Wounded Healers: Knowledge in the Bones

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By Tim Stein

Meditation from Gifts of Recovery.

Knowledge is only rumor until it lives in the bones.
–African Proverb

We receive many words of wisdom in our 12-Step Program. Old-timers in the Program will suggest we follow their advice. We will even see others in recovery following the advice they receive. And yet the advice offered to us will only be words with our own misgivings attached to them until we live that advice. Embracing the wisdom around us and experiencing the difference it makes in our lives moves those words of wisdom from hearsay to knowledge. Change happens when the wisdom of the Program lives in our bones.

What advice have I received but been hesitant to follow? What changes have I experienced when I embraced the wisdom of the Program? What gifts await me as I allow the knowledge of the Program to live in my bones?

As therapists, we have had the experience of clients stubbornly refusing to follow our advice. We sit with a client week after week. We see them struggle with the same issue again and again. We point out the pattern that we have pointed out to them many times before. We explore how following this pattern continues to create chaos, frustration, fear, or any number of problematic outcomes. We discuss options for addressing this pattern and creating change. The client leaves our session with knowledge of what they can do. We feel hopeful. The next week, the client is still following the same pattern and we go through the process again.

One day, something changes. It may be that we approached the issue in a new way and the client was able to hear it more deeply. It may be that the client had been marinating on our conversation long enough that the possibilities finally sunk in. It may be that the client was finally ready to change. Regardless of why it happened, the client allowed the knowledge we had been sharing with them to live in their bones and guide their change.

We understand that knowledge alone does not lead to change in our clients. Do we accept that this is also true about ourselves? We have lots of knowledge. We have knowledge from our professional training and clinical experience. We attend continuing education courses and various conferences to gain new knowledge. We gather knowledge from peers through clinical conversations. We have knowledge from observations in life and recovery. We share our knowledge with our clients daily. But is this knowledge that we are cognitively holding or have we absorbed it into our bones?

For many years, the knowledge I possessed lived in my head. I walked into my office. I put on my “therapist hat.” I listened to my clients. I was sensitive to their struggles. I dispensed my clinical knowledge. I went home and felt good that I was making a difference in people’s lives. Throughout all of this, my bones were empty.

Recovery has brought me gifts. Some of those gifts have been received from the Program; guidance from sponsors, advice from program members, wisdom collected from Program materials, and shares at meetings have all been invaluable.

However, as a wounded healer, I received a second set of gifts. These are gifts that I already possessed but had not really embraced. In recovery, the clinical knowledge I had collected over the years started to live in my bones. Instead of just sharing options and advice, I applied them to my life. My client’s struggles started to resonate with me in a deeper way. I was more able to walk with my clients on their slow path to healing because I knew that path intimately. Sobriety tips and recovery advice were no longer clinical knowledge to share; it was now knowledge from my bones that was born of my experience. Not only did my life change as I lived this knowledge, but I became a more effective clinician.

Do a little self-inventory. Keep a running list of the advice you give to clients. How much of that advice do you follow yourself? Does your advice represent cognitive knowledge or knowledge that lives in your bones? Are you ready to live the knowledge you already possess? What would this look like for you? Let your knowledge live in your bones.