When my sons were in middle and high school, they played basketball with two brothers whose parents were a bit wacky. They were just a little too invested in the performances of their sons and the outcome of their games. Ironically, both father and mother were mental health professionals. I distinctly remember one of the other parents remarking, “it just goes to prove that shrinks are even more messed up than the rest of us.”
It’s interesting that I still remember that remark all these years later. And now, as a mental health professional myself, I wonder about its merits. To what degree does a therapist’s baggage impact the therapeutic services they provide? Going a step further, how common is it that personal trauma or woundedness leads us to a career in mental health?
I can honestly say that my experience with trauma is precisely what eventually steered me to mental health. But it took a while. My astonishing transformative experience as a therapeutic client opened my eyes to the counseling profession. This insight enabled me to finally and fully see the vivid spectrum of color that had been missing from my life. My vision had been muted by fear, hurt, sadness, loneliness, and shame.
Recently, I wondered if my story makes me an outlier or the norm. So, I began taking inventory of all the therapists I have known and all my grad school classmates. Since I “saw the light” and entered the therapeutic abyss nine years ago, I’ve worked with eleven different clinicians in individual and group therapy. One of these relationships was long-term (3+ years), most were between six and eighteen months, and one was just a single session. These men (mostly) and women all had one thing in common: They followed their trauma or woundedness into the profession.
The same theme has played out for very possibly every single one of my counselor education classmates – at least those I’ve come to know during the three years we’ve spent together. Every one of our stories comprises pain and suffering, insecurities and self-doubt, and relationship wounds. I’ve discovered that my journey is not an anomaly.
We’ve all experienced the healing, self-awareness, understanding, and fulfillment that is possible in therapy. We conquered our fears of vulnerability and intimacy, confronted our demons, and learned to connect the dots. At some point in our therapeutic expeditions, we decided to take what we’ve learned and pass it on to others. It’s known quite simply as the “ripple effect.” We’ve all seen how ripples work on water. One droplet creates hundreds of ripples.
The same concept holds in mental health care. The good work of a single clinician impacts their clients, which affects the client’s family, friends, and acquaintances, and they, in turn, continue to influence others. It’s a rather remarkable phenomenon.
Carl Jung, one of the granddaddies of psychology, is believed to be the person who first proposed the “wounded healer” notion. His theory is that therapists who have been wounded can provide their clients with a deeper level of empathy, patience, and acceptance. Since we’ve already traveled the journey, we’ve encountered the hazards and dead ends, navigated the detours, and discovered the most breathtaking vistas.
Yes, therapists have been well educated and trained to help clients explore and process the challenges they face. However, we’re no better or different than the people who pay us to help them. The difference is that we’ve been there before. We’ve done the work. We’ve taken the time to reflect on what has occurred in our lives. We’ve battled our self-doubt, shame, and self-perceived inadequacies. We’ve been in the deep end of the pool and learned to be better swimmers.
To be sure, wounded healers don’t have all the answers. We don’t have it all figured out. We contend with our own anxiety, self-doubt, shame, relationship issues, and depression. Our family life isn’t perfect just because we know how to help others. We are still affected by the long-standing roles and rules that have been firmly entrenched in our families for decades and the intergenerational trauma that has been in place for centuries.
Regrettably, very little research has been conducted on the “wounded healer phenomenon.” I spent a good deal of time searching for studies that would support my thesis. The few studies I did find reinforce my contention that the vast majority of therapists select the profession not merely because of our wounds but because of our positive experiences in therapy.
Still, I think Jung was onto something that needs further exploration all these years later. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have summed up the phenomenon best more than a hundred years ago when he wrote: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
Maybe that’s exactly what all of us are doing.