James C. Coyne Ph.D.

The Skeptical Sleuth

Marsha Linehan Reveals Her Borderline Personality Disorder: Must Our Healers Be Wounded?

Must Healers Have Confronted and Overcome Personal Problems to be Credible?

Posted Jul 09, 2011

Yet, courageous though her disclosure may be, by going public Dr. Linehan was keeping with a well-established tradition in Western culture of the wounded healer. According a story traceable back to the early Greeks, a healer acquires a special capability to help others as a result of suffering trauma and psychic pain. Psychologist Carl Jung, who developed his own distinctive approach to psychotherapy after breaking with Freud, identified the archetype of the wounded healer. "A good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor's 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."

The theme of the wounded healer is epitomized in the popular fictional television physician Gregory House, MD. As the hero of the series House, Dr. House's loneliness, chronic physical pain, and addiction to painkillers become the driving force for him to diagnose and fix the pain of others, even while going out of his way to display a disdain and lack of empathy for his patients. Somehow, the command "Physician, heal thyself" gets elaborated with "by healing others."

Gregory House, MD

Martin Seligman the originator of Positive Psychology and author of numerous books on how to be happy describes a conversion experience, an "epiphany, nothing less." when he responded with crankiness to five-year-old daughter Nikki's glee. She confronted him, reminding him that from three to five years old she had been a whiner. Reaching her fifth birthday she had become determined not to be a whiner anymore, and if she could change, he similarly could stop being a grouch. "I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession."

Developer of Rational Emotive Therapy, Albert Ellis describes how he had been an awkward 19-year-old who just could not get a date. He realized the stumbling block was that he was afraid of rejection and avoided it at any cost. Yet, he realized too that it was not the rejection that was devastating, but his construction of it as being so unbearably horrible. He came up with a "brilliant homework assignment." He would go to the Bronx Botanical Garden every day for a month and if he saw an attractive woman sitting on a park bench, he would sit next to her and strike up a conversation. He sat down next to 130 women, and even though 30 of them immediately got up and left, he was able to gain some experience talking to the other 100 and overcame his sense that rejection was devastating. The accounts that I've been able to find don't indicate whether he actually got a date, but this experience is claimed is the basis for his therapy that emphasizes the intervening of thought between actual experiences and emotional reaction and behavior.

Francine Shapiro describes an epiphany that led to development of her distinctive, even if controversial Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy, in which patients are encouraged to visualize their traumatic circumstances even while tracking the therapists' moving fingers from side to side in front of their eyes or simply the therapists' tapping their finger. . Dr. Shapiro describes how when she was feeling stressed and overwhelmed after being diagnosed with cancer, she sat down on a park bench and began to watch some pigeons. She suddenly realized that she experienced great relief in getting absorbed in the to and fro of the pigeons, so much so that she decided to give up her graduate study in English literature and switch to psychology in order to understand and develop the phenomenon that had relieved her of her painful preoccupation with her cancer.

"Before he was an accomplished psychologist, Steven Hayes was a mental patient." Thus starts a Time magazine story about Hayes, a name associated with development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, what he declares to be at the forefront of what he terms the "third wave" of behavior therapy. Hayes gives a story of how during a faculty meeting when he was an assistant professor, he became overwhelmed by what he thought was a heart attack. His heart raced and he could not speak. It was the first of a series of panic attacks. He does not give the details of his being hospitalized or explain why someone would be hospitalized for panic disorder, but he claims that the conventional cognitive behavioral techniques he had been applying with his patients actually made his symptoms worse. In a video presentation of his alternative approach to treating panic disorder, Hayes claims the authority of being someone who is a sufferer of panic attacks in recovery.

There are more examples out there, but there is no hard evidence that such epiphanies or personal struggles make for more effective innovative therapies or particularly effective therapists. Some mental health professionals who call for treatments to be evidence-based, are dismissive of such stories: ‘Give me evidence, not entertaining anecdotes." But the theme of a wounded healer is an entrenched cultural narrative. Whether accurate or oversimplified, embellished or simply apocryphal, a wounded healer story is expected of proponents of new self-help strategies or therapies and the story becomes a personalized expression of the power of their ideas to heal. Authors of self-help books or proponents of new therapies should prepare themselves with a compelling wounded healer story. Sooner or later, they will be asked by journalists or talk show hosts, "And how did you come up with this idea...?"