the knowledge I have.”

The stigma of mental illness and punitive actions within the healing community is real.

We are our own worst enemy. I have had mental health professionals contact me requesting consultation or supervision and before they begin to speak, I feel responsible to pre-warn them that consultation and supervision is not always confidential, but therapy is. Often they then request therapy. There is fear in speaking even to another healer regarding concern for our own well-being.

In the addiction recovering community, it has been well established that many counselors are wounded healers. Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, knew of the healing power of a recovering alcoholic helping another through their own wounding. Many addiction counselors are in recovery from substance abuse disorders, mental illness, trauma, etc. Often times, it is a common practice that they disclose this to their clients as a means of developing rapport and trust.

Why then, is it considered unprofessional conduct in other healing communities if a practitioner discloses that they too are in recovery from a mood disorder, chronic illness or are a sexual abuse survivor? Why do we perpetuate the shame amongst our own? When is the last time your physician came out and said that they are a recovering alcoholic, or that they are a survivor of sexual abuse, or that they suffered a tremendous trauma beyond their control and truly understand what it means to have trauma informed care? Practitioners that are authentic and self-disclose their own wounding and recovery within appropriate boundaries can ease a patient/client’s discomfort and establish trust, while also retaining focus on the client’s care. We certainly don’t want to give our wounding to the client to carry. The art and technique of self disclosure certainly requires thoughtful discretion and finesse. When done well, it can deepen the recovery process for the client or patient.

Recently, while having a surgical procedure, a nurse informed me that she had Chron’s disease as a way of showing understanding and compassion of my physical pain and healing. Regretfully, she felt the need to say, “Now, that’s just between you and me” in fear of repercussion for showing her humanness. I was so grateful she disclosed, because I felt more connection, safety and respect. I was grateful she was helping me. She modeled how to carry on with a chronic and life threatening illness while compassionately caring for me and her other patients that day.  She gets it. 

So what is the first step in helping the wounded healer?

How can we allow ourselves and fellow colleagues to “come out” in our human fragileness and ask for help? How do we disable the shame? How do we embrace our fellow colleagues and health care practitioners who are suffering without consequence? Perhaps the answer can be found in the precious art of Kintsugi. Honoring and finding the beautiful, invaluable scars in ourselves first. Can we pour golden compassion over the suffering we endure so we can help the suffering of those in our care? We are stronger and beautiful  in the broken places. Forever changed, forever unique and forever magnificent.

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About the Author: Elizabeth Hartshorn
As a Licensed Professional Counselor located in Lake Oswego and West Linn, Oregon, I bring the credentials and 30+ years experience to effectively treat adults and "the Wounded Healer"-healthcare professionals - in addition to the wisdom of my own healing journey. I am a nationally certified Master Addiction Counselor, former adjunct professor in the counselor education program at Portland State University and have provided clinical supervision for new therapists for the last 10+ years. I served on the Oregon Board of Professional Counselors and Licensed Therapists, and continually engage in my own ongoing professional training and personal development.

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