Stuckness along the journey of the wounded healer

Along The Way © 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

I have shamed myself. Not deliberately, but nevertheless actively.

I never dreamed that one day I would research and write about healing psychological trauma. Or the perils of the mental health field. Or its pearls. It was really a matter of bad luck.

As a trauma survivor, I turned my fate into destiny. Writing helps me heal, and I’ve been ecstatic to learn my writing also helps others. Now my personal efforts at healing and helping others heal overlap so much they seem almost synonymous.

Originally, I thought this was purely accidental. That was before I learned about the archetype of the wounded healer while studying counseling psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Turns out this is a common response to deep psychological wounding.

So much for being original. But this wasn’t how I was shaming myself. I understood that because of BIG PHARMA and the cult of professionalism, there was big money and big egos in need of wounded people willing to play the sick role. I wasn’t the only one who had been misguided.

Although I never dreamed of becoming a wounded healer, I did dream of becoming a psychiatrist. My father was a psychiatrist, and so I learned very early in life that such a profession actually existed. It seemed so intangible and magical to me back then. To imagine that someone could use his mind to heal another’s mind — well, to my child self that was even more impressive than a Ouija Board.

During the inception of psychiatry as a medical profession — the heyday of Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustave Jung, Pierre Janet, William James, and Sabina Spielrein — the wounding was still wellspring of knowledge and creativity. Much like the shaman of earliest human cultures, madness was still potentially an initiation into the healing arts — the so-called journey of the wounded healer.

But with the advancement of the profession of psychiatry came an emphasis on diagnoses, such as Hysteria, a prominent diagnosis during the nineteenth century, one that shamed not only the women diagnosed, but had a way of insinuating all women were mentally unstable.

A diagnosis of mental illness has always been shameful and stigmatizing. Diagnoses are evidence of the need for a professional capable of steering the stray mind back towards the boundaries of sanity, if not civilization. Granted, we all need help at times, but being pathologized is rarely helpful.

And lost is the connection between the wisdom in the wound and the art of healing.

I’ve tried to live this socially constructed divide between wounded and healer, inhabiting one side or the other, both socially and in my beliefs. It doesn’t work. It’s a false divide, and like any falsehood about oneself, is inherently shaming and painful.

I’m tired of half-truths and limiting beliefs and damaging social conventions. Especially since they have a way of propagating less than ideal solutions and more suffering, and when simple truths lead to the best outcomes. And really, how few among us aren’t wounded healers? Isn’t it just a matter of degree rather than difference? Aren’t distinctions between the wounded and the healer just another way of constructing Hierarchy and projecting fears of inadequacy, or alternatively, projecting one’s power and idealisations onto another?

So I’ve changed my tagline to Trauma’s Labyrinth | Journey of the Wounded Healer. It’s more in line with my writing and my general beliefs about the direction the mental health field will eventually go if it maintains its focus on trauma.

I feel better already. Less stuckness and no shame.

If you are also fragmented by distinctions between the “wounded” and the “healer,” I urge you to find ways to creatively push beyond this artificial divide. For some, this requires getting in touch with the wounding that compels them to devote their lives to healing others. For some, it means acknowledging the profound wisdom and strength gained through attending to their own wounds.

When I pull together my experiences as researcher, therapist, and trauma survivor, my best insights come forth in the amalgam of these different roles and perspectives. And the greatest insight of all? When these two sides are integrated, the wounded and the healer — both within ourselves and our communities — healing is transformative and enduring.

© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

  • April

    Thank you for this. I too have tried to reconcile the dichotomy of being wounded and also helping others. I am a trauma survivor with PTSD, but I am also a poet, and also a meditation instructor. I try to remind myself that I do not have to live up to some requirement that I be healed and perfect in order to help others…but yes, I feel the societal pressure to somehow not be a mess and also a healer. I often refer to myself as just another messy human, that reminder helps. Anyway, thank you from one wounded healer to another.

    • And thank you, April, for the reminder that being just a “messy human” is okay too.

  • Deena Harbaugh

    Thank you for your vulnerability, honesty, humanness, and wisdom. I enjoy your writing so much! I hope you never stop writing.

    Deena

  • Werner Nieke

    Thank you for sharing your epiphany with the rest of us. Much of it – if not all of it – resonates strongly with me. I’ve also had my “experiences” and sometimes open clashes with the conventional field of medical help and therapy. I was lucky to find others later on in life and when I had grown enough self-confidence to become a better informed and thus demanding patient (spells “pain the neck” for many health care professionals; they don’t appreciate their assessments questioned, let alone challenged). I think you nailed it here!

    • Thank you Werner. I think “demanding patient” is one of the unacknowledged roles of the modern day wounded healer.

      • ComplexTraumaJourney

        Of course, “demanding patient” can also be seen as an attempt of the patient to exercise their autonomy and freedom of choice whether this be in the context of working with a psychiatrist, a therapist or any other healthcare professional. I know as a survivor of major childhood traumas, I did not have much control over what happended to my body as a child. I was drugged, my body was manipulated, I was forced to do things against my will. The ability to say ‘no’ or to question or to propose alternatives was not an option. Too often, I believe that healthcare providers (and I’m thinking mostly of trauma therapists in this context) do not recognize the kind of power they exert when suggesting treatment protocols that require adherence to strict guidelines and regiments. The exchange is controlled and compliance is expected lest the patient be seen as ‘help resistant’ or ‘defended’ or ‘avoidant’.

        I wonder what you mean by “unacknowedged roles of the moden day wounded healer”, Laura? I identify with that role too, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about why you would think this “demanding” would be part of the territory. “Resistance” to me seems to be part of the journey, that is, “pushing back’, “rejecting” and not accepting the rules of engagement. I know for myself, I needed to get to the point where I could *own* my own journey. I’m at the point in my trauma recovery where having ‘treatment’ done to me is no longer an acceptable option for me. I feel I need to have the autonomy to explore trauma healing in my own way without the mediation or intervention of a therapist. The need to make meaning of my trauma or my experiences in clinical terms seems like an imposition and dishonoring of the healing journey which I feel I have begun embarking on. Love to hear more of your thoughts and what you have experienced as well.

        • I’m so glad you expanded on this topic! In my mind, the cornerstone of trauma-focused psychotherapy is the client is always in control — and for the very reasons you talk about. Unless your trauma is a natural or mechanical disaster — such as a hurricane or a car accident, respectively — then the wounding is due to the abuse of power. Therefore, any treatment in which the provider relies on their position to assert treatment protocol is not only not going to work, it risks being retraumatizing.

          I also understand what you mean about needing to go your own way. I think that is part of the archetype of the wounded healer — eventually going your own way and finding for yourself (and sometimes for others too) the path to healing.

          With regards to the roles of the wounded healer, I think there is so much wisdom that comes out of the process of healing from abuse — the kind of wisdom that is needed to create a just society. Many people who go through an extended healing from trauma later become practicing healers, and I think this is a natural progression. Yet the insights gained are needed in lots of occupations and circumstances.

          There is so much that needs healing these days — from race relations to environmental degradation, and much more. And the process of healing oneself extrapolates to a multitude of circumstances. And when you get skilled at seeing your truth and working through pain, you gain a lot of courage to push for truth and justice in general. Call it “demanding”, “being difficult,” etc. But it’s courage the world needs.

  • BPNAPW

    I’ve only discovered your blog recently, but I can’t tell you how highly I value your writing. Thank you for reaching through the muck that surrounds so much of mental health and trauma ‘treatment’ to get at the truth that’s buried beneath.