The Psychology of The Wounded Healer

One must be wounded to become a healer. Many people, however, experience suffering and do not become healers; practically everyone could become a healer if it depended only on the experience of suffering. It is only by overcoming suffering and having been wounded that one may become a healer.

We have to follow the way of our psychological maturation to discover the reason for our suffering, because the reason is something unique in each individual. That is why in seeking the meaning of your suffering you seek the meaning of your life.

“[T]he wounded healer is the archetype of the Self – one of its most widespread features – and is at the bottom of all genuine healing procedures.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is credited with coining the phrase wounded healer, but this term is never used by him in his works¸ instead he used “wounded physician”. Jung did not see himself as someone who had accomplished the healing of his patients. The healing is an individual affair which must emerge from the patient’s own psyche, in order for there to be a resolution to the problem, which is precisely what the term individuation implies. The cure ought to grow naturally out of the wounded individual, one must find the light that is hidden within the darkness.

As long as we feel victimised, bitter and resentful towards our wound, and seek to escape from suffering it, we remain inescapably bound to it. This is neurotic suffering, as opposed to the authentic suffering of the wounded healer which is purified. The wound can destroy you, or it can wake you up.

Chiron: The Wounded Healer

The Greek god Apollo is a sunlike healer who can cure all ills, but is also the bringer of disease and death with his arrows. He is the unwounded healer. Apollo raised Chiron, who is a centaur, half human, and half horse, but unlike the rest of centaurs who were wild and intoxicated, Chiron was wise, just, and also immortal. He became a skilled healer. One day, however, Chiron was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow. But despite being skilled in healing the wounds of others, he was unable to heal his own wound. He suffered excruciating pain for the rest of his life. It was because of his grievous wound that Chiron became known as a legendary healer in ancient Greece. The secret of healing is inside the wound, which contains the medicine. True health comes from acceptance of our wounds.  

Chiron’s nobility is further reflected in the story of his death. He exchanged his immortality for the life of Prometheus, who had been punished by the Gods for stealing fire and giving it to mankind, that is, gave us consciousness, freeing us from being unconscious puppets of the gods. Consciousness is deeply traumatic, but it is also the greatest gift we have been given.

Chiron suffered the punishment meant for Prometheus, and Zeus seeing this, pitied him. In his honour, Chiron was given a place in the stars, becoming the constellation Centaurus. Chiron represents our immortal wound that can never heal, and at the same time, he is the potential source of our greatest capacity to heal, particularly other people.

Christ is the biblical version of the same fundamental image. The difference is that Chiron had no choice in the matter because the wound happens to him and he cannot heal himself; Christ volunteered for the role, and could have escaped from his suffering, but did not. Both are healers, both are wounded, and both transcend to the heavens at the end. This image is to be distinguished from the healthy healer – Apollo, Chiron before the wound caused by the poisoned arrow, and Christ before his crucifixion. The wounded healer combines both the healthy and the suffering. This is what Saint Paul meant by the “thorn in his flesh”

Asclepius: The Greek God of Healing

Chiron was highly revered as a teacher and instructed Asclepius in the arts of medicine, who became the Greek god of healing. Asclepius was the son of a mortal woman named Coronis, whom Apollo had fallen in love with. However, while she was pregnant, she displayed infidelity by sleeping with a mortal man. She was killed for her betrayal, and Apollo was unable to bring her back to life. As she lay on her funeral pyre, Apollo rescued the child by cutting him from her womb, thus Asclepius is born – saved from death, so that he might grow up to heal others.

He holds the Rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff associated with healing, which remains a symbol of medicine to this day. This is not to be confused with the caduceus (a symbol of commerce) of the Greek deity Hermes, which is entwined by two snakes, and sometimes has wings too.

Our woundedness can put us into a miserable state of suffering and pain, or it can be a source of healing. The wounded healer refers to the capacity:

“[T]o be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asclepius, the sunlike healer.”

