In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is wounded healer.
The concept of wounded healers was first described in the modern field of psychology by Carl Jung, who used it to describe psychoanalysts who ha chosen to go into clinical practice because of their own psychological wounds. However, the idea dates back to ancient Greek times.
In Greek mythology, the god Chiron was the wisest of the centaurs. He was wounded by an arrow from Heracles that was tipped with blood from the Hydra. Because of the Hydra’s blood, the painful wound would not heal. As he was an immortal god, the wound did not kill him, so he roamed the earth healing others. Chiron was later transformed into a star, and the star Chiron represents the wounded healer in astrology.
The notion of wounded healer in medicine was also described by Plato; he said that the most skillful physicians are those who have suffered from illness.
The idea of wounded healers also exists across multiple cultural and spiritual contexts, including shamanism.
The Jungian archetype
Jung was a psychiatrist and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. He drew on the anthropological concept of archetypes to describe recurring and universal mental themes and instinctive patterns of behaviour. Some of these he linked to ancient mythology; for example, the Ancient Greek Apollo and Dionysus as representative of the introvert and extrovert archetypes.
Jung associated Chiron with the archetype of the wounded healer, who uses their own woundedness to promote healing and empathetic understanding. This would require that the healer be able to acknowledge their own wounds and have made substantial progress in their own recovery. Wounded healers are able to walk alongside the client/patient rather than acting as their superior, and careful self-disclosure may promote hope for recovery.
Wounded healers in multiple fields
The concept of wounded healers has been expanded to apply not just to psychotherapists but also other forms of healers, including physicians and nurses. It can help bring professional and patient together to stand beside one another co-create something better.
In a survey of nurses with depression by Caan end colleagues, many participants described their illness as benefiting their nursing practice in various ways, including improved understanding (85%), empathy (78%), and compassion (60%).
Most of the existing literature on mental health clinicians who have a mental illness focused on the power of the wounded healer role, with clinicians identifying that they were more empathetic and effective as a result of their own illness.
Personally, I think the wounded healer role is a highly valuable one. It probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as stigma is a very real challenge that keeps many people silent, but many of the benefits for the client will still be there even if wounded healers aren’t disclosing their woundedness to anyone.
Have you ever been treated by a wounded healer that you’ve been aware of?
Wounded healer interview series
Because I’d like to be able to share the stories of wounded healers, I’m starting a series of interviews featuring people with mental illness or other significant mental health challenges who are in mental health professional roles or some other helping role that supports people’s mental wellbeing (e.g. coaches). For details, visit the wounded healer interview series page.
- Benziman, G., Kannai, R., & Ahmad, A. (2011). The wounded healer as cultural archetype. Comparative Literature and Culture, 14(1), article 11.
- Caan, W., Morris, L., Santa Maria, S., & Brandon, C. (2000). Wounded healers. Nursing Standard, 15(2), 22-23.
- Conchar, C., & Repper, J. (2014). ‘Walking wounded or wounded healer?’ Does personal experience of mental health problems help or hinder mental health practice? A review of the literature. Mental Health and Social Inclusion, 18(1), 35-44.
- Daneault, S. (2008). The wounded healer: Can this idea be of use to family physicians?. Canadian Family Physician, 54(9), 1218-1219.
- Wikipedia: Wounded healer, Carl Jung
- Zerubavel, N., & Wright, M.O. (2012). The dilemma of the wounded healer. Psychotherapy, 49(4), 482-491.