Acknowledging and accepting what haunts me has helped me become more empathetic towards my patients’ emotional suffering.
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Before their egos got in the way of their blossoming bromance, Carl Jung shared an important perspective on the clinical training of analysts (a.k.a. therapists) with his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud. In a psychotherapy portion of his collected works, he suggested “that a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply, consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient.” This is what’s known as the "wounded healer,” that personality trait that helps all healers connect and treat emotional pain.
Jung took this concept further, claiming how—more often than not—therapists' ability to help others comes from their own experience of wounding and healing. There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding therapists acknowledging their own experience with emotional distress. It’s as if mental health professionals are immune to mental health problems—which is a damaging belief within the professional community and for our patients.
I knew I wanted to become a psychologist when I was thirteen years old. I even have a Peanuts’ Lucy “Holiday Psychiatric Help” ornament from 2003 to prove it. As the years passed, I had no idea how much my ability to be vulnerable would pave the way for this decision. But vulnerability—and the courage to ask for help—is not always seen as a strength in my field. In fact, studies have shown that stigma stops other clinicians from seeking out psychotherapy in fear of possible “professional repercussions.” A recent Antioch University of Seattle doctoral dissertation aimed to identify the prevalence, barriers, and suggested interventions for distress among psychologists.
In their findings, they discovered that psychologists are prone to exhibiting burnout and compassion fatigue and, if not handled appropriately, the high levels of distress could impair them from doing their jobs effectively. And these folks, mind you, have other people’s mental health in their hands. According to the review, 81 percent of psychologists studied had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder (a large percent were mild) which varied from substance abuse, mood, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other personality dysfunctions.
Researchers Rubén Díaz and Carlos Rodríguez, explored the burnout prevalence of mental health professionals in Panama (where I live and work) and found that about 36 percent of its community has suffered from burnout syndrome at one point or another of their careers. The nature of our profession and the excessive use of our mental energy to tend to care for others can also take an emotional toll on our lives; it reinforces the importance of therapists going to therapy. If we’re not emotionally stable and healthy, we can’t help others reach their goals.
While it’s not shocking to learn that mental health professionals also struggle with mental health issues—given that we’re human and all—it’s disconcerting to see research show that mental health care professional are hesitant to seek help. In the aforementioned study, about 43 percent of psychologists “struggle to see the presentation of mental illness and psychological distress within themselves,” and one in five psychologists withholds information about their emotional difficulties.
After reading all of this, I have to ask myself: What exactly is the message we’re sending? How are we, as therapists, expected to treat others and help others grow emotionally, if we're reluctant to walk into therapy ourselves? How is this vulnerability—that’s so hard to own—crucial to our work and our profession?
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A recent study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology explores the clinical implication of the “wounded healer” archetype in therapist’s day-to-day work. In this study, the researchers, Molly Cvetovac and Alexandra Adame, gathered a series of personal narratives from therapists in order to identify several common themes in their emotional suffering. What they found suggests that emotional struggle is not only normal, but necessary for therapists to promote growth in their clients or patients. This “overlap of experiences” can help therapists use their own “emotional wounds” as a tool to help others in their recovery.
It’s ironic how a fierce advocate for mental health like myself, still hesitates before sharing my own experience in therapy. But after having worked in the clinical field for the past five years, I understand why it’s necessary. Acknowledging and accepting what haunts me has helped me become more empathetic towards my patients’ emotional suffering, as well.
Cvetovac and Adame also discussed how it’s particularly important for those who are training to be mental health professionals to make sure they’re getting the emotional support they need, because “they are at particular risk for internalizing stigma and may have more difficulty processing their psychological wounds.”
Some universities are taking this matter into their own hands, and shifting the focus to prevention. And while it’s usually a requisite in the States for psychoanalysts to be “analyzed” themselves, that’s not the case for all types of mental health care professionals. The whole reason I started attending therapy was because of encouragement from my mentors while I was training. Sergio González, admissions coordinator for the faculty of psychology at Universidad Santa María la Antigua in Panama (my alma mater), explains to his students that “as a psychologist, it’s beneficial to attend therapy because one is able to witness mental states which you might not be aware of otherwise. The same mental states that—as psychologists—you will be working with.”
He also tells me that “the University prefers to use the word ‘encouragement' rather than ‘requisite’ when speaking about the importance of therapy,” because an important aspect of the success of therapy is the personal motivation of the patient.
Being a therapist who goes to therapy shouldn’t have to be a secret. But, unfortunately, many mental health professionals have to carry the a double burden—their own issues, plus those of their patients (or clients). Cvetovac and Adame assert that “it’s only through continued dialogue regarding these issues that we can create a more open and supportive community that will allow wounded psychotherapists to utilize their wounds in a way that promotes healing for their patients.”
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