Beware of Woundology


Caroline Myss

We all suffer at times. Regrettably, there are those who use the authenticity of their suffering as an excuse to not heal. Caroline Myss coined the term “woundology” to describe how some people define themselves by their physical, emotional, or social wounds.

In Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can, Myss writes that many people hoping to heal “are striving to confront their wounds, valiantly working to bring meaning to terrible past experiences and traumas, and exercising compassionate understanding of others who share their wounds. But they are not healing. They have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working to get beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.”

Indeed, the last thing that many who are wounded, grieving, or ill are seeking is the full recovery of their health. Pain is their primary “relationship currency” and, consciously or not, they fear making their way in the world without it.why-people-dont-heal-book-cover-myss

Pain has its privileges. Those who adopt a victim mentality may use their wounds to manipulate and control situations and people; after all, suffering can be a convenient excuse for dodging responsibilities. Others discover that, after a lifetime of attending to others, they relish being attended to.

Pain is also the ticket that gains the wounded entrance into well-meaning support groups where members receive, perhaps for the first time, validation, understanding, and acceptance.

A support group’s purpose is to help members heal so they can move freely on in life, and many do just that; some go on to serve as positive role models and providers of hope for those who continue to struggle. But other members choose to not heal because that would mean leaving the only community that has ever offered them support.

It takes courage to explore your suffering, to peel away layer after layer of beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions and rigorously hold yourself accountable to life.

Just as a silversmith holds a piece of silver in the middle of a fire to burn away its impurities, so must we lean into the fire of our pain . . . and burn. Only the searing flames of relentless self-honesty can cauterize our wounds, blunt the jagged edges of our agony, and prepare us for the journey back to wholeness.

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17 Responses to “Beware of Woundology”

  1. Kim Wencl Says:

    I occasionally attend a support group for parents who have lost a child. I must admit I don’t attend very often because it’s painful to see parents who are 10, 15 even 20 years out in their grief, but yet they are still completely stuck in it. Somehow they have the mistaken belief that if they move through the grief, heal and go on with their lives, they are doing a dis-service to their child. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best way to honor a loved one who has died is to live a good life — to laugh, to love, to learn, and to grow.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks as always for your insightful comments, Kim. It reminds me of stories I’ve read in books and seen in movies which the departed ask those they left behind to let them go instead of holding them back in this realm by the force of their emotional pain.

  3. Ed Madara Says:

    In terms of self-help support groups – yes, there are a few who do remain “victims” by their failing to recover from the trauma and regain control of their lives.
    But the vast majority do recover, and become “survivors.” A few of the latter go on to become “thrivers,” and do indeed “redefine their lives around their wounds” by remaining in the support group primarily to help others, to serve as positive role models, provide hope, and discover a special purpose in their lives in the process that those who “haven’t been there” cannot ever provide.

    “Trauma survivors… they become thrivers, and they become teachers. They can go back and remember various things, and answer all those questions we have. They have hope, and they have sense, and the ability to care about other people… to look into the eyes of others who have gone through the things that they have gone through, and to be at peace with that, and to show that they did it.” – Dr. Charles R. Figley

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Well said, Ed. I did note this, but only briefly. I agree that it should be emphasized more. I have already updated the post accordingly. Thanks for you suggestion!

  5. Deb Reilly Says:

    As someone who escaped a permanent case of ‘woundology’, I can testify to the truth of this phenomenon.

    It was extremely difficult for me to listen to a physician tell me that the pain, fatigue and stiffness of fibromyalgia was a result of the way my brain perceived sensation, and had no tangible physical cause. I remember saying, “You think I WANT to feel this awful?” I am proud of my recovery.

    I’ve told the story of my ‘come-back’ to other sufferers, but most nod their heads and tell me how their situation is so much worse. It’s a sad thing to fear good health.

    Great post, Phil.

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks, Deb! Kudos to you for proactively healing yourself ad choosing to be well!

  7. Ginnie Faye Liman Says:

    Two years ago my “boat of life” was capsized when my car jettisoned
    up in the air and left me a paraplegic. In and out of two hospitals enduring two spinal surgeries I had much time to reflect. Living day to day in a wheelchair (long before an age when I would have one), I earnestly sought a
    route to take people on a journey far beyond the boundaries of the seat they now sit in.

    i am starting to affect a following of people who are disabled or those whose loved ones are. I have been re-reading your book, especially the section on “woundology,” hoping to lead them more into re-purposing their lives. My purpose has begun to be “them.” That is, serving, inspiring them, injecting fresh hope. I hope you have a chance to read my page and feel it reflects that purpose in the largest sense. You words inspire me.

