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October 21, 2021

The Wounded Healer

An Archetypal Image of Psychotherapeutic Work

By Sven Doehner

We frequently imagine the psychotherapist to be a “healed” person. One who, thanks to their polished intellect and emotional maturity, can help others to work with their inner selves. How would it be to instead imagine and recognize how deeply therapeutic sensitivity comes with – is born from – a wound ?

The word “wound” is a way of talking about something within us that hurts, that we do not want or like, that we are ashamed or embarrassed about… something that awakens rejection. It includes thoughts, emotions, sensations and intuitions that we prefer to hide, disguise, conceal and ignore, all in our desire to either please others, or to appear normal in the eyes of others and oneself. It is a “wound”, in the sense that it interferes and interrupts our experience of being congruent and whole.

In order to imagine it better, from a wider perspective, let us invoke the archetypal figure that is psychologically relevant: Hephaestus, son of Hera, conceived without assistance from Zeus. In addition to having been born lame and then expelled, thrown out Mount Olympus, he was openly rejected and known mostly for his physical defect.

Falling through the mouth of a volcano into the center of the earth, he was initiated in the secrets of working with fire, which enabled him, when “re-born” into the known world, to become the first blacksmith, the one who could transform “things” into works of art: the first artisan.

Hephaestus created objects, as useful and they were precious, that permitted those for whom they were intended to take control of themselves, providing tools that allowed them to become who they most genuinely are in their lives.

He fabricated the shield that Aeneas took to the war, making it possible for him to become “Aeneas the Brave”. He also made the pearls that highlighted Aphrodite´s unequalled beauty. And he responded to Athena´s request by inventing the bridle, which make it possible for man to domesticate the horse´s instincts, initiating cultural and psychological civilization.

Neither his wounded foot, nor his mother´s rejection, nor the repudiation of others defined who Hephaestus was. He did not act as, or see himself as wounded. Instead, he made himself know as an artisan, the prototype of the one who can transform material without form or apparent aim – brute matter – into instruments for self-expression. More than resolving the other´s conflicts, his work provided what was missing for the other to connect with something essential to their Being.

As an image of the wounded healer, Hephaestus illustrated how a dynamic relationship with one´s own wound is a medium through which we can discover and develop our deepest, truest gifts and talents, our most creative spirit: our “daemon”. Instead of eliminating our wound, the goal is to go through it. A loving relationship with our pain is what awakens what is needed to be creative in our lives.

The archetypal image of Hephaestus shows us a psychotherapist who values that which causes shame, or threatens, or hurts and does not fit it… that which, paradoxically, makes us be different from anyone else – unique – given that it is precisely this that makes us be who we most genuinely are.

Since ancestral times, one of the deepest desires of “homo faber” – man who fabricates, constructs – is to collaborate in all possible ways with both the external and internal transformations that life is made of. As human beings, we discover ourselves – who we are – by what we do (or sometimes, fail to do).

The deepest psychotherapeutic work takes place when and where our wounds are touched, with the aim of relating creatively to them – with no intention of eliminating them. Our invitation is to imagine the psychotherapist as an artisan who reveals themself by way of their work with their own pain, to discover what is needed to be more who they truly are.

Bringing out the artisan in the psychotherapist begins with the recognition of their own wounds. The challenge is to allow one´s sense of woundedness to be present in a meeting with another, without either repressing it or acting it out. The psychotherapist´s wounds can be of service to the other only to the degree that their relationship with their hurt, their pain, has served to transform them deeply.

The artisan in the psychotherapist relates intimately with inner demons, allowing them to take on palpable form and be transformed while they are worked with. Instead of repairing or resolving, the task is to re-create.

Working with another´s wounds by way of one´s experience with one´s own wounds is, like Hephaestus – the depth psychotherapist – the art that heals in the therapeutic relationship. The artisan is the one who relates to their own “pathos”, with that which they are passionate about, giving it a new form. The therapist´s task is to journey through the unknown and unexpected, even as it threatens, hurts, or cannot be explained, in order to dis-cover new forms, both external and internal, to be in one´s life.

As the wound becomes more palpably and consciously related to, we go from the ideas that we have about certain things into new, fresh experiences of them. In that way, the blacksmith and the psychotherapist become masters in working with their own inner fires, enabling them to be able to guide others in relating creatively to their own fears, pains, passions and desires. The surprise is how the individual is transformed in the process, earning their place in life thanks to the relationship that they establish with what is lacking, with what hurts, with what moves within.

Relating to our own pain – with the images that come with our wounds – is precisely what allows us to discover our most authentic gifts, our deepest, “secret” creativity.

Our wounds are fountains of transformation. When we transit through their pain, they initiate an experience that gives form to vital formless “things” in our lives. The invitation is to put repetition and memory to one side in order to open our imagination and creative spirit to become the individual that we truly are.