Not all sick people are called to be their community’s counselor

To embrace the role of a wounded healer, it's crucial that we set boundaries

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by Brad Dell |

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When we stop hiding our wounds and instead make our pain a wellspring of compassion for others, we become “wounded healers” — hurt people who help hurt people. That’s what Henri Nouwen described in his book “The Wounded Healer.” My copy’s pages are eroded by countless pen and highlighter strokes, with some pages limp from flood damage after dark nights spent pursuing purpose while sobbing through suffering.

For years I hid my disease from peers, weaving half-truth tales to evade suspicion that there was something very, very wrong with me. Those guises only held up for so long. In high school, friends realized. I feared they’d abandon me, and some did, but others engaged me more deeply. They’d begun to see the aching beneath my goofy persona and so felt safe to share their darker, haunting stories. Daily, peers confided in me about wounds like abuse, sexual traumas, and cancer diagnoses.

They sought my counsel. A high schooler’s counsel.

I was absolutely unqualified to be my social circle’s go-to counselor. I was already drowning in my own despair before others added to it. On the other hand, I felt a sick pleasure in my swelling social value because it soothed my fear of abandonment. Plus, advising people about their lives made me feel emotionally superior, like I knew how to do life better and could maybe even save them.

But I was afraid to say no to people who came to me for help. I didn’t want to sound cruel or be abandoned.

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Nouwen described the danger:

  • “Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind?”
  • “A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away pain. … No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people.”

I was a child, not a minister. But eventually I’d grow into that role, and since starting ministry in 2012, I’ve worked hard at undoing those unhealthy mindsets.

Through these years of ministry, I’ve learned in hindsight, through training, and in present mistakes the dangers of poor boundary-keeping and savior complexes. I’ve realized that leaning into these danger zones not only hurts me, but also others. I’m not a licensed therapist, so I can make problematic judgments if I overstep; I’ve led others to believe I give endlessly and so have hurt them by closing myself off abruptly while undergoing my own trials; and I’ve hurt myself by continuing to absorb others’ pain when running on empty.

What to do if you’re treated like a counselor

I’m writing this because I want you to assess your own relationships and ask where you’re taking on too much or where your motives and objectives might be corrupted. What boundaries must you draw?

I’m confident I’m not writing to a void because many of you are like me: As a child, you heard that you’re “older than your years,” a tragic observation that disease doesn’t allow us to be children. When people realized this, they compounded the tragedy by heaping suffering on you. They pondered whether you’d understand, rather than if you could or should bear it. They didn’t realize we could barely carry our own burden.

Help them realize your limitations. Be honest with both them and yourself that, with a disease, you have more on your shoulders than most, and if it applies, you’re not trained to provide the help they seek. We all should help others, but there’s a difference between being compassionate and making compassion your vocation. Some have bigger burdens than others heaped on them by their community, and that person has the right to say whether it’s one they wish to bear.

If you’re afraid to say no to those seeking help, consider sending this column with the explanation that it’s not that you don’t want to help, but that you’re limited. You grew familiar with agony at a young age, but that doesn’t mean you’re also obligated to bear your community’s despair. You might need to work more on your own wounds and, although you want to be a good friend, not be your circle’s go-to listener. Ask them to check on you for a change.

Eventually, I embraced being a wounded healer and received training that disciplines me to be a suffering companion rather than pretend to be a fixer. If you feel called to this, seek help from a professional who can guide you, both for your sake and others’. It’s often difficult to see how astray we are in our motives or boundaries, whether because we’re young, feel obligated, or are just far too invested in others’ well-being to seek out our own. You need help, too.

If you feel you need permission to draw the line, take it from me.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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