Karl Kerényi, Asclepius: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence

Asclepius became such a proficient healer that he was able to bring other mortal men back to life. This caused an abundance of human beings on earth, and Hades, the god of the underworld, complained to his brother Zeus about it. Zeus became angry at Asclepius for transgressing the boundary between humanity and the gods. Men are mortal, and only the gods are free from death. In punishment for his crime, he struck Asclepius with a thunderbolt and sent him to Hades. So that he, though a god, might himself experience the fate of mortals. Later, however, he was resurrected and given a place on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. Asclepius becomes the only god to experience death, making him one of the most admired, loved, and worshipped deities of the Greeks.

Asclepieia: Healing Temples

In ancient Greece, there were healing temples dedicated to Asclepius called asclepieia, known to cure people of all sorts of physical and spiritual illness. Among the most popular was the one located in Epidaurus, the most celebrated healing centre of the classical world. Many pilgrims would visit the temple and have a cleansing diet, as well as a bath thought to have a positive effect on the body and the soul. Health, cleanliness, and sanitation are all aspects of the goddess Hygieia, whose name is the source for the word “hygiene” and who is one of the daughters of Asclepius.

The Therapeutae of Asclepius would guide the patients. The term therapeute derives from ancient Greek, and refers to one who serves the gods, and later on, one who heals or helps a person to heal himself – which is precisely the task of a therapist. After a few days of preparation, the therapeute would lead the sick person to a small empty stone chamber with a platform in which he could lay down and sleep, left alone with his dreams and with the god.

This is theurgical work, that is, a practice consisting of working with God, rather than theology, or talking with God. The idea was to achieve theophany, a personal encounter with a deity. Many dreams describe Asclepius appearing in his human-like form and seen applying an ointment to the afflicted parts, or theriomorphically as a snake or as a dog, licking the wound and thus healing it.

In the dormitories of the temple, snakes slithered around freely on the floor. For the Greeks, snakes were not just chthonic beings, but also sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection. The snakes used were non-venomous, now known as the Aesculapian snakes, named in honour of the god of healing.

The snake was seen as emblematic of the mysterious relationship between death and rebirth. Dogs too were associated with underworld experience, like the three-headed Cerberus welcoming the dead to Hades.

After spending the night in the holiest place of the sanctuary, the patient’s dream would simply be recorded.  If Asclepius appeared in one’s dream, it was understood as the healing event itself. Unlike in Delphi, where the oracle who would give prophetic advice to the seekers through God, at Epidaurus it was the patient who had the healing vision. In the classical Greek period, the dream was the cure. At a later period, however, dreams and visions would be reported to a therapeute who would prescribe the appropriate healing process, including a visit to the baths, or gymnasium. One might say that it was the first psychotherapeutic centre.

The final rituals consisted of a paean, a song of praise to the god in gratitude for what he had given to the patient, and finally there would be a sacrifice of a rooster as a token that daylight has overcome the dark, health has overcome sickness. These methods were known to be highly effective as is evident by numerous written accounts by patients attesting to their healing and providing detailed accounts of their cure.

This ties in with Socrates’ enigmatic last words when he decided to take his own life by drinking hemlock: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” Socrates invokes the only god known to revive the dead, thanking him for healing him of the sickness of life by the cure of death. Socrates lives right into his death.

The healing of Asclepius provides a respite to those who are not yet ready for death. He gives time for us to attend to the health of our souls, and to prepare for the inevitability that lies ahead. Death is the great equaliser. Asclepius does not promise that there won’t be death, the point of healing is to give one time to prepare for death.

“There was a crown on the colossal head of Asclepius… A golden wreath always represents rays and symbolises the sunlike. Such an honour, even if legendary, bears witness to what in the living religion of Asclepius constituted the nature of the Asclepiad, the true physician. For the medical gift that the Asclepiads held they had inherited from their solar ancestor is a very special gift: it is neither a religious nor a philosophical knowledge… but is rather a familiarity, which can never be acquired, with sickness and the process of recovery. It is a spark of intuitive knowledge about the possibilities of rising from the depths, a spark which by observation, practice, and training can be fanned into a high art and science: into a true art of healing.”

Karl Kerényi, Asclepius: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence

Illness and healing are not opposites, but rather inseparable aspects of a deeper process that is being revealed through their interplay. The sunlike healer, symbolises that, just like the self-generating light of the sun, the ultimate source of our healing is to be found within ourselves.

