*Trigger alert: Emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse at the hands of those we entrust to help us heal when we are at our most vulnerable.
I used to believe that doctors were heroes, if not gods. My father was one of those doctors I idolized, and at seven years old, I decided I would be one too. Thirty years later, after realizing doctors were good-hearted and well-intentioned but still as flawed, mortal, and imperfectly human as everybody else on the planet (if not more so), I left the hospital, disillusioned, in shock, physically ill, suicidal, and with PTSD from my medical training.
But I still believed in heroes and gods, so I set out to find new ones, this time in the world of gurus, mystical wise men and women, Indigenous healers, “special” people who claimed to be witches and wizards, and people who claimed to cure cancer with nothing but their hands. Because I had not yet learned that there are no special people and all humans are mortal and flawed, I was vulnerable and gullible, with no idea I had just walked, utterly unprotected and splayed wide open, into a den of con artists.
Ten years ago, after becoming disillusioned with conventional medicine after twenty years of training and practice as a conventional OB/GYN, I naively embarked upon a journey to see what else is out there. Like a curious kid in a mystical candy shop, I thought alternative medicine, spiritual healing, nutritional healing, natural healing, Indigenous healing, and other healing methods doctors tend to disrespect or even have contempt for might hold answers to the questions I’ve been asking since childhood- like “What really makes us sick?” and “What actually helps cure ‘incurable’ illnesses?”
As much as I still value and am in awe of what conventional medicine can do (it really does save lives in acute care situations and it really can prevent unnecessary death with interventions like the Covid vaccine), I had already lost partial trust in the lopsided certainty of conventional medicine with its bravado and lack of humility about the limitations of evidence-based medicine. But having grown up with a physician father in a household of science, with zero exposure to the New Age or spirituality outside our Christian church, I had not yet grown just as disillusioned with the corruption, ignorance, boundary violations, ethics breaches, retraumatizing treatments, grandiose but false claims, and con artistry in the world of what I came to call Sacred Medicine.
A decade ago, when I decided to embark upon a globe-trotting journey to study with healers all over the world for my new book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Healing, as the sequel to my New York Times bestselling book Mind Over Medicine, I did not realize I’d wind up spending thousands of dollars on my own trauma treatment to help me recover from the bystander trauma of what I witnessed in the name of “healing.” But I’m grateful now for the insights I’ve gained and the discernment I’ve learned. And I can say now, with eyes wide open, that there are indeed beautiful and trustworthy gems in that world, and there are as many well-intentioned but still mortal healers out there as there are doctors and therapists, but the people who are really safe to help you heal are rare and hard to find.
Because I don’t want any of you to be as naive and gullible as I was, I’ve included several whole chapters in my new book Sacred Medicine about the shadow side of sacred medicine, including a robust list of what to look for and how to spot the red flags of people likely to harm you in the name of healing you, as well as a trauma-informed explanation of why I think this is so- and why wounded healers might retraumatize you because they have a metaphorical thorn in their own back- one that might even be the source of their healing gifts- that they don’t even know is there and might not want pointed out, much less want removed.
I can’t summarize all of Part Two of the three-part book here, but let me give you just a few pointers, so you’re less vulnerable to those who might intentionally or even unconsciously take advantage of the desperation of people who would pay or do anything to get some relief from their relentless suffering. If you see these red flags- in healers or doctors or therapists- RUN! Know that these red flags are the result of a doctor’s or healer’s or therapist’s own trauma- so be kind and respectful, because all trauma deserves our compassion- but by all means, protect yourself.
11 Red Flags To Help You Discern A Trustworthy Healer
- Love Bombing
If someone you barely know who stands to profit from you or get a hit of power off controlling you starts love bombing you, sucking up to you, and making you feel special, tells you they knew you in some grandiose past life and it’s your destiny for you to hire them to help you get cured, or insists that the two of you have a soul contract together, GET THE HELL OUT. This is the most common way unethical healers lure their prey, by hooking the parts of them that feel unchosen, unspecial, unworthy- and also desperate for relief from whatever physical, emotional, or spiritual suffering might draw them in to begin with. Be especially on the lookout for those who need to be in control of you and need to find vulnerable people willing to give their power away to the healer. These people are quite literally energy vampires who cannot survive without narcissistic prey they can feed off. When you give them permission to interfere with your energy field, they feed upon your energy- and they might even charge you for that hit of power or energy they just sucked from you! This is not to say you won’t also get some (at least temporary) relief from what ails you. You might. This is what keeps you coming back for the next treatment. But beware that the price might not be worth whatever benefit you receive.
