Mental health, What is... psychology series, Wounded healers

What is… a Wounded Healer

The Wounded Healers: image of hearts passing between outstretched hands

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 went into clinical practice because of their own psychological wounds. However, the idea dates back to ancient Greek times.

Historical use

In Greek mythology, the god Chiron was the wisest of the centaurs.  He was wounded by an arrow from Heracles with tipped with blood from the Hydra, and 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 idea of wounded healers also exists across multiple cultural and spiritual contexts, including shamanism.

The Jungian archetype

Jung’s wounded healer archetype uses their own woundedness to promote healing and empathetic understanding.  This would require that the healer be able to acknowledge their own woundedness 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.  In a survey of nurses with depression by Caan et al., many participants described their illness as benefiting their nursing practice in various ways, including improved understanding (85%), empathy (78%), and compassion (60%).

A paper in the journal Mental Health and Social Inclusion found that most of the existing literature on mental health clinicians who have a mental illness focused on 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 going to be starting an interview series 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).

If you’re a wounded healer, either current, retired, or student, and you’re interested in doing an interview, email me at mentalhealthathome (at) gmail (dot) com and let me know what makes you a wounded healer, and I’ll send you the interview questions.

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:

  • 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.
  • Wikipedia: Wounded healer
  • Zerubavel, N., & Wright, M.O. (2012). The dilemma of the wounded healerPsychotherapy, 49(4), 482-491.

38 thoughts on “What is… a Wounded Healer”

  1. Very interesting theme and indeed underappreciated. I don’t work in the mental health field anymore, so I don’t know if it qualifies me for the interview. And I got diagnosed after I left the field.

  2. What a fascinating concept and an interesting blog post! I’d have so much to say about it, but I’m not awake yet!! I’ll report back later!!

  3. We want a healer who walks with us and isn’t “superior”—wounded or not.

    In a trauma hospital, we had a healer self-disclose her sexual trauma to us. It was too much, too soon for us

    If we ever engage in society again, we would want to contribute to alleviating suffering in some regard. It feels a natural pull. Much respect to all the bodhisattvas out there 💕💕❤️❤️

  4. Yeah, it’s weird. The healer is either empathetic due to his/her own experiences, or detached due to never having suffered. More often than not, the detached healers, who don’t get it, do tend to seem superior. I had that problem with psychiatrists for years before I met the wonderful and amazing Dr. Phlegm. I have no evidence that he’s wounded, but he’s very grounded and humble. He doesn’t put on airs like every other psychiatrist I’ve ever known. Well, actually, I had this other psychiatrist once–a child psychiatrist. She is/was a friend of my dad’s, so he set me up with her even though I’m an adult. (This must’ve been a while ago, because I’ve been seeing Dr. Phlegm since 2005.) But this child psychologist wanted me to go off all my meds for two reasons: 1) She didn’t approve of meds (she wanted to do talk therapy as the only cure), and 2) She wanted to see my baseline, nonmedicated state. (Just run fast and far. Geez Louise.) Anyway, I think I went off on a tangent.

    I’m probably not much of a wounded healer. The only people I can heal are people who want to be lifted up. I love helping people in that way, as I’ve been helped by others. I tend to get frustrated with people who don’t grab onto my hand and pull upward. I’m more inspired by people who try as hard as they can to find solutions.

    But I’ve had some therapists who told me all about their problems, like, a lot. And I never knew how to react. I mean, I can be self-absorbed in the exact same way, but I probably wouldn’t if I were being paid to perform therapy! It’s a weird issue. I often visualize everyone participating in one of those camp challenges where you have to get everyone across a ropes course by working together. People give what they can and help how they can and offer what they have, and it’s all little by little.

    Great blog post! So interesting!!

    1. That seems rather inappropriate that therapists were telling you all about their problems. Judicious self-disclosure can be therapeutic, but it has to be all about the client’s needs.

      1. I could write a book about inappropriate therapists! 😀 But yeah, I can see how judicious self-disclosure would be helpful if it were applicable and created a bond. In my case, the therapists were just waxing philosophical about their woes for no good reason whatsoever.

  5. That makes sense Ashley, the wounded healer. Possibly so many of us go into the caring profession. I’m a medically retired ‘wounded healer’ and was sick before I went into nursing Ashley. I’m happy to be interviewed.

  6. I’ve met one. My former psychiatrist. He was both good, and bad, really.

    He told me a little about the abuse he suffered, drawing a parallel between us. He took care to inquire across all aspects of my functioning, and my inner well being, not just externally how I was doing…even if I tried to rush through the appointment with “I’m fine, just refill medication”. I remember the hope he gave me – I even gave him a card with a poem for that – and the time he so solemnly told me “You matter.” He was patient in listening to my concerns, gave me and anyone 30 minutes – really rare in a system where most people see psychiatrists for just 5 minutes.

    However he also felt people reported “small things as abuse” (?? regular bruising on a child is small?), he also thought there were few “true homosexuals” and that most homosexuality and bisexuality was due to abuse, he even suggested conversion therapy. And he forgot my name! That hurt.

          1. Sadly his view is common! So thrilled the Psychological Society’s 2nd newsletter addressed minority stress AND resilience in LGBTQ+ persons. So RARE and so needed!

  7. Just to let you know Ashley, I deleted my blog (again) as it is what I do when having a very rough bad time. It’s like destroying me or a part of me. My BPD, anxiety, and self loathing just take over. That’s the third blog I’ve done it to now. I literally cannot keep anything going.
    I tried to resurrect it, and asked wordpress but they have not got back to me.
    So I created another blog, and am keeping it private because I’m so mixed up, and don’t really know what to do, but feel I need somewhere still…a space you know?
    I even stopped following everyone because I keep changing all the while, with my blogs and names and everyone will just get so fed up as I can’t keep consistent. I feel like I should just be on my own now in the blogging world. Then I can’t disappoint or let down anyone.

    Please may I say, Thank you so much though for always supporting me. Appreciate that so much.
    Sending you hugs 💗

    1. You’ve got to to do what works best for you. And if at any point you’d like me to join you on your blog, just send an invite my way. Sending hugs right back at you. ❤️

  8. Excellent piece. I found that my struggle with major depression made me a much better counselor. MDD eventually took away my career, but it has informed my writings and the opportunities I get to share in growth and therapy groups.

  9. I watched part of a documentary where there was a horrendous crime against a boy, never ending abuse till he died. The prosecutor got convictions on a bunch of people including social workers who neglected to follow up on clear signs of serious abuse. The prosecutor seemed so troubled by all of this. He admitted his own experience with physical and verbal abuse as a child, saying that it was of course nothing like what this child had experienced, but that he to some extent understood.

    Would you consider him a wounded healer in this instance? He fought for justice for not only this fallen child, but the community that mourned his death in shock, and the child’s family who cared for him lovingly until his mother and stepdad took charge and killed him within a year.

    1. There isn’t a firm definition of exactly what a wounded healer is, but typically it’s used when people are doing healing work directly with individuals. I haven’t seen the term used in a justice context.

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