The Importance of Death

For Friedrich Nietzsche, a natural death is not to be mourned, but celebrated. He writes:

“Many die too late, and some die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”… To be sure, how could the person who never lives at the right time ever die at the right time? Would that he were never born! – Thus I advise the superfluous… Everyone regards dying as important; but death is not yet a festival. As of yet people have not learned how to consecrate the most beautiful festivals. I show you the consummating death that becomes a goad and a promise to the living. The consummated one dies his death, victorious, surrounded by those who hope and promise. Thus one should learn to die; and there should be no festival where such a dying person does not swear oaths to the living!”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Greeks believed that old age was not a life stage but a stage of transition between life and death. For Jung, it is part of the second half of life, and is psychologically as important as birth. The denial of death only leads to further neurosis, death is inevitable and to fight against it is to fight against life itself.

Just as a young person needs to learn to live, an old person has to come to terms with death, and for that, one must have a personal myth, which is created by observing our inner life through dreams, active imagination, intuitions, and synchronicities. Jung writes:

“Death is an important interest, especially to an aging person. A categorical question is being put to him, and he is under an obligation to answer it. To this end he ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending. Myth, however, can conjure up other images for him, helpful and enriching pictures of life in the land of the dead. If he believes in them, or greets them with some measure of credence, he is being just as right or just as wrong as someone who does not believe in them. But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung’s entire psychology is predicated on the existence of psychic oppositions in the human psyche. It is the tension of opposites that gives rise to our wholeness, the enantiodromic principle of the union of opposites carves a path to the Self.

There are two phases in life: the first phase in which we are oriented outwardly, and the second phase in which our focus shifts inward during midlife. Individuation is a reconciliation of both inner and outer life.

“The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner centre (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of “call,” although it is not often recognised as such.”

Man and His Symbols. Part III: The Process of Individuation – M.L. von Franz

We need to learn from our own experiences of being wounded, to release ourselves from what may be the most serious illness of all, the fantasy of a health without wounds, a life without death.

The Wound as Initiation: Hero’s Journey

Those with a healing career end up profoundly wounded or even die as is shown in the stories of Chiron, Asclepius and Christ. It is a given that if one enters into the role of healer, at some point one will be severely wounded.

To become individuated is no easy task, it is a very painful process, equivalent to bearing our own cross as Christ did on his way to being crucified. The wound is our initiation into our fragmented self, it is the call to adventure that begins the hero’s journey.

“The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 9.1: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

When the hero overcomes the monster, he finds the treasure, the princess, the elixir of life, etc., which are psychological metaphors for one’s true feelings and unique potential. Jung wrote:

“In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain.” He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself… He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

The mythologist Joseph Campbell expanded on Jung’s ideas with his popular conception of the hero’s journey, which is not just a story but a deeply embedded myth that explains the human condition.

The call to adventure occurs when we are separated from our ordinary world of comfort and must tread into unknown and dangerous territory, and that causes anxiety. This often leads to refusal, which slowly deteriorates one’s life and relationships. There comes a point where the wounds become too much to bear, and one must tend to them.

Going through our wound is a genuine death experience, as our old self “dies” in the process, while a new, more expansive and empowered self is born.

The Sacred and The Profane

In his book, The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion, Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade describes the sacred and the profane as two existential situations assumed by mankind throughout history. From the perspective of religious thought, the manifestation of the sacred (hierophany) is what gives meaning, structure, and orientation to the world.

The sacred is akin to the Platonic world of forms, which exist beyond space and time. It is the home of the universal, the immortal, and the eternal. The profane, on the other hand, contains everything concrete, mortal, and temporal. Since it is a place of constant becoming, it is a place of decay and death.

Eliade uses the term archetype (not to be confused with Jung’s definition) to express the manifestations of the sacred, which we gain access to by repetition, imitation, and participation in the divine patterns. Religious behaviour does not only commemorate, but also participates in, sacred events. Our ancestors interacted with the sacred, because without it, man is nothing but dust and ashes. However, the sacred also produces a feeling of terror before its awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum), and religious fear before the fascinating mystery (mysterium fascinans) in which perfect fullness of being flowers. These are all numinous experiences, induced by the revelation of the divine.

