Letter to Junior Doctors #8: The Wounded Healer
It is impossible to go through the early years of practicing as a doctor unscathed. Patients die, adverse reactions occur, brain fog obscures obvious diagnoses. Everyone’s been through it.
When I first realised that so many doctors had been through this harrowing journey I was discouraged. What did it say about our capacity to heal when we are also wounded and in pain? Of what use can we be to our patients when we have so much healing to do on ourselves?
In fact, I think this brokenness is exactly the key to us being better able to do our jobs. Let me explain.
The psychologist Carl Jung was the first to describe the concept of the “wounded healer”. The idea derives from Greek mythology – from the story of Chiron, the centaur who was wounded by an arrow from Heracles’ bow. He did not die but suffered excruciating pain for the rest of his eternal days. Chiron went on to become a renowned healer and teacher of the healing arts. Through his endurance of his own wounds, he was better able to identify with those who came to him for healing.
Now I’m not saying that we must suffer or endure eternal pain in order to be good doctors. However I believe that the wounds we inevitably sustain during our training and practice have the potential to enhance the way we relate to our patients and the extent to which we can be of service to them.
There’s an important proviso, however. That is, we must own our wounds and be willing to go through the process of healing. They are of little use when they are covered up or left to suppurate unattended. It is through the process of facing the pain and actively taking steps to deal with it that we are better able to serve our patients.
I know it’s challenging to confront your pain when you can barely find the time to eat, sleep and carry out your activities of daily living. It’s often easier to simply push on. But take it from someone who has been there – it’s way harder in the long run. Whatever you leave unattended now will come back to bite you later.
Deal with your wounds. It will make you a better doctor.