  8. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Bless you for making a difference in the world, Ginnie. Your story reminds me of Jim MacLaren’s:

    Also, here is the URL for your blog should other readers wish to visit it:

    By the way, it’s Caroline Myss who wrote about woundology in her book, “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can.” She undoubtedly has inspired millions.

    Thank you for being a gift to the world!

  9. Larry Duff Says:

    This is a more complicated subject than is covered here or by Caroline Myss, or Mr. Bolsta. There is truth to the assertion, that some people get ‘stuck in their wounds’, and some (but not all) may use the fact of their trauma history to try to control others, or be given special privileges.

    But what I have seen and experienced is that coming to a support group, and/or a therapist to be able to speak about painful/traumatic experiences is an important, even necessary experience, to come out of denial, and/or dissociation from the experience of trauma. Receiving validation from another, or other humans is vitally important, and, ideally, there is a period of experiencing that validation and support, and eventually being able to give it back to newcomers.

    But we as a culture, and the world only just scratched the surface of real, deep trauma recovery. Trauma, especially something like childhood sexual, violent or non sexual abuse, dissociates us from our true selves, and we then come to feel we are fundamentally flawed, or we wouldn’t have had that inflicted on us, maybe we brought it on ourselves, we deserved it. There is pain from true trauma that is internalized in our nervous systems, even the cells of our body, that talking about, and no amount of outer validation, can really touch, or heal fully.

    The nature of the experience of real trauma is overload of the whole system, and then dissociation, shutdown happens for survival. To really fully heal, that shutdown process must be reversed; we have to come to feel again, piece by piece, as we’re able, and the body brings to the surface, triggered by life’s experiences. The unfelt pain remains, along with the defenses we were given to protect ourselves from it, developed for our survival. But those survival defenses (addictions, behavior patterns, body armor, etc.) work against us as we become older.

    So, a good program of recovery works by, little by little letting go of, or dismantling those survival mechanisms, breaking the patterns, a day at a time, with the help of a Higher Power, and support from others trying to do the same. ‘Peeling away the onion’ as they say. But for some, they may not be able to do without those defenses, and we should not judge them, that they should. Only God knows who is capable of what.

    Those defenses/patterns, as counterproductive, destructive as they may be, serve a purpose; to keep us from feeling that ‘original pain’. So, when the patterns, addictions etc. are removed, we begin to feel again what we stopped feeling, dissociated from as children, or even as adults with severe traumatic experiences (rape, etc).

    My experience is that the pain (ideally, for those who are able) must be given a space to be fully felt, in all its intensity, even feeling initially that if we allow ourselves to feel it, we will die. But the body/Spirit, in its inherent intelligence, wisdom and compassion, knows how much we can feel at a given time, and just shuts down, subsides when we’ve experienced what we are ready for on a given day or time period. It is allowing the absolute truth of the experience to come to the surface and be felt/processed. It is accessed by just being fully with painful feelings that come up in the present, triggered by life, or maybe delving into our history. Deep breathing is also very helpful to allow the body to let go enough to ‘drop into’ the pain.

    So for someone to just say to a trauma survivor, at some point when they think that person should be beyond the grief or whatever they are still experiencing around a trauma, “Get over it”, can be a very destructive thing to do. It can be asking them to shut down again, to go back into denial, disconnect from themselves.

    Holding someone accountable if they are making others miserable because they are trauma survivors is another thing completely. That person has made the step of acknowledging the trauma but hasn’t gone deep enough in processing the raw pain of the experience. They are staving off the real deep feelings and acting out their pain on others.

    So, the real issue is that (for those who are able), to process, feel their pain at the source, in a real, deeper way. This is the process (or an essential part) of reclaiming the self that was lost as a result of trauma.

    I used to hear a lot of Caroline Myss’s talks, and remember hearing her say that there should be an end point to ‘processing’ painful experiences. Does she know what that is? Is she God? Could it be possible for some extreme traumas that a person might need to, on some level be dealing with something the rest of their lives?