“To whatever degree he may have desacralised the world, the man who has made his choice in favour of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with his religious behaviour.”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane

Celebrations and rituals depict the idea of what Eliade calls the eternal return, that is, a reconnection with the mythical age. This behaviour is still emotionally present with us, in one form or another, ready to be reactualised in our deepest being.

Each year becomes a repetition of the mythical age, and we can step into the divine realm, transporting us back to the world of origins. Time is not a linear succession of events, but a circle. Linear time, and the lack of any inherent value on the march of historical events (the terror of history), is one of the reasons for modern man’s anxieties.

The Wound as Initiation: Shamanism

Eliade describes sicknesses, dreams, and ecstasies as a shamanic initiation, which is not resolved until one transforms the profane into the sacred. Eliade makes it clear that shamanism is not any kind of mental disease, but rather a temporal crisis that expresses the human condition.

In shamanic initiations the initiate often experiences an illness of some type which is not resolved until the individual practices shamanic exercises such as drumming and chanting until he is cured. He is then regarded as a shaman in the community and has the role of a healer.

“The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.”

Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Accounts of the shaman’s inner journey of turmoil and distress, expressed through the ecstatic action of trance, reveals the venerated images of the awakened psyche, living symbols that encompass the wider human experience. Through creative expression, the human condition is elevated, mythologised, and, at last, collectively understood.

The lifeway of the shaman is nearly as old as human consciousness itself, predating the earliest recorded civilisations by thousands of years. A common thread seems to connect all shamans across the planet. An awakening to other orders of reality, the experience of ecstasy, and an opening up of visionary realms. The entrance to the other world occurs through the action of total disruption, a crisis involving a psychological and spiritual death. There are many similarities between these archaic rituals and the experience people undergo in psychotherapy.

Compensatory function

Often people embark on a helping profession because they want to address their personal wounds: dysfunctional childhood, abuse, inferiority complex, etc., in order to heal themselves and help others with their own healing processes. Psychologically, we all have a compensatory function in our lives. A person who has a lack of self-worth, may appear outwardly to be very confident. A person who thinks he is not smart, may spend a long time reading books and acquiring a vast wealth of knowledge, and at every opportunity, expresses this knowledge to others. Our feelings of inferiority are part of the shadow, and the persona (our social mask which we present to others) is our compensation for what is lying in our shadow. An overcompensation can cause someone to act in complete opposition to what he feels emotionally, and thus he conceals his true self. His problems are repressed and never faced constructively, and the shadow grows larger and darker.

Repetition Compulsion

A traumatic and abusive childhood can cause what Freud calls repetition compulsion, an unconscious need to repeat traumatic events, which shows up in different situations, but has the same underlying archetypal pattern. This can extend to all sorts of relationships in one’s life: with one’s parents, friends, partner, children, etc. Every repetition, makes the problem worse and more complex. Our unconscious tries to heal us by reconstellating (re-activating) these situations as an opportunity to come into a new relationship with the underlying pattern, to convert the poison into healing.

Pharmakon: Poison and Cure

The contradictory opposites of poison and cure is expressed in the Greek word pharmakon, a drug can be both beneficial and harmful. The wounded healer is one who takes his wounds seriously, and transforms his poison into a gift to bestow upon others. This applies to the relationship between therapist and patient too. Jung wrote:

“We could say, without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient. It is no loss, either, if he feels that the patient is hitting him, or even scoring off him: it is his own hurt that gives the measure of his power to heal. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of the Greek myth of the wounded physician.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy

Therapist as Wounded Healer

Freud and Jung were modern wounded healers. Freud in the last sixteen years of his life, was tormented unceasingly by his cancer of the jaw, until it lead to his death. Jung was on the brink of taking his own life in his period of the confrontation with his unconscious. A month before his death, too frail for his daily walk, Jung was driven around some of his favourite roads, saying goodbye to the countryside. Despite their suffering, they continued to write and practise, transmuting their poison into a healing potion, like true alchemists.

However, it is not just the therapist alone who does the healing. It is common for the patient to project onto the analyst the image of the healer, and when there is no progress, the patient gets angry and perhaps leaves therapy, and eventually comes back again. This is known as transference and is a typical phenomenon in therapy. The patient can, for instance, unconsciously transfer his feelings about his abusive father onto the analyst, and the analyst must be careful not to engage in countertransference, in which the patient reminds the analyst of someone in his or her life.

