An Alarming National Trend: The Language of Wounds

From Anatomy of the Spirit

by Caroline Myss, Ph.D.

As a fourth chakra culture, we have language of intimacy that is now based upon wounds. Before the 1960s acceptable conversation consisted mainly of the exchange of information about first, second, and third chakra issues: names, places of origin, work, and hobbies. Rarely would someone reveal the details of his or her sexual desires or the depths of his or her psychological or emotional torment. Our culture was not yet comfortable with this level of discussion, and we lacked the vocabulary for it.

Since becoming a fourth chakra culture, however, we have become therapeutically fluent, in the process creating a new language of intimacy that I call “woundology.” We now use the revelation and exchange of our wounds as the substance of conversation, indeed, as the glue that binds a relationship. We have become so good at this, in fact, that we have converted our wounds into a type of “relationship currency” that we use in order to control situations and people. The countless support groups for helping people work through their histories of abuse, incest, addiction, and battering, to name a few, serve only to enhance woundology as our contemporary language of intimacy. Within the setting of these well-meaning support groups, members receive—often for the first time—much needed validation for the injury they have endured. The outpouring of compassion from attentive group members feels like a long, cold drink of water on a hot, dry day.

I became aware of the prevalence of woundology a few years ago in an incident with a woman whom I was meeting for lunch. While waiting for her, I was having coffee with two men. When Mary arrived, I introduced her to Ian and Tom, and simultaneously another man approached us to ask Mary if she was free on June 8 because their community was expecting a special guest and they needed someone to escort this guest around campus. Note that the question put to Mary was: “Are you free June eighth?”—a question requiring a yes or no reply.

Instead, Mary responded: “June eighth? Did you say June eighth? Absolutely not. Any other day, but not June eighth. June eighth is my incest survivors workshop, and we never let each other down. We are committed to supporting each other, and no matter what, we are there for each other. Absolutely not that day. You’ll have to find some other person. I simply will not break my commitment to this group. We all have a history of broken commitments, and we are dedicated to not treating each other with the same disregard.” Wayne, the man who had asked the question, simply said, “Okay, fine, thanks,” and left. But I was spellbound, as were Ian and Tom. Mary and I then left for our luncheon date, and when the two of us were alone, I asked, “Mary, I want to know why you gave Wayne such a dramatic answer to his question about whether you were free June eighth. I mean, within twelve seconds of meeting Ian and Tom, it was obviously extremely important to you to let them know that you had experienced incest as a child and that you are still angry about it. You wanted to make sure these men knew that. From my point of view, it was obvious that you wanted your emotional history to control the conversation at the table. You wanted these two men to tread carefully around you, and you wanted acknowledgment as a wounded person. You relayed all of this information, when Wayne had only asked you if you were free on June eighth, all you had to do was say no. Why did you have to let everyone know your personal history as an incest survivor?”

Mary looked at me as if I had betrayed her and replied, “Because I am an incest survivor.”

“I know that, Mary. My question to you is, why did you have to let them know that?”

Mary said that I obviously knew nothing about emotional sup port, particularly for incest survivors. I explained to Mary that I realized that she had endured a very painful childhood, but that healing meant getting over her pain, not “marketing” it. As a friend, I needed to tell her that she had become seriously invested in the authority of her wounds as opposed to actually healing them. She told me that we needed to reconsider our friendship, and when we left the restaurant that day, we left our friendship as well.

But I was captured by what I had just witnessed. She never did answer my question. She was thoroughly entrenched in her wounds, so much so that she had converted her wounds into a type of social currency. She felt she was owed certain privileges because of her painful childhood: the privilege of being able to call in sick at work whenever she needed to “process” a memory; financial support from her father because of what he did to her; and endless emotional support from all her “friends.” True friends, according to Mary, were people who understood her crisis and took over her responsibilities for her whenever they became too much for her.

Curiously, the very next day I was scheduled to give a brief lecture in this community. I arrived early and sat down next to a woman who had come to hear my talk. I said, “Hi, what’s your name?” She never even turned to face me as she replied, “I am fiftysix years old and an incest survivor. Of course, I’m over that now because I am part of an incest survivors group, and we are each other’s support system. My life is filled because of these people.” I was shocked, not only because this interaction was a repeat of the experience with Mary but because I had only asked for her name.

