Wounded healers

There is treasure to be found in the darkness of tragedy, serious illness, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I don’t want to dismiss or minimize the severity of the pain and struggle in which some people live, sometimes lifelong; I know only too well that the suffering of some of these people may be overwhelming.

Wounded healer1But from a lifetime of learning and working with people I can also say that unless there is a chemical or biological cause, there comes a time when the deep darkness of sadness lifts or lessens.  The sun breaks through, probably not with the brilliance of a cloudless sky in summer, but certainly enough for some of its light and warmth to be enjoyed.

The wonderful thing is that when this happens to us, we may well have gained a much greater sensitivity to the feelings, needs and problems of others,  How good is that?

I have read that in an average group of people, when asked, some 25% will raise their hands to show they have suffered with depression.  But when the same question is asked in a group of counsellors, about 90% will so indicate.

What does this tell us?

Several things, but what is most significant in my experience is that people who have been through a time of inner struggle are far more highly motivated to know more about how their inner self functions, and to help others in similar situations.  Most of the people I know who have chosen to study psychology or social work subjects have been though an unsettling time: a divorce, a break-down, a loss in the family.

Empathy is an essential part of helping hurting people.  Empathy means being able to get into the shoes and skin of somebody in pain, to share with and understand them.  Developing empathy involves both understanding (our mind) and sensitivity (our emotions).

Wounded healer2We can develop the ability to empathize through training and experience, and some will find this easier than others, but the “wounded healer” is in a special position.  When we’ve experienced life “on the other side”, it’s a huge plus!  It’s well-known that doctors who have been through a serious accident or illness become better doctors.  Others who work intensively with people (like pastors and counselors) experience the same change.

Reading other people’s stories about infant surgery (whether as parents or as a past patient) for many years has made it clear to me that whilst some local doctors and pediatric specialists get full marks, many people are angry about the way a doctor dealt with their pain –

  • Too many doctors are patronising about the concerns of parents about a very sick baby, resentful of parents who have done their “homework”, and dismissive of parents with a genetic (inherited) basis to their concern.
  • Too many surgeons operating on infants are keen to be seen as life-saving heroes but unconcerned about reducing the impact of the surgery on their patient’s future.  In the case of pyloric stenosis (the reading about which is of personal interest), most pediatricians will not consider (let alone try) the far less invasive medical treatment remedy which is effective about 80% of cases, and many surgeons care little or nothing about the future cosmetic aspect of their craft. This is commonly explained in terms like, “My work is to save lives, not to dispense beauty treatment.” How do parents argue with that attitude?
  • The medical world cares little about the increasingly recognised long-term effects of infant surgery on parents and some patients.  Again, pyloric stenosis is almost universally regarded as “quick, elegant and always successful surgery” without any interest in researching or dealing with the many complaints of long-term emotional and physical problems.

When I read some of the frustrated or angry stories or the dismissive and haughty medical mutterings on the web, I always find myself thinking: “If only you were a wounded healer instead of a snooty surgeon”.

Wounded healer3Empathy is one of the treasures that usually only comes out of darkness.  Personal pain usually makes us more sensitive, more caring, and it motivates us to learn what we can so that we can reach out to help heal the wounds and scars of others.

It’s a simple fact that often the best healers are “wounded healers”.

However, “hardly-ever wounded healers” can always decide to become known for their empathy – those are the doctors who get the top marks.

2 thoughts on “Wounded healers

  1. Wendy

    I LOVE your bulleted points especially. You tell it like it is. How to instill empathy in surgeons across the board! I wonder if it could become part of their training somehow. The Medical Humanities movement in medicine could help. If literature and writing were included in the curriculum for these doctors, they might open up more to themselves and their patients. Love your picture of the heart with stitches. I really resonate with that! Thank you for sharing your gifts as a Wounded Healer.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Wendy, it is good that some Medical Schools have been giving more attention to the issues I’ve raised here. Just wish it was generally seen as foundational rather than a school specialty. I realize that what today’s graduates in the health sciences are expected to know is added to every year, and that Medicine tends to attract the “scientifically oriented” and academically gifted, but surely these are factors that should add rather than detract from the need to cultivate true humanity.


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