It is a common complaint about psychotherapists: You have to be a little crazy to be one. “Why should I go into therapy with a weirdo who has probably got more issues than I have?” I overheard someone say at a party a while back. Sometimes people see psychotherapists with emotional problems as a negative thing.
On the other hand, there are those who think it is essential for a psychotherapist to have experienced emotional problems and overcome them. This is a concept called, “The Wounded Healer” that has been discussed among therapists from ancient times onward. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst came up with the term, noting that “The Wounded Healer” is the teacher or doctor who is able to understand the wounds of others because he has come to understand his own wounds.
In coining the concept, Jung referred to Greek mythology, namely to the centaur Chiron, who was known as the “Wounded Healer”. Unfortunately, Chiron ran into Hercules, who poisoned him with one of his arrows, and Chiron thereafter suffered from an incurable disease. Chiron, however, did not have the advantage of therapeutic training.
More recently, research has affirmed that most psychotherapists do in fact suffer from emotional wounds. British counselor and psychotherapist Alison Barr did a major study in 2006 on psychotherapists and their emotional wounds. Barr used an on-line questionnaire with 253 respondents. She found that 73.9% of mental health workers (counselors and psychotherapists) had experienced one or more “wounding experiences” that, she concluded, led to their choice of psychotherapy as a career.
The exact causes of the wounds of psychotherapists, according to Barr, vary greatly. They suffer from various kinds of abuse, from their childhood family psychodynamics, subsequent mental illnesses, problematic social, work and family lives as adults, bereavement, mental illnesses of those around them, life threatening illness of loved ones, and their own physical illnesses.
Barr, like Jung, concludes that these wounds are a good thing; they help healers to get in touch with their own problems, motivate them to go into their own therapy so as to understand themselves and overcome their problems, and help them to understand and work with others who have similar problems.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was a prime example of a wounded healer. The discoverer of the Oedipus complex had a noted issue in that regard of his own, causing frequent rivalries and dramatic break-ups with followers such as Adler and Jung. He had frequent blackouts. He stubbornly continued smoking cigars even after 30 operations on the cancer that developed in his jaw and eventually led to his assisted suicide. He admitted he was a neurotic and at times suffered from agoraphobia. And in his early adulthood he had a serious cocaine addiction. But he used his self-understanding to help countless others.
I am no stranger to psychological wounds myself. I endured years of childhood abuse and became quite depressed from the age of five until I completed elementary school. This abuse led to my developing lifelong depression and problems in both my work and personal lives. However, I greatly benefited from the various forms of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis I went through. Indeed, if not for my own psychotherapy, I’m sure I would never have become a successful psychoanalyst.
However, while most psychotherapists have wounds that lead them to choose a career involving the healing of others, not all of them do their own psychotherapy. Psychotherapists, like everyone else, are prone to resistances, and those who have the strongest resistances to accepting help and doing the work they need to do on themselves, will often become the nutty psychotherapists that people dread; and rightly so.
Many training programs for psychotherapists, such as the one that psychoanalysts go through, require them to do their own “training therapy.” However, while the idea sounds good in principle, many therapists find ways of circumventing this requirement. For example, they will choose a psychotherapist who has the same resistances as they do, and hence form a collusion with their training therapist and avoid doing real therapy.
When you do therapy or anything else because it is required, you do not have the same motivation as when you are doing it because you really want to do it. Therefore, the wounded healer who is most likely to be a good therapist is the one who has done his own therapy before going into a psychotherapy institute.
So, yes, most psychotherapists are nuts. But some nuts are fresh and nutritious, while others are stale and rotten. Pick the right nuts.