Wounds as a language of intimacy have found an arena of expression within relationships as well as in healing support groups. In fact, it is no exaggeration to state that our contemporary romantic bonding rituals practically require a wound for “liftoff.” A typical bonding ritual looks something like this: two people meet for the first time. They exchange names, hometowns, and possibly some reference to ethnic or religious origins (first chakra data). Next, the conversation moves to second chakra topics: occupations, relationship histories, including marriages, divorces, and children, and perhaps finances. Third chakra sharing comes next, usually in terms of personal preferences in eating habits, exercise schedules, off-hour activities, and possibly personal growth programs. Should they want to establish an intimate connection, they move on to the fourth chakra. One person reveals a wound that he or she is still “processing.” Should the other person want to respond in a “bonding” manner, that person will match the wound with something of the same magnitude. If a match is produced, they have become “wound mates.” Their union will include the following unspoken terms of agreement:

1. We will be there to support each other through any difficult memories associated with this wound. 2. That support will include reorganizing any part of our social life, or even work life, around the needs of our wounded partner.

3. If required, we will carry our wounded partner’s responsibilities as a way of showing how sincere we are in our support.

4. We will always encourage our partner to process his or her wounds with us and to take as much time as necessary for recovery.

5. We will accept, with minimal friction, all weaknesses and shortcomings rooted in wounds, since acceptance is crucial to healing.

In short, a bond based upon wound intimacy is an implicit guarantee that weakened partners will always need each other and that we will forever have open passage to each other’s interior. In terms of communication, such bonds represent an entirely new dimension of love, one that is oriented toward therapeutic support and the nurturing of mutual commitments to healing. In terms of power, partners have never had such easy access to each other’s vulnerabilities or so much open acceptance for using wounds to order and control our close relationships. Woundology has completely redefined the parameters of intimacy.

Wounded intimacy has found enormous support within the holistic healing community, particularly in the literature on the links between emotional pain and illness and between healing emotional traumas and the recovery of health. Support groups have been created around every possible type of emotional trauma, from incest to child abuse to domestic violence to grief to having a family member in prison. Television talk shows thrive on making public the details of people’s wounds. (Not only do we live within our wounds these days, we are entertained by the wounds of others.) The legal system has learned how to convert wounds into economic power: advertisements on television encourage people to consider lawsuits as a way of coping with their injuries.

Before the 1960s the definition of maturity and strength meant keeping one’s pain and vulnerability to oneself. Our contemporary definitions, however, include the capacity to expose one’s interior weaknesses to another person. While the original intention of these support groups was to help people experience a nurturing, compassionate response to a personal crisis, no one expected them to continue until the person was healed from the crisis, let alone function as the agent of that healing. They were intended merely to be a boat across a river of transition.

But very few members have wanted to get off their lifeboat when they reach the opposite shore. Instead, they have made a transitional phase of their lives into their full-time lifestyle. Once they learned to speak woundology, it became extremely difficult for them to give up the privileges that accompany being wounded in our fourth chakra culture.

Without a schedule for healing, we risk becoming addicted to what we think of as support and compassion; we find ourselves believing we need more and more time to “process” our wounds. Because the supportive response feels so long overdue, support group members frequently hold on to it with a passion that suggests, “I’m never leaving here, because this is the only place where I have ever found support. There is no support for me in my ordinary world. I will therefore live ‘in process’ and among people who understand what I have been through.”

The problem with such support systems is the difficulty of telling someone that he or she has had enough support and needs to get on with the business of living. In many ways, this problem reflects our skewed understanding of compassion. Compassion, a fourth chakra emotion and one of the spiritual energies contained in the sefirah of Tif’eret, is the strength to honor another’s suffering while bringing power back into one’s life. Because our culture for so long did not allow time for healing the heart nor even recognize the need for it, we have overcompensated for this earlier failing by now failing to place any time boundaries around that healing. We have yet to create a model of healthy intimacy that is empowered yet still vulnerable. At present, we define healed as the opposite of needy. Therefore, to be healed means to be fully self-contained, always positive, always happy, always sure of oneself, and never needing anyone. No wonder few ever consider themselves “healed.”