The #1 Mistake Healers Make
I picked up someone’s beat up, discarded novel at the rental house where I stayed on Lake Erie this past summer -Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese. And I started reading one night and instantly got caught up in the story.
In the first few pages, the fictional narrator, a surgeon, says:
We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky, we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn't to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound.
That last sentence hit me like a semi on speed.
Somehow, I always thought that I went to medical school to please my physician father. But I was called to the art of healing at seven years old, and as many times as I have tried to leave medicine, I have never succeeded in doing so.
“We must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundness.”
If this is true, it begs the questions for all healers, “What wound are we trying to heal?”
Even more profoundly, it begs that we heal this wound FIRST. We cannot depend on our patients to do it for us.
My A-ha Moment
I think this is the #1 mistake physicians and other healers make. We show up wounded, expecting that our ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And indeed it can. Helping someone else heal can foster the process of self-healing - but only if you’ve done your own work.
If you have no insight into your own wounds - and you set out to help heal others - you put others at risk of winding up even more wounded. A misguided healer can be downright dangerous.
The System Perpetuates The Wound
If it’s true that we are called to be healers because we believe that ministering to others will heal our own woundedness, then physicians are the worst offenders because, not only do we show up wounded from the get-go, the system only perpetuates the wound. (I think that’s what Abraham Verghese means when he says “But it can also deepen the wound.”)
All too often, the medical education system transforms bright-eyed, idealistic, compassionate, well-intentioned, wounded lay people into cold, hardened, insensitive, paternalistic, arrogant, even-more-wounded doctors. And then, because the patient fails to heal our woundedness, we blame them.
If I am a wounded healer, and I must heal you in order to feel whole myself - and then you fail to heal - or even worse, you die - then my own wound gets deeper. I get angry at myself because I have failed you. And I may even get pissed at you - because you failed me. And then you wind up not only still sick, but feeling disconnected, confused, unsupported, and lost.
How We Hurt When We Seek To Help
Let me give you a few examples.
Example #1 A man who was abandoned by his mother is suicidally depressed throughout his teenage years. He decides to become a psychiatrist so he can help suicidal patients. But his core wound is a lack of self worth. Because his mother left him, he feels unlovable, so he seeks love and validation from his patients. If they fail to give it to him - or God forbid, his depressed patients actually kill themselves, his core wound is activated. When this happens, because he has no insight into his core wound, he lashes out at his patients and dismisses from care those who don’t fawn over him, leaving them feeling as abandoned as he felt when his mother walked out.
Example #2 A woman who was molested her entire childhood decides to become a social worker so she can help protect other victims of molestation. Her core wound is that she feels unsafe, having been unable to protect herself as a child. So she erects emotional barriers between herself and her clients, veritable steel walls nobody can penetrate. The children she is trying to help cannot see the soft, delicate heart she tries so hard to protect. When things are going her way, she is gentle, kind, and tender with the children. But when they reveal their woundedness to her, she hides behind the walls and the children are faced with a domineering, biting, sarcastic, social worker who exerts control over them by taking the children out of foster homes they’ve come to love just so she can remind herself that she is in control.
Example #3 A woman survived childhood leukemia and grew up to become a pediatric oncologist so she could help others like herself. Her core wound is fear of letting people down, since her doting parents spent her entire childhood telling her she couldn’t leave them, and that their lives would be ruined if she dies. Having survived her illness, she chooses to be an oncologist so she can help other children cheat death. When the child is fighting the cancer, she is with the family every step of the way, coming in early, staying late at the hospital, attending to every need. But every time a child dies and she has to face the devastated parents, her core wound bleeds. So she distances herself from both the children and the parents because she just can’t face the feeling that she’s letting the families down when a child dies. When a child dies, she avoids the parents at all costs. Her distance comes across as cold, unfeeling rejection and abandonment. Her inability to face the pain of her own wound hurts the very people she seeks to help.
How To Avoid The #1 Mistake Many Healers Make
To avoid damaging our patients when we hope to facilitate their healing, those of us seeking to help others (and I’m talking all types here - not just physicians and nurses, but therapists, life coaches, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, workshop leaders, and more) must navigate several key steps that they don’t teach you in medical school.
10 Tips For Healing Your Woundedness So You Can Help Others
- Identify the wound. Ask yourself what wound you seek to heal by ministering to others.
- Liberate your patients. It’s not fair to depend on your patients to give you a sense of self-worth, identity, inherent value, or sense of accomplishment. If you need therapy, spiritual counseling, or some other kind of guidance to help you address your personal issues, get help.
- Be mindful of how your woundedness can bleed into your patients. If they feel they must please you in order to help you heal your own wounds, they will be focused on YOU, rather than focusing on their own self-healing.
- Be aware of your power. When patients seek help, they are vulnerable and easy to influence. This can be a drug for those whose wounds revolve around feelings of powerlessness or lack of control. DO NOT take advantage of your power.
- Own your shit and take responsibility for your own healing. Make a plan to deal with your issues. Check in with your Inner Pilot Light and ask yourself what you need in order to heal the primary wound that may have led you to enter a healing profession.
- Beware of projection. Your patients are not your alcoholic mother, your abusive ex-husband, or your vicious boss.
- Don’t be afraid of loving your patients. I know some people get all nutso about transference and all that crap. But love is the most healing gift you can offer your patients - and yourself.
- Avoid being a control freak. WAY too many people enter the healing professions in order to feel a sense of control. (Think of the bossy, screaming surgeon in the OR, ordering around the scrub tech and the nurse.) If you have control issues, deal with them in other ways. Your job is not the place to heal those wounds.
- Be a grown up. If you have Mommy issues or childhood traumas you haven’t addressed, face your junk. But don’t become the wounded child you once were. Don’t act out.
- Practice radical acts of self-love. If you know you’re enough, just the way you are, if you treat yourself like the precious child you once were, if you give yourself a break, care for your body, forgive yourself for your failings, and otherwise love and adore yourself, you won’t need your patients to feed your ego, and you will free them to focus on their own healing. Plus, you will be much better suited to care for them and nurture their optimal health and wellness.
Nobody sets out to hurt, abuse, or take advantage of those under their care. But it’s easy to slide into dangerous behavior if we’re not aware of our behavior.
Are You A Wounded Healer?
Does this sound like you or someone you know? Are you a healer - or do you think your physician or other health care provider may have an unexplored wound they’re dealing with. Are you willing to heal your own wounds so you don’t inflict your woundedness upon others?
If you are a patient or a healer committed to changing the way medicine is delivered and recieved, become a Pink Medicine Revolutionary, and I’ll share other tips I’m learning along the way.
And please, tell us your stories and share your insights in the comments below.
Humbly addressing my own wounds,
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Revolutionary, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.
Learn more about Lissa Rankin here.