The analyst has to be prepared to not project his wounds on the already wounded patient. They must develop a clear map of their wounds, in which they are able to describe their experiences of being wounded, how they felt during their vulnerable period, and how they dealt with it. Our wounds can become a wellspring of healing for another.

“The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

The analyst takes the suffering of the patient, shares it with him, and suffers with him. This has a healing effect, just as the suffering of Christ is mysteriously curative for others, “by his wounds we are healed.”

Jung learned through his practice that only the analyst who feels himself deeply affected by his patients could heal, and the analyst cannot take the patient to a place the analyst has never been. This is not only a matter of empathy but of knowledge (“gnosis”) of what soul work is and how it matters. At some point, the patient must also realise that the potential for healing resides within himself or herself. The analyst acts as a psychopomp or spiritual guide for the patient. It can be extremely helpful to have allies in order to defeat one’s dragon, which symbolises one’s fears, obstacles, hardships, or repressions. But, one must deal the final blow to the dragon oneself. Jung wrote:

“The crucial point is that I confront the patient as one human being to another. Analysis is a dialogue demanding two partners. Analyst and patient sit facing one another, eye to eye, the doctor has something to say, but so has the patient.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

While the analyst performs the role of a healer, his wounds live a shadowy existence, and can be reconstellated in particular situations, especially when working with someone whose wounds are similar. The shadow of the wounded patient, on the other hand, is his inner healer.

Therefore, the unconscious relationship between analyst and analysand is as important as what is consciously communicated, in terms of the healing process. It can be a transformative experience for both people.

Healing can take place only if the analyst has an ongoing relationship with the unconscious. Otherwise, he or she may identify with the healer archetype, a common form of inflation. This is known as an Asclepius complex, where the therapist takes healing too far, just as Asclepius brought back people from the dead. The therapist believes he has god-like powers of healing, and that there’s no need for a personal relationship.

Jung had a dream in which his patient was a giant and he was very small. Dreams are often compensatory in nature, therefore, Jung realised that he had been looking down at the patient. When he adjusted his attitude, the relationship and the healing of the patient went much better. Jung always told his students that they must at all times keep watch over themselves, over the way they are reacting to their patient, and to be aware of not projecting their wounds on the wounded patient. Depth psychology is a dangerous profession, since the analyst is forever prone to being infected by the other’s wounds – or having his or her wounds reopened.

Jung viewed psychological conflicts, or emotional wounding not necessarily as a disease, but as an initiation into a process that opens us up to the unconscious. The archetype of the wounded healer is constellated through our wounds. Just as a physical wound needs to be cleaned, bandaged, and given the necessary time to heal – so too do psychological wounds need to be cured by removing negative influences, creating and maintaining an environment in which the healing can take place, and having the necessary patience to allow the natural energy to accomplish the work of growth and healing.

Conclusion

The event of our wounding sends us on a journey in search of ourselves. It is a numinous event. Through our cracks is where the light comes in. Our fragmented self is the doorway into the transpersonal and archetypal realm, the master-pattern and ultimate guide in our lives, to the infinite wisdom of the Self.

It is an archetypal, universal idea that becoming broken, though on one hand seemingly obscuring our wholeness, is actually an expression of it. It is as if some form of destruction is a prerequisite for individuation and is necessary for the birth of the Self.

Suffering is collective, it can be taken as a sign that we are no longer suffering from ourselves, but rather from the spirit of the age. The microcosm and macrocosm are one and the same. Through transforming ourselves, we transform the world; through transforming the world, we transform ourselves. We are interdependent parts of a greater, all-embracing whole and holy being. To realise this is to have an expansion of consciousness.

The archetype of the wounded healer symbolises a type of consciousness that can hold the seemingly mutually exclusive and contradictory opposites of being consciously aware of both our woundedness and our wholeness at one and the same time.

“[T]he greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble… They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

Carl Jung, Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower


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The Psychology of The Wounded Healer

The wounded healer refers to the capacity to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery.

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