“The most forgiving people I have ever come across are people who have suffered – it is as if suffering has ripped them open into empathy. I am talking about wounded healers”.
–Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1995*The concept of the wounded healer can be confusing. In medical terms, if one is injured, sick or has a broken bone, the response is to treat the part of the body that is damaged and /or not functioning at full capacity and thereby facilitate healing. However, recovery does not always mean “ as good as new”. Broken bones that have healed might lead to arthritis years down the road. The chronic cough as a child could leave the lungs compromised and create problems later. So how do we measure robustness versus weakness in the intricate art of empathy? The question I often ponder is whether and how empathy is enhanced by shared or similar experiences?
When a therapist has actually had a similar experience to a patient, for example, when both have experienced combat in war, is the empathic attunement greater than if the therapist has never been exposed firsthand to the trauma of war? Can one surmise that if the therapist grew up in a violent household (which may imperfectly replicate the trauma of war psychologically), that clinician then has the necessary experience to empathize accurately with the patient?
Some of the pertinent measures of empathy relate to the verbal style and expressiveness of the therapist as well as the capacity for self-knowledge. These skills are not measured in the licensing examinations and are not screened for in graduate programs. So what happens when a therapist has restricted self-knowledge and is unskilled in accurately empathizing with their patients? Sometimes the personal damage to the therapist has not been adequately addressed, resulting in a compromised and sometimes inept practitioner.
There is a professional necessity to remain accepting of the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of others, including oneself. Can we exist ethically as healers on the basis of rote platitudes doled out to our patients and maintain the integrity of our profession? Certainly in graduate school, one learns useful tools and skills to enable even the most unfortified clinician to cope with at least superficial soundness. I remain grateful for these tools and the function they provide.
And what of the value of exquisite empathic attunement? When therapist and patient reach that moment of largely subliminal convergence and true transformation occurs, does it really matter if you have shared similar exposures to life’s dramas and tragedies? Or can empathy exist through the pure connectedness of our simple humanity?
*From Country of my Skull byAntjie Krog, 1998