Doctor and best-selling author, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, struggled with Crohn’s disease and its impact on her life. In My Grandfather’s Blessings, she wrote, “Over forty-seven years of illness I have been helped and fixed by a great number of people. I am grateful to them all. But all that helping and fixing left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.… The best definition of service I have come across is a single word: Belonging. Service is the final healing of isolation and loneliness. It is the lived experience of belonging.”1

In The Wounded Healer, author and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.”2

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Further on he writes, “it is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared.”2

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Martin Buber, professor and Jewish philosopher, best captured this pain of loneliness in his book I and Thou. “’I’ of ‘I and thou’ is different from the ‘I’ of ‘I and it.’ ‘I’ of ‘I and it’ lives within roles, tasks, and preoccupations that define us as separate individuals. These markers of individuality often function defensively, protecting us from a full awareness of our dependencies and interdependencies as human beings. The ‘I’ that speaks to ‘Thou’ has moved out from behind those barriers and — at the moment — lives in openness and vulnerability of relationship.”3

Without I/Thou the healer runs the risk of inflation, of seeing themselves as all knowing, and the wounded person, the patient, is only sick with no capacity to heal. Any deviation from or threat to the authority of the healer is seen as being noncompliant. The wounded person likewise invests all their hope and faith in the healer, seeing themselves as only wounded and does not see their own power as a healer. It’s like 2 literal poles, with wounded on one side and healer on the other. If both parties to the clinical encounter are holding both ends of both poles, the circuit is complete and the wounded healer archetype is activated.

Operating this way, from a place of weakness and solidarity, can provide a powerful buffer against burnout and compassion fatigue. It requires an understanding that when the archetype is activated, the healing does not come from us as clinicians but from some other source, from an unconscious process going on between us and the people who come to us for help.

The opposite of inflation is over identification with the patient’s own wounds, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burnout. Here is where the clinician can become harmed, and it is part of the rationale for maintaining strong professional boundaries. That is why maintaining self-care is so important. In addition to supervision, nurses might consider journaling, dream work, mindfulness, psychotherapy, prayer, and exercise as a way of becoming more conscious of wounds or at least more aware of their inner process and own inner-healer.

In closing, Vincent Corso, M.Div, LCSW, identifies ways to train wounded healers in health care, “One’s awareness of brokenness and mortality becomes a powerful tool when tending to the pain of another.… The author noticed that many effective nurses have a sense of their own brokenness and connectedness to others, allowing them to be both healers and companions to the sick and dying. Their success is built on outcomes from good supervision, professional education, and psychotherapy. A nurse’s commitment to the practice of self-care can be an advantageous means of maintaining personal and professional boundaries. Such practices allow nurses to truly be present with their patients without being completely overwhelmed by the painful complexities before them. Internal resources cannot be taken for granted.”4


1. Remen RN. My Grandfathers Blessing: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2000:199-200.

2. Nouwen HJM. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York, NY: Image Books; 1979:94-95,98.

3. Buber M. I and Thou. New York, NY: Scribner; 1958.

4. Corso VM. Oncology nurse as wounded healer: developing a compassion identity. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2012;16(5):448-450.