“Hi, my name is Joe, and I’ll be your healer today.” There’s a certain kind of therapist who likes to be known as a “healer.” In the worst case scenario, they actually use the title, like this: “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’ll be your healer today.” I know a massage therapist here in Vancouver who actually refers to herself as a “healer” on a regular basis. She actually seems to go out of her way to use the word, looking for excuses to mention that she’s a healer.
It’s arrogant, of course. It’s an absurd conceit, and it’s almost completely incompatible with competence. Humility is an essential ingredient in health care. If you don’t have it, it’s nearly impossible to do your job well. In other words, any therapist who uses the title “healer” probably isn’t actually healing anyone.
I kind of like it when therapists wear this identity on their sleeve, because it makes them easy to avoid. But there is a much more common and insiduous form of “healer syndrome” — the therapist who likes to think that he or she is a “healer,” but has just enough tact not to put it right on their business card. Healer syndrome is actually a widespread ego problem in health care, particularly among self-employed therapists, who must make a good impression in order to make a living.
No matter how competent and professional we are, all self-employed therapists suffer from healer syndrome to some extent (yes, I’m including myself). Why? Because we all face an unavoidable conflict of interest: self-promotion versus patient care!
We have to make a living. To make a living we have to make ourselves look good and seem valuable to our patients. But this routinely clashes with what our patients need! Patients rarely need exactly and only what one therapist has to offer. Most therapists, most of the time, should be turning away a large percentage of the patients who approach them.
Most of us don’t.
Living with this conflict of interest results in some mental gymnastics. We therapists have a number of ways of coping with it. For instance, one of the reasonably healthy rationalizations is that “we all have something to offer.” So, even if our services are not at all ideal for a given patient — maybe even a wild goose chase, really — we can rest assured that we still have something of value to offer … right? It’s not untrue. For instance, in massage therapy, I can always claim that massage therapy is, at the very least, a pleasant experience that enhances body awareness, and is therefore never a complete waste of time. In this way, I could rationalize charging people for treating basically any imaginable problem!Most therapists, most of the time, should be turning away a large percentage of the patients who approach them. Most of us don’t.
But by far the most common and regrettable coping mechanism is that the ego kicks in. We start believing our own marketing messages. We start believing that we can treat practically anyone, that every patient does need us, that we do offer a unique and therapeutically potent service. We start thinking of ourselves as healers, whether the word ever crosses our minds or not. Any excessive self-promotional behaviours are fully justified by our self-confidence: it’s not wrong when you really can help almost everyone … right?
This is the most dangerous form of healer syndrome — subtle and insiduous.
There is no true solution. The conflict of interest is real, the human mind is what it is, and we will inevitably slip into error. The “solution” is constant vigilance and self-reflection. We must strive to care about it. We must overcompensate in the opposite direction, forcing ourselves to turn people away to the point of apparent entrepreneurial self-destruction. We must cultivate a self-sacrificial pride in doing so.
But, guess what? Patients love candid self-deprecation. They love health care professionals who undersell themselves. And so, ironically, therapists who actively try to wriggle free from healer syndrome usually do rather well. Turning people away becomes both ethical and fantastic marketing: cake … eat!