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The Wounded Healer Too Wounded To Heal

“The painful irony is that the minister, who wants to touch the center of men’s lives, finds himself on the periphery; often pleading in vain for admission….He never seems to be where the action is.” I wonder if this says more about Henri Nouwen than it does about the minister’s involvement in critical and crisis situations.“

George L. Buck Ph.D.

The minister, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his/her wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when he/she will be needed. The minister is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his/her wounds and at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.” --- Henri Nouwen.
In his article titled “Wounded Healers”, Thomas Maeder quotes a child of psychiatrists (both parents): “I Think my parents were crazy, I think that, somehow, being psychiatrists kept them in line. They used it as a protection. They’re both quite crazy, but their jobs give them really good cover.”

It is no secret that the so-called “helping professions”, such as nursing, social work, psychotherapy and ministry, attract people for curious, and sometimes some rather crazy, and psychologically suspect, reasons. Many rather odd people proclaim, “I want to help people”. The underlying assumption being that they are in a position to help and that others will want to be helped by them.
Consider the profession of ministry. What might be some unhealthy reasons people are “lured” or “called”, knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or unconsciously, into the ministry?
(1) Being in a position of authority

(2) Dependence of others

(3) Wanting to have a benevolent image

(4) Position of adulation
(5) The hope of vicariously helping themselves by helping others
George Christian Anderson, in a book edited by Wayne Oates, “The Minister’s Own Mental Health”, writes about exploiting the clinical profession: “Some clergy consciously or unconsciously exploit their profession to satisfy childhood needs for attention. Children who are insecure, or who lack affection, endeavor to obtain these things by attracting attention to themselves….Some persons never outgrow infantile needs for attention and, not having the emotional maturity to satisfy these needs in a mature way, continue to behave like children.” How is this actualized? One way is by using the pulpit to satisfy one’s need for attention. The motives of a minister who says “I just love to preach”, may be quite suspect. Another way is dependency on constant admiration for security, and needing to be admired by others to boost one’s ego. Unfortunately, the person who is solely dependent on external strokes (co-dependent personalities), often have high positions in their denominations or church organizations.
Carroll Wise has pointed out the problem of what he called the “neurotic need for helping other people.” Certainly, the desire to help others is not necessarily a sign of some kind of emotional imbalance. But such a desire may stem from unresolved unconscious need. Sigmund Freud theorized that a strong desire to help others stems from longings that are the consequence of child-hood losses. Such folk grew up in rejecting and dysfunctional families and were led to what Karl Menninger called, “an unhealthy professional interest in lonely, eccentric, and unloved people.”

The idea of the “wounded healer” did not originate with Henri Nouwen. It has ancient roots. In Greek mythology, Chiron, who taught medicine, suffered an incurable wound from the hands of Hercules. Saint Augustine was not alone among Christians in using his own weaknesses and his struggles against them to help him find compassion and strength. Mythology and religion are full of those who must learn to heal themselves before healing others and who must recognize and forgive their sins before they can, with authentic humility and understanding, forgive another. Freud himself often drew upon his own experiences to show that he regularly used his own wounds to aid the empathic process. Having emotional problems may not be a prerequisite or an advantage for a minister, but having had past wounds is not in itself a handicap, so long as these wounds have been recognized, confronted and reasonably resolved (accepted).