    Someone with some similar ideas (in a way) is Byron Katie (all your suffering is a result of ‘believing your thoughts’). BK quotes include “Victims are violent people”, and “All sadness is a tantrum”. In both I see an unspoken, underlying contempt for weakness and vulnerability, and resistance/denial of the reality that there are overwhelming, traumatic life experiences which don’t conform to our idea of when we think we should be ‘over’ them and their effects. This contempt of weakness and vulnerability, unfortunately, is common in our culture (usually promoted by men), but not often promoted as spiritual. Both teachers also have a lot of truth, that can be helpful in some contexts. But some truth can then be used to promote something that can be destructive, in the name of healing and spirituality.

    The phrase ’spiritual/emotional bypass’ fits.

  10. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Well said and quite true, Larry. Yes, I completely agree that support groups serve a valuable function. I was just noting that they also have the potential to support non-healing patterns as time goes by.

    I also recognize that some traumas may not ever reach an end point of healing. I have head stories of incredible hearings (and know some people personally, including Holocaust survivors, who have overcome and healed incredible traumas) but I also recognize and respect that complete healing may forever be out of reach for many victims. There are just way too many factors involved to expect the same outcome for everyone.

    I hope and pray that everyone who has experienced some form of trauma can at least heal to the point where they can function in everyday life and be able to deal with their pain in healthier ways.

  11. Larry Duff Says:

    Thanks for your response, Phil. Hopefully not to repeat myself, but my experience is that there are effects from trauma that are beyond our control or ability to just ‘get over’ because we decide we are done with it. But at some point (the earlier the better) we can decide not to impose our pain on others, or demand their understanding.

    There are huge lessons of surrender and acceptance the lead to real compassion and understanding that can come from honestly dealing with/facing (meaning feeling directly) the real pain that can come to the surface if we continue to choose to live as an open, vulnerable human being in the present (with healthy boundaries).

    Just to clarify my main point, if it’s needed: the main reason people are stuck, don’t heal on a deeper level, is that people become aware of the fact that they experienced trauma, and begin to come out of denial around that, and the effects it has had in their lives, and find some needed connection and validation from others (therapist, support groups), but do get stuck there because moving into the deeper level of processing the pain directly, is terrifying, and there are few around who have really gone there, including therapists.

    And to access that pain, one does have to give up trying to get it ‘fixed’ by one more person hearing and validating the reality of the pain/trauma. And, if you continue to act out trying to get others to acknowledge the pain, it does become an obstacle in recovery/healing, and hurts our relationships with people. My experience is that, at some point, deeper in the healing process, only God/Higher Power/Spirit (no human) can hear, receive the intensity, the full truth of our pain.

    But when we take full responsibility for our own processing, and lives (as best we can), it may be an ongoing process that has its own timing and rhythm. But when embraced, surrendered to, it opens up the rest of our life for new beautiful experiences that would not have been possible without the experience of getting relief from the pain (that we were previously defended against/dissociated from) by opening to and fully feeling it, a piece at a time.

    Our body/nature/Spirit knows how much we can handle/process at a given time and when it’s fully felt, then just naturally subsides (like a wave that rises and falls, in our bodies/our being), and we feel great release.

    Just watched an excerpt of Caroline Myss video about the subject. After giving lip service to the need for acknowledging and healing of past trauma, but then talking about the great change in our language since the 60’s regarding trauma, she asks, “…..Can you imagine our grandparents ever saying, “I need to process my childhood?”

    No, I/we can’t, and maybe that’s the reason alcoholism, child abuse (including violent incest in my own) was rampant in so many family histories.

    Again, the issue is getting stuck somewhere in the process, and out of fear of moving forward, into and through the deeper pain, instead acting it out in one way or another.

    She also talks about how ‘woundology’; talking about, ‘dwelling on’, our wounds creates our physiology, including disease, but doesn’t talk about how denial, dissociation from trauma, our trauma history and experience being the more important factor creating our physiology.

  12. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Larry, I am so very sorry to hear about your own childhood trauma. There are so many people who have suffered so greatly and at such a young age. It’s heartbreaking.

    The extent of my knowledge about trauma and healing is from people who have experienced it themselves, such as yourself. I know a therapist who has helped patients move through trauma with EMDR, and other people have healed themselves to one degree or another in a number of different ways.

    But each individual is unique, and what works for others may have no effect on them. So much depends on their religious/spiritual foundation, their belief system and countless other factors at work.

