Exploring the ‘Wounded Healer’

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 17-year-old male who has been suffering from depression and anxiety for years. For those who don’t know: this is what Hell tastes like. Because I experienced both extreme sadness and irritability and excitement, I speculated I might have Bipolar Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder, and that caused a lot of distress. Now I’m sure it is depression and anxiety.

Before I was affected, I never had an interest in psychology and frankly I never cared for it. But now I am considering majoring in psychology because I want to help people and banish prejudices about mental health.

However, I’m not sure if this is something subconscious stemming from deep inside me. I’m not sure whether I should let my mental issues define me. And I’m not really sure what that really means either. I’m gay and I want to support gay rights. I also feel the need to help people in need because maybe I felt very much in distress in my earlier years. Does this count for something “defining” me and should I let it if it is? Is this something normal, to be defined by past experiences? I don’t want to do and be something that is completely not me and what I wasn’t meant to do.

As you can see, I have some identity issues too. I truly have a passion in psychology, I want to know how the mind works, why people do what they do — but is this all a form of intellectualization?

Psychologist’s Reply

If you were to survey people who work in the field of psychology, probably the vast majority of them would say that they went into the field because of experiences like yours. People tend to be greatly affected by personal events and often seek careers that either help replicate or rectify the circumstances. That is why children who come into contact with the legal system may become lawyers, kids who had a major medical trauma often become doctors and those lucky enough to have a beloved teacher frequently become educators. The same is true for those who have had a brush with mental illness. In fact, United Kingdom counselor Alison Barr found that 73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences that led them to choose their career path in psychology.

Noted psychologist Carl Jung believed that so-called wounded healers were some of the best counselors around. As he stated, “a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself [sic]…it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.” I believe that he was onto something with this theory, as I have noticed that most of the better counselors are ones who have had their own experiences with mental illness. They are able to take their personal knowledge and use it to understand how people are feeling and figure out what healing will look like. Thus, good counselors don’t let their mental issues define them but instead use them to improve their job performance and grow personally.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that I think it’s fine if your experiences with mental health make you want to understand it and help others who suffer from it. One of the great things about the field of psychology is that it is so vast and has so many applications. That is just one reason why the American Psychological Association has 54 divisions within it. Consequently, if counseling turns out not to be for you, then there are a whole host of other careers in psychology you can try.

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