The danger comes when the wounded healer has not successfully dealt with, accepted, and therefore, cannot control his or her wounds or injuries. The minister can follow one of two paths. The more difficult, but ultimately the most satisfying, road leads to some painful confrontations with a person’s own problems and weaknesses, and ultimately to a healthy self-understanding. Ideally, the person can accept their wounds as a part of their history, which can lead to embracing one’s own pilgrimage. The end result being that one has a reasonably clear picture of their own needs and ambitions and why they are in ministry. It can enable the person to approach others with honesty, compassion and humility---knowing that one is motivated by genuine concern and not an unhealthy or unresolved motive.
The other path is easier and less painful, but disastrous. The minister comes, consciously or unconsciously, to see ministry as way of avoiding the need to deal with his or her problems. Such a person is able to justify their actions in almost every circumstance and, when necessary, to shift the blame onto someone else when the going gets rough. There are those who, as a result of a rejected childhood, become rigid and demanding preachers who exhort and chastise their flock from above, who have no sympathy for their weaknesses, and who condemn their church members’ transgressions, instead of leading them to an understanding of a grace- filled life. Basically, they do not understand their parishioners because they do not understand themselves, and they cannot help others with their emotional problems because their own solution is to repress their problems and, therefore, be unable to deal with them.
One of the most interesting and significant is the person (often the first born) who is rushed through childhood too quickly, who was forced to become a little adult. Such people grow up believing that hard work and responsibility are the only things that give them value in others’ eyes. They have a chronic low self-image and have great difficulty receiving love and acceptance from others. It is only their selfishly selfless labors that make them feel satisfied with themselves. As a result, these people may be driven into a frenzy of wholesale helping which is motivated, not by genuine concern, but by a desperate need to fill a vacancy. A Jungian scholar puts it this way: “They give too much, without knowing how to receive. They build up all kinds of inhibitions against taking or receiving anything for themselves—which is labor. They easily justify this attitude biblically by saying, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’. They are into loving their God and loving their neighbor, but forget that crucial addition: ‘as yourself’.” To put it another way, they are people who search for wholeness in ministry, rather than to express wholeness through their ministry.
Ernest Jones, who best known as Freud’s biographer, wrote a paper entitled, “The God Complex”. He described those in the helping professions (who have such a complex), as having a subtle belief in their own importance, and are unable to see anyone else as comparably important which, of course, colors every aspect of their relationships. Jones goes on to characterize them as aloof, inaccessible people who are happiest in their own home—in privacy and seclusion—with a desire to withdraw from the world. They tend to have fantasies of power and believe themselves to be omniscient. Jones felt that people with God complexes were more likely than others to go into psychology and related professions.
It is no secret that ministry attracts people with God complexes. Ministers are sometimes expected and expect others to address questions that are well outside the range of their expertise. Because of their education (theology and psychology) the minister is sometimes expected to understand all things human and divine. And those with God complexes often do not understand their limitations, and to not have the personal strength and equilibrium to resist the temptations of such power and tend to thrive on adoration of others because of the self-importance they feel. Carl Jung believed that a person who is in a place of power, and who has a self-centered complex, and who wields it in the name of some perceived ultimate good, is always potentially dangerous.
The “God complex” is, of course, related to narcissism a disorder having to do with grandiose self-images, unrealistic notions of one’s ability, power and wealth, intelligence and appearance, and who feels they deserves things they have not earned simply by virtue of grandiose importance.
What type of home environment breeds narcissistic people? According to Heinz Kohut, the narcissistic person is generally deprived in infancy and childhood of the affection and emotional interactions with their parents that would have allowed the normal development of a distinct sense of personal value. The parents, who are often narcissistic themselves, did not treat the child as a dependent person of worth, but instead used the child for their own gratification. As a result, the child’s self-worth was stunted and the child’s values were structured around an ability to comprehend and fulfill the parents’ wishes. This ability is then perfected. As caregivers, narcissistic people are insensitive and lacking in empathy. Though they make an extravagant show of generosity and concern for others, this behavior inevitably proves to be just that—a show, which serves to polish the fine image they strive to hold of themselves. Unfortunately, the ministry is wrought with those with grandiose self-images (to cover an unacceptable low self-image). Practically every Sunday you can see them preaching in pulpits and on television.
Maxine Glaz affirms Nouwen’s premise that one’s experience of loss and pain (wounds) can be facilitators for effective pastoral work. However, she rightly asserts that there are limits to the usefulness of suffering as potential sources of strength and empathy in pastoral care giving. There are simply those with serious emotional problems (some who have been abused as children) who exhibit such negative patterns of involvement with others that they cannot be empathetic pastoral caregivers. For some, being a victim of past abuse or neglect can cause them to form victim identities. Such victims may well acknowledge their past helplessness to fend off violence, but continue to live by fending off violence others don’t intend. This constant defensiveness, or being constantly on guard, becomes a way of life. They have been unable to get a mature balanced perception of their personal histories or of those around them.
It is essential for people to understand that the suffering and pains they endured in their pasts were often not merited; that they were not necessarily of fault and that they can and need to develop trusting relationships. Such insight and maturity often involves extensive therapy which may result in allowing the person to develop a healthy understanding of their history, and to put a proper perspective on their abused and pains to escape the conclusion that no one is to be trusted.
In his book, THE WOUNDED HEALER, Henri Nouwen writes of an old legend in the Talmud which gives a picture of how ministry to others can unfold:
“Rabbi Yoshua ben Leir came upon Elijah the Prophet whileHe was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’scave….He asked Elijah, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ Elijahreplied, ‘Go and ask him yourself’…..’Where is he?’ ‘Sitting atthe gates of the city.’ ‘How shall I know him?’ ‘He is sittingamong the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind alltheir wounds and the same time and then bind them up again.But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying tohimself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always beready so as not to delay for a moment’.”
In his somewhat pious way, Nouwen asserts (and I repeat), that the minister is the one who must look after his own wounds (therapy)but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. Nouwen lists separation, isolation, loneliness and alienation as wounds the minister endures tries to endure. He does not get into the personal psychological reason for these wounds, but rather the situations in which the minister finds himself doing ministry. As to loneliness he writes, “Óur failure to change the world with our good intensions and sincere actions and undesired displacement to the edges of life, have made us aware that the wound (loneliness) is still there.” He sees the minister’s loneliness as the result of not being included in much of the center of people’s lives: “The painful irony is that the minister, who wants to touch the center of men’s lives, finds himself on the periphery; often pleading in vain for admission….He never seems to be where the action is.” I wonder if this says more about Henri Nouwen than it does about the minister’s involvement in critical and crisis situations.
Paul Tillich, one of my favorite theologians, writes (The Courage to Be) about the importance of having the courage to accept acceptance. This does not mean just being accepted now, but the acceptance of our whole being—our whole life. Courage is the affirmation of one’s being---the act of affirming all the wounds of the past and embracing them—embracing the whole of one’s life and one’s whole selfhood.

(Note: This is a kind of scissors and paste paper---read it according)

G.B.George Buck, Ph.D., is a Diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision & Psychotherapy and is dually certified as a Pastoral Psychotherapist and as a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. Dr. Buck supervises the part-time and extended units of CPE at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences-Medical Center Little Rock, Arkansas.

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