    Caroline’s work resonates with me, but again, there’s no one-size-fits-all categorization or remedy when it comes to trauma or, well, anything. Still, such observations can help many, even as others find them inadequate.

    I hope and pray that your healing journey is a successful one.

  13. Dee Godfrey (@tweedlebopdee1) Says:

    Larry Duff, I can not express gratitude for all that you have wrote here. You have hit home in every aspect of my soul and core. These waves of emotions come and go through our lives, I have seen one therapist my whole life leaving me to blindly figure out why incest happens to those born when there was a time of HUSH HUSH as I call it. A religious upbringing had many doubts to this because everything was contradicted in life. What was right and what was wrong. Coming to a conclusion that agnostic was the only solution gave me peace.

  14. Larry Duff Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Dee. I don’t know if we can figure out why incest happens to us, but it does seem to be something that, without intervention, can be passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, I too grew up in the time of ‘hush, hush’, where nothing was ever talked about, or dealt with at the time, so we are left to try to heal as best as we can as adults.

    Yes, spiritual abuse is a terrible thing. The church, religion, ‘turning a blind eye’, even supporting, protecting the perpetrators and abandoning the victims is something for which there is, and will be a terrible price for them to pay. It is an unspeakable betrayal of the most vulnerable, those that the one they claim to follow, Jesus, praised and said that the ‘kingdom of heaven is make up of such as these (little children)’, and said something to the effect (paraphrasing), that for one who would ‘harm one of these little ones, it would be better that a millstone be hung around their neck and tossed in the depths of the sea”.

    Hope I didn’t trigger you by mentioning Jesus, it’s just that what he really represented, embodied is the direct opposite that those (many of them, not all) representing the Church embodied. So, I do understand your agnosticism.

    I wish you healing, and the very best in your life.


  15. Larry Duff Says:

    I also want to thank Phil for this post, and his open-mindedness in allowing me to post some comments critical of some of what Caroline Myss says, teaches.

    And, I want to modify my comment above:

    “Just watched an excerpt of Caroline Myss video about the subject. After giving lip service to the need for acknowledging and healing of past trauma, but then talking about the great change in our language since the 60’s regarding trauma, she asks, “…..Can you imagine our grandparents ever saying, “I need to process my childhood?”

    My comment on her statement: No, I/we can’t, and maybe that’s the reason alcoholism, child abuse (including violent incest in my own) was rampant in so many family histories.

    I interpreted her comment a certain way, and Phil (in some email communication we shared) offered me an alternate way of seeing it, and very well could be right in his interpretation. He wrote:

    “I can’t remember the context in which Caroline commented about our grandparents not feeling a need to ‘process.’ My take on that was she could have meant that we simply hadn’t evolved in that area enough to think like that, rather than they didn’t actually need to process. That kind of language didn’t exist back then.”

  16. Anneke Lucas Says:

    I know of few people who have such awareness about the depth and breadth of the process of healing from trauma, and the resulting compassion for all those somewhere inside that process, as Larry Duff. I want to thank you, Larry, for describing this process so eloquently here, and for asking for kindness and compassion for people who are in the process of healing and attached to their pain, and the reality that denial is far more dangerous than “woundology.” I agree that in general, for society’s benefit, the need to address denial is much greater than to criticize anyone who has entered into the painful awareness of the reality of their childhood. At this time in history, it still requires tremendous courage to heal, because the very paradigm of our society is based in denial. The power structure (versus an egalitarian society) replicates inner power dynamics of being either in the place of the traumatized child (the public, the vulnerable populations) fearfully placating the scary parent (the authorities), or being in the position of the authority figure through power, status and money – masked addictions for such a person to remain in denial of their own trauma, and impose it on the public. Hence, for anyone to return to the moment of fear of death (trauma) is tremendously difficult, as there are few places and people who are truly safe. Moreover, survivors of incest or whistleblowers of sexual abuse cases are often shunned by their family or the larger family of church, or work environment, and suffer real losses, which also can be as a repetition of the original trauma, and reenforce the sense of victimization. The courage to return to the moment of trauma already requires faith; the original cause of trauma was fear of death, and to emotionally return to that moment, you must believe that you will live. So again, as you mention, Larry, a workable conception of a Higher Power is needed to proceed.

  17. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Beautifully said, Anneke.

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