Wounded healers

by Fernando Perfas

“2014-03-22_1003” | Photo by Bernardo Fuller via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It often comes as a surprise to find that among the helping profession and the clergy’s ranks are people who do more harm than good to those they are tasked to help. The egregious conduct of some defies reason. It is simply hard to fathom. To shed light on this aberration, we must plumb the innermost self of the perpetrator, the hidden aspect of the personality that is not readily discernible even to the person himself: the unconscious.

Underneath the façade, the driving force behind the dissonant behavior is the person’s unconscious motivation. Here lies the root of the psychopathology. It is the sphere of unresolved conflicts resulting from traumatic experiences and other psychic afflictions that warp a person’s world view and moral sense. In a classic article published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1989, Thomas Maeder refers to them as the wounded healers.

“There is nothing wrong with an ex-alcoholic or an ex-addict or an ex-convict counseling other people about substance abuse problems or criminal propensities. In our culture, which values personal experience for having gone through a particular “problem,” what may be considered stigmatizing in other cultures is seen instead as credentials or expertise in the area.”

Why are these people attracted to the calling in the “helping” field? I believe the field provides a rich ground to fulfill an unmet psychological need by having others do the work. What better opportunity offers an insecure pastor or counselor the feeling of power and control over other people? It is a form of self-therapy through vicarious experience from providing “therapy” to others. For those with more serious psychopathology, the field provides a good hunting ground for victims. The profession serves as perfect camouflage for predatory activities.

There is nothing wrong with an ex-alcoholic or an ex-addict or an ex-convict counseling other people about substance abuse problems or criminal propensities. In our culture, which values personal experience for having gone through a particular “problem,” what may be considered stigmatizing in other cultures is seen instead as credentials or expertise in the area. The social stigma attached to having sought therapy or drug treatment or support from Alcoholics Anonymous is much less than other societies.

“The practice of regular clinical supervision of practitioners by their supervisors is one way to minimize or prevent abuse of innocent people. It is also an effective means of providing help to practitioners who may be going through some personal difficulties that can impact their ability to provide professional service.”

However, there is a great deal of risk that some helpers may violate therapeutic boundaries when they themselves have not fully recovered from their disorder. When there are lingering issues that continue to haunt them or unresolved emotional conflicts that prevent them from moving on, this emotional baggage can render them ineffective as helpers. Besides, the helpers’ risk of using therapeutic relationships with clients to meet their own emotional needs is quite high.

The practice of regular clinical supervision of practitioners by their supervisors is one way to minimize or prevent abuse of innocent people. It is also an effective means of providing help to practitioners who may be going through some personal difficulties that can impact their ability to provide professional service. The sad reality is that not all these practitioners get supervision.

There is very little to protect the innocent except knowing enough about the backgrounds of people they seek help. The helping field is regulated through professional credentials or license to practice the trade, and there are Professional Code of Ethics that practitioners are “expected” to abide by. The rest is based on trust and the goodwill of professionals who made a vow to “no harm.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

X