The Wounded Healer

The wound is the place where the light enters you.

–Rumi

I often work with people on the concept of spiritual trauma, the idea that faith communities, faith leaders, and perhaps even God can be sources of trauma for individuals. While not recognized as a discrete diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for clinicians, trauma based in religious institutions and theologies is distinct from other kinds of trauma in that individuals raised in theologically violent or abusive environments may feel that they cannot escape from their perpetrator, especially if it is an all-knowing, all-powerful source. For LGBTQ people who have internalized anti-LGBTQ theologies, they may believe they are irretrievably lost, sick, or evil, despite sociocultural and even theological support to the contrary.

Recently, I got in touch with a deeper level of my own spiritual trauma, based in my experience in Catholic school. Knowing from a young age I was a girl attracted to other girls, I believed I was going to Hell and that there was no way out of it. Although this is no longer my theology and I’ve verbally processed the resulting terror and shame, I was surprised at how intensely these resurfacing feelings impacted me. I was forced to take a break from some of the work I do and find more embodied self-care practices.

For years, I have been aware of and embraced the fact that I am called to the work I do because of my own experiences with anti-LGBTQ religion, that I want to help liberate others from belief systems that harm them the way they harmed me. Like many in my field, I am a wounded healer.

Expounding upon the ancient Greek myth of Chiron and shamanic initiatory crises, psychoanalyst Carl Jung described the wounded healer dynamic in this way: “…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. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician.”[1] Jung believed that most individuals in care professions, from doctors and nurses to psychologists and social workers to faith leaders and chaplains, are drawn to their vocations out of their own wounds, and that the self-knowledge they gain by confronting their pain makes them better able to support others’ healing journeys.

Some research evidence suggests that care providers are aware of a link between their career choice and their own wounding experiences, such as abuse, family dysfunction, physical and mental health crisis, bereavement, or addiction.[2] So how, as care providers, do we use our wounds to enhance our connections to others, particularly when it’s led us to our vocational path? How do we know when to be vulnerable with our central struggles as we ask others to entrust us with their own?

Psychology and theology offer different answers to these questions. Much attention has been given in psychology to the dynamic between a mental health provider and their client in order to maintain a healthy therapeutic environment. It is essential that the client trusts their provider and views them as competent, and so it is necessary for providers to limit self-disclosure. There are circumstances in which a provider may share a bit about their life to support or educate the client. However, this self-disclosure must always prioritize the client’s needs, not the provider’s. (For example, not depending on the client to educate the provider on LGBTQ issues, interrogating their pronouns, asking their advice on an LGBTQ family member, etc.)

However, in my experience as both a receiver of services and a provider, I and my clients have benefited from healthy self-disclosure when it is relevant. For example, one therapist I worked with shared, in a difficult healing moment, that she too had done trauma processing work around growing up as a lesbian in Catholic school. This disclosure convinced me that the therapist understood the nuance of my spiritual trauma, and I more powerfully trusted her assurance that though I felt change was happening slowly, I was making progress. At various points, I have shared that I am transgender with clients struggling with their gender identity to let them know I empathize with their process.

For LGBTQ providers working with LGBTQ clients (and any dyad where providers and clients share some aspect of identity or experience), it is imperative that providers monitor their level of identification with the client and desire to process their painful experiences with the person they are serving. In psychology, this is called countertransference, a provider’s emotional reaction to the client based on their “own psychological needs and conflicts [which may be]…revealed through conscious responses.”[3] These reactions are largely inevitable in a therapeutic situation, and can be kept in balance with regular supervision and self-care for the provider. Blurring these boundaries too much can recreate unhealthy dynamics and complicate future help-seeking.

Many spiritual traditions talk about the necessity of healing wounds for spiritual growth—Job suffering to prove his faithfulness to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus as the suffering servant figure who takes on the sins of humanity in order to save them, Buddha discovering the Four Noble Truths after witnessing the suffering of humanity, and many others. In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen asserts that the service of Christian ministers “will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing.”[4] There is a kind of authority one possesses after surviving crisis and hurt—a certain punctuation to the profession of one’s faith. If Christian leaders are to use Jesus’ suffering as a teaching tool and model for their congregants, they must be willing to teach from and model vulnerability of how they have grown from their own pain in a way that illuminates possible paths to recovery and reconciliation.

I learned several things about my calling from my recent resurgence of old spiritual trauma. First, I was reminded of the urgent importance of this healing work. As a white, highly-educated transgender person blessed to have the full support of their family, I have been insulated from many of the dire outcomes my trans siblings experience—family rejection, homelessness, unemployment, etc. I have a wide support system of family, friends, and pastoral leaders who love and accept me, and yet I still contend with self-destructive and self-loathing parts of me. Furthermore, without those supports and the ability to access the resources I needed, I’m not sure I would be able to fully live my life and pursue my calling. So many other LGBTQ people are not so lucky, and competent specialty programs are so few. I must heal myself so I can help others who have not been so fortunate heal and find support.

Second, I learned that sometimes our wounds don’t have a diagnosis or a cure. Sometimes they are a chronic condition that we must live with and choose skillful means to tend to flare-ups throughout our lives. I’m someone who likes to attack problems head-on with the belief that I will eradicate it by facing it. Trauma doesn’t work like that. In fact, the more gentle and patient you are, the safer you feel, and the more the allow yourself to feel. I’m actually grateful that I’ve been able to be present to these old emotions, because it means I’m healed enough to fully work through them.

In order to claim the wounded healer experience, we actually have to acknowledge we’re wounded, no matter how much training, education, and resources we have. We must recognize that some wounds may never fully heal, but only scab over. All it takes is a reminder for it to be picked and the pain to return. In knowing when to uncover our emotional and spiritual injuries, we may serve as proof that healing is possible and encourage our clients and colleagues on their journeys. For more information on spiritual trauma and abuse—check out the resources below. They contain helpful worksheets, reflection questions, and other exercises for you and those you serve.

Resources on spiritual abuse and trauma:

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen

Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life by Jeff Vanvonderen, Ryan, and Ryan

Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse by Rembert Truluck

Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell

 


[1] Jung quoted in Anthony Stevens, Jung, 110.

[2] Barr, Alison (2006) http://www.thegreenrooms.net/wounded-healer/

[3] American Psychological Association, “Countertransference,” APA Dictionary of Psychology (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007), 239, http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311007.aspx.

[4] Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 4.

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