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Wounded Healers


“Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story.”
1Bill Moyers The Power of Myth Anchor Books Doubleday, 1988 p.4

The quote above is from an interview Bill Moyers had with the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell. He is feeding back to Campbell his teaching that mythology contains the answers to our deepest questions. One of the questions I have tackled in my quest to produce an effective career planning method is “What could the purpose of my work be?” According to myth, the centaur Chiron was wounded accidentally by Heracles, the greatest of all Greek Heroes, with an arrow dipped in the poisonous blood of Hydra. The unbearably painful wound was incurable, but Chiron, immortal because of his divine ancestry, could not die. The agonized centaur roamed the earth and continued to heal the sickly and the injured.

The concept of the ‘Wounded Healer’ has been used to explain why some doctors and therapists have gotten into the work they do. None less than Carl Jung has played with this concept:

"...a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor 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."

In my career counselling practice I have used this concept to help people locate their purpose for any type of work. I often ask a client, struggling to identify what they want to contribute to the rest of us through their work, to look for wounds in their past that could be viewed as a signal, an omen, or a motivation as to the problem they were destined to solve. The wound need not be deeply traumatic, although it sometimes is. My own career has been fueled by a search to answer the question of “How do we decide what to do for work?” This is a question I had at the early age of seven and the adults I mentioned it to either ignored me or did not understand the question - qualifying that experience as a ‘wound,’ something to be healed and resolved.

A recent client had been laid off from his job of eighteen years and we began the search for his work purpose by looking at his two passions - theatre and martial arts. This produced the usual career counselling responses such as “I like working with people"; “I enjoy performing”; “I am an extrovert” etc. It wasn’t until I asked him if he was aware of any wounds he was carrying from earlier in life that the lightbulb came on. “For part of my childhood my family lived in a rough neighborhood and the walk home from school was terrifying for me. I don’t want others to experience that, I want people to learn how to cope with fear.” His work purpose became “To remove fear by teaching theatre and martial arts” and he went on to to develop a business that combined both services. Until this point he did not realize that ‘removing fear’ had been his motivation for teaching theatre all along. Once he became aware of that, combining martial arts alongside it became a no-brainer for him.

Another client was struggling in settling into a career path although she was clear that she was a ‘people person’. She had a history of taking different courses in the humanities field: Hypnotherapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, NLP, Reiki, etc. and practicing them for a while before losing interest and moving onto something else, another ‘shiny bauble’ as she put it. When I asked her if she was aware of any wound that was inspiring her to work with people she at first, as most of us do, said no. She then started talking about her childhood, two caring parents, both successful, both providing her with all she could want materially, both very busy...and then the pause that comes before the realization…”I was lonely". The energy generated in that moment was so intense I could feel it on the other end of the zoom call, I started to sweat and could feel tears forming. My client was weeping. “I do not want anyone else to have that feeling. How can I help?” The first half of her work purpose statement was clear: “To accompany others on their journey.” When I asked her to tell me how she intended to make a living delivering this contribution she quickly and emphatically declared, “By working in hospice." Hospice was not the next shiny bauble, it became the vehicle she uses to deliver her contribution.

I have no scientific evidence to back the concept that our work purpose comes from an early wound but this does not make it unworthy of exploring. A work purpose is often about fixing or improving something and it makes sense that we would want to repair something that is broken in ourselves.

“Many people suffer because of the false supposition on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition." -Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
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