In our everyday lives reminders that striving for perfection should be our number one priority surround us. The media perpetuates the myth that emotional and physical flawlessness is something that everyone should work towards and we are made feel ashamed by anything that looks or feels imperfect or ugly.

We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting change or taking the next step into unknown territory on our personal journeys for fear of being hurt or wounded in the process. But it is these very wounds that can make us grow and stretch into the warriors we were meant to be.

It allows us then to create a map for others going through this struggle and gives us a point of reference in order to help people on their personal journey.

In Psychology

The psychologist Carl Jung, when talking about a particular relationship between client and therapist first popularized the phrase ‘The Wounded Healer’. He believed that to be ‘wounded’ in some way could actually be beneficial to the therapeutic relationship. For Jung, ‘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.’

The therapist however needs to make sure that he is fully aware of his own struggles as his own wounds may be activated in certain situations, especially if his client’s wounds are similar to his own. This is the nature of healing and why many people go on a journey of self-discovery before embarking on a healing path.

Shamanic Roots

‘The wounded healer’ is a significant archetype in shamanic traditions also. The Shaman itself embodies what it means to be a wounded healer. Shamans are thought to be "called" by dreams or signs, which require lengthy training.

There is a phenomenon often referred to as the shamanistic initiatory crisis. This is a rite of passage for shamans-to-be, and commonly involves physical illness and/or psychological crisis. The significant role of initiatory illnesses in the calling of a shaman can be found in the detailed case history of Chuonnasuan, the last master shaman among the Tungus peoples in Northeast China. (Specific details of Chuonnasuan and his initiatory illnesses can be found in Richard Noll and Kun Shi's essay 'The Last Shaman of the Oroquen of Northeast China' which is available to read online).

The wounded healer is a kind of archetypal journey that is very important to the novitiate shaman. He/she undergoes a type of sickness that pushes her or him to the brink of death. In the shamanic traditions, this happens for two reasons.

Firstly, the shaman crosses over to the under world. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the tribe and in particular its sick members. Secondly, the shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes her or his own sickness, they will then hold the cure to heal all that suffer from this.

As a Personal Philosophy

But what is the significance of adopting this archetype for yourself? We can see our lives through a variety of lenses, and our perception of ourselves and how we fit in the world around us is what makes our reality real. In CBT for example we are taught to restructure how we think about things to get a more positive and measured outlook on our lives. There is also the idea of ‘post-traumatic growth’ which is explored in Maureen Gaffney’s book ‘Flourishing’. It refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. These sets of circumstances represent significant challenges to the adaptive resources of the individual, and pose significant challenges to individuals' way of understanding the world and their place in it.

Post-traumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline from a period of suffering; instead it is an experience of improvement that for some persons is deeply meaningful.

The Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen is also synonymous with the concept. Henri, in his book entitled ‘The Wounded Healer’ tells a story to illustrate the idea of this archetype.

A Rabbi who came across the prophet Elijah and said to him:

“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.

“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.

“But how will I know which one is he?”

“He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again, but he unbinds only one at a time and binds them up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

Nouwen adds, “What I find impressive in this story are these two things: first, the faithful tending of one’s own woundedness and second, the willingness to move to the aid of other people and to make the fruits of our own woundedness available to others.”

What this story also might illustrate is the idea that to become ‘The wounded healer’ there is a level of sacrifice that may need to take place. In order to fully embrace becoming a healer you must give over a part of yourself to the people that need your help.

Nietzsche recognized the transformative potential of negative experiences, and while you may not go as far as he did, to wish suffering upon those closest to you, it can be a consoling thought that hurtful experiences could be the very things that lead us to a more enlightened view of the world and a stronger version of ourselves.

Further Reading: 
  • For more information on the Wounded Healer in Shamanism a basic introductory course will be held at Dunderry Park, Co. Meath from the 22nd-24th February. For more details visit www.shamanismireland.com, email [email protected] or call 046 9074455.
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