Redeeming Personal Pain to Help Others

Helping professions attract people who have often had deeply painful experiences. Sometimes, those helpers are seeking their own healing. Sometimes, they want to give what they did not receive. Sometimes, they want to use their experience to help others. Still- wounded helpers can be dangerous to others, but those who have healed from their wounds are often the most competent at facilitating the journey for others.

We all have stuff, our hurtful experiences, pain and things that scar us, but this stuff can be your strength. If you work through your stuff - and working through it is key - then on the other side, you are better equipped to help others because you get it on a level that others are not capable of. Your stuff makes you more compassionate, empathic and understanding, so celebrate your stuff and the difficult work to get through it. Hard stuff isn't shameful; it is what makes you a better helper.

My (Dr. Denis’) philosophy of counseling derives directly from sacred text.

It describes God as “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4,

New International Version). It is how I have found purpose in my own pain.

I encourage students to view personal pain, trauma and failures as a strength that aids in helping others. My minispeech that I give to every new cohort goes something like this:

Therefore, I want to charge you, the helper, to do your own work without the expectation that it will make you perfect. Imperfections are part ofbeing relata- ble, so they, too, are valuable in healing work. Deeply feel your own emotions, leam to understand your emotional and somatic expressions, and make meaning from your own pain. Do the work that you ask your clients to do, but do your work on your own time so that you can be fully present with your clients.

Once you have reframed your own healingjourney through pain to something positive that increases your ability to help others, you can now boost that resource for others.

Client: So, I was talking to a friend the other day, and she confided

that she had also been part of a cult.

Therapist: What was that like for you to hear that?

Client: It was weird. I knew exactly what it was like, all the ups and

downs. I understood what drew her in, and why it was hard to leave. It brought back a lot for me, but I also could see how far I have come.

Therapist: You got it because you’ve been there.

Client: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t the same one, so some things were

different, but so much of what happened was similar. I tried to encourage her because, see, I did it.

Therapist: If you can do it, she can, too.

Client: Yes! It felt really good to be able to help someone else. It

almost makes it worth it to have been through all that crap.

Therapist: One thing that changes all the bad stuff into something positive is being able to help another person.

Client: I didn’t think it was possible to change it into something positive, but I can see that starting to happen. Do you think I can do something good with all this?

Therapist: The more important question is ... do you?

Client: I have been thinking about starting an organization to help


Therapist: You know from experience what people need.

Client: I do, don’t I?

We often will do things for others that we will not do for ourselves, and this characteristic may be what makes finding purpose in pain by using it to help others so rewarding. It is the spiritual experience of comforting others with the comfort we ourselves have received.


Because our belief systems are integral to who we are and because we may find comfort in them, they have, even with good intentions, been harmfully inflicted on clients. As an example, Section A.4 of the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics (АСА, 2014) explicitly warns about avoiding harm and imposing values, stating, “Counselors are aware of - and avoid imposing - their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors” (p. 5).

Clients must explore their own belief systems and be free to come to their own conclusions. Like other areas, our role is to understand it from their perspective, not ours. We have found that this gives us more liberty to explore spiritual issues in session, since we respond with the same empathy and unconditional positive regard that we would for any other topic.

Creative Application: I Believe

To explore and know your own spiritual belief system, create a digital journal of photos and captions that capture what you believe. Find photos on the internet or take ones on your device that show what you believe to be true. Then, write that belief in a short caption. For example, I might find a photo of a wounded soldier carrying an injured comrade to safety. I would add the caption, “My stuff makes me compassionate and better able to help others. God redeems pain, bringing beauty from ashes.”

This creative application is based on your belief system, so it does not matter whether others agree or disagree. You do not need to show it to anyone else unless you choose to do so. You may discover that things you want to believe in, or believe in theory, do not feel authentic when you try to add them to your journal. You may also find that things you once believed are no longer true for you. Externalizing and clarifying internal beliefs will likely be challenging, but illuminating.

Creative Technique: Nature Mandala

Nature is one way to introduce spirituality into sessions, since how we view and interact with nature often reflects our belief system. Mandalas, from the Sanskrit word for disk, are circular or other geometric shapes and are considered spiritual practice, reflecting infinity and wholeness through the circle. However, you do not need to introduce these lofty concepts with clients. Simply go outside to a confidential natural space and ask the client to create a circular piece of art with objects from nature. If it is not appropriate to go outside your office, gather pinecones, sticks, rocks, feathers and other natural objects for clients to use in your office. You can also use a creative prompt from Chapter 7 for a nature mandala.

All people have spiritual belief systems, and they can be helpful resources and part of the healing process. Spirituality can help with finding purpose in pain. However, wading into the murky waters of existential questions, anger toward a deity, or questioning cultural beliefs can be risky. It is important that therapists are aware of their own belief systems and remain open to exploring a client’s unique belief system.


АСА. (2014). 2014 АСА code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. Hughes, B. (2011). The creative use of spirituality to enhance psychotherapy. VISTAS.

Retrieved from http: / / 11 /Article_101.pdf. Thomas, D. (2009). Reaching resilience: A multiple case study of the experience of resilience and protective factors in adult children ofdivorce. (Ph.D. Dissertation), University of Tennessee. Retrieved from

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