Making Meaning: The Wounded Healer vs. Identification With the Aggressor

When something horrible happens in life it is not uncommon to ask the question “Why?” or “Why me?” But how many of us truly spend time being receptive to uncovering an answer to that question? Sometimes we just shrug our shoulders and carry on with a vague sense of “that’s life I guess” or we remind ourselves “bad things happen to good people.” Sometimes we seek out explanations like Karma, destiny, or a sense that we are being punished or held accountable for some sort of previous indiscretion. How often though do we truly sit and think, and feel about why certain events, both good and “bad” happen to us in the context of who we are and what our life path/purpose is?

An individual might, as a Hindu, Buddhist or even as a non-religious person, see oneself as operating within the context of karma, and this concept, in combination with reflection and spending time with their current experience, may indeed come away with karma as a part of the meaning that is found. The point however is to not take a superficial or glib idea and apply it without understanding that “Yes, this is the meaning for me at this particular time with this particular concern.”

I have found that people who are best able to thrive after an emotional upheaval and bear the trial during its occurrence are those who actively seek to make meaning of their experience. They are growth oriented and have a sense that things really do happen for a reason, not necessarily in a punitive or “I deserved that” kind of way, but in an introspective, open minded way. They evaluate, meditate, write and look into the meaning of their dreams and synchronicities. They search for and find, if not the answer to the “why?” then at least for the sense of “what can I take from this experience?” “How am I wiser?” “How have I been broken open to feeling more deeply instead of being broken apart, and how can I use that wisdom as I go forward in life?”

If we look at the popular metaphor for life being like a river, we can also see that people who track their development through the easy and challenging times in life are better and sometimes more quickly able to see how the ebbs and flows, the twists and turns in the river of their life really does have a cohesion, because they are intimately following the river, studying it on a day to day basis. This study helps them to gain an almost intuitive sense or at least an intimate familiarity, not necessarily of the course or how the terrain and conditions will change, but knowledge of the river itself, of being a part of the river. The river (life) is not happening to them, because they are intimately linked. Daily work on ourselves helps us feel the connection to all aspects of life and environment which in turn helps to prevent a feeling of alienation and separateness from ourselves, people, places and things that threatens us when we encounter hardship.

This protective factor exists because we are viewing the world and ourselves through the lens of connection rather than separateness. It can be said that in a broad way, people can go one of two ways after traumatic experiences, let’s take for example the case of two siblings who experienced abuse in childhood. The first child, out of feelings of helplessness, extreme vulnerability and need for nurturance which is not met, might make the decision consciously and/or unconsciously, to never allow herself to be so vulnerable to pain again. She sees that the best way, perhaps the only way, to prevent this is to be just as tough, if not tougher, than her abuser. This phenomenon is called identification with the aggressor.

On the other hand, the second sibling having had the same or similar experience, may go on to recognize an incredible ability to be in tune with the suffering of others. He may identify that he is in a position through his own history, to be able to help others who have had similar experiences. This type of outcome can be referred to as the archetype of the wounded healer. A wounded healer is a person who through his or her own wounds has the ability to more naturally understand the wounds of another.

As a generalization for the purpose of example, one might say that the latter sibling of our example was able to find some meaning in his experience (with the bias that meaning making typically results in a growth oriented direction and that that growth is beneficent in nature and can contribute to the greater good). The former sibling however certainly can be viewed as having made meaning; meaning that the world is a hostile and vicious place and because of this she has chosen a path informed by anger and bitterness. We can of course have compassion for both, as both were vulnerable, innocent children at one time whose basic needs for safety and love were grossly unmet, but we can thank the latter individual for working toward a constructive and healing journey that not only proves a benefit to them, but to the community as well. This type of healing can take shape more readily with the attitude of the person experiencing pain.

Making meaning out of experience, especially suffering, is not taking a Pollyanna-ish attitude, it can be a dark journey that does not usually elicit the idea of “wow, guess I was lucky after all!” but it says “if this is happening and/or has happened in my life, what can I take from it, what have I learned?” “How has it shaped my character, my identity in a way that can result in increased wisdom and integrity of character?” We cannot make this meaning for one another, but it is there waiting to be discovered.

This process is the taking of the darkness and transforming it, rather than being swallowed up by it.

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