- Agenda-driven Or Inaccurate Muscle Testing
If someone uses the famously unreliable muscle test to prove to you that you’re supposed to work with them and fork over your money or put your energy in their hands so they can manipulate your energy field, just know that if the healer has an agenda, the muscle test will be inaccurate. I describe in my new book Sacred Medicine the science (and non-science) of muscle testing, as well as all the ways a muscle test can be misused. I also describe what it takes to make such a “woo” test even the least bit reliable. Just know that it should never be used to determine whether you should hand over money to a healer who stands to benefit from a “yes” on your muscle test. If someone tries to do this to you, just see it for the potential con it is and make your decision some other way- by accessing all of your Whole Health Intelligences (mental, emotional, somatic, and intuitive intelligence.) You can always have someone else who is neutral (someone who is not the healer and has no agenda and doesn’t stand to benefit from the result of your muscle test) do the muscle test for you. If you want to learn the right way to do this, there’s a whole section in Sacred Medicine about it, based on hundreds of good healers and scientists I worked with who taught me the risks, benefits, and limitations of the muscle test.
- Nothing Is A Panacea
Ask about what a healer’s (or doctor’s) treatments work well for – and what they don’t. If anyone ever tells you their medicine is a panacea that works for all conditions all the time, you’re being gaslit. No medicine works 100% of the time for 100% of medical issues in 100% of people- not conventional medicine, not alternative medicine, not Sacred Medicine. Most doctors know this. We know that penicillin works great for strep throat but doesn’t do shit for Covid. But unregulated, unlicensed healers tend to be more inflated, grandiose, and lacking in humility about the limitations of their treatments than even the most arrogant doctors. Good, trustworthy practitioners will be humble and willing to answer that question frankly.
- Blaming The Patient For Treatment Failures
Ask about treatment failures. If anyone either says they never have treatment failures or tells you that their treatment failures are because the patient or client is blocking the treatment, not thinking positively enough, is sabotaging their own cure, or is otherwise to blame for the treatment failure, you know you’re in the presence of an untrustworthy practitioner.
- Be Wary Of Magical Sex Cures
If anyone ever tells you that you have to have sex with them so they can give you the transmission, facilitate the cure, activate you spiritually, or make you a healer like they are, and especially if they try to manipulate you or coerce you or physically force you into complying with this plan, say no, call the police, and get yourself out of there as safely as you can. NEVER is it okay for a healer, doctor, therapist, shaman, psychedelic facilitator, or any person in a “power over” position to manipulate you into having sex with them, even with your “consent,” which you cannot really give if you are in a vulnerable “power under” situation.
- Threatening You With Bad Outcomes If You Decline Treatment
Beware of people who threaten you with bad things if you say no to their treatment. If they tell you that your big dream won’t come true unless you hire them, that your cancer won’t go away, that your soul won’t get reincarnated in a good life, that you won’t get enlightened, that you’ll get more sick, that you’ll lose money, or that the spirits will punish you in some way for saying no, you’ll know you’re being conned.
- Lack Of Accountability, Regulation, Or Proof That Outlandish Claims Are True
Remember that any desperate, broke, uneducated, unskillful con artist can hang up a shingle and call themselves a healer, life coach, shaman, intuitive counselor, psychedelic-assisted therapist, Tantric healer, or spiritual adviser. There is no regulatory board, no accountability process to hold people to account when they misbehave, no way to take away their license, no public forum for clients and patients to report them, and no way to prove they are moral people who are actually good at what they do. As such, it’s good to ask for referrals from both people with good outcomes and less stellar outcomes before handing over your money. If they tell you “I can’t give out the names or numbers of former clients because of confidentiality,” be skeptical, especially if they make outlandish claims but can’t offer you any proof that what they claim is true. People who had their cancer cured by a healer- or anyone who didn’t but was well treated by a well-intentioned and ethical practitioner- are usually more than happy to sign a release so a doctor or healer can give out their name, phone number, or medical records for referrals. Wouldn’t you be happy to sign a waiver and talk to new patients and shout your experience from the rooftops if your experience was as fabulous as the healers claim?
- Talking Trash About Other Health Care Providers & Healers
If anyone (healers, doctors, or therapists) makes grandiose claims but disparages other healers, other treatments, conventional medicine, or whatever treatment plan you’ve chosen for yourself, that person won’t be a good person to invite to your Healing Round Table. If those you choose to help you on your journey (doctors and healers alike) can’t cooperate and be respectful for everyone else on your team, you can be sure their egos are too fragile to be good for you. There are many valid medicines in the world’s medicine bag. You want those on your team who are respectful of the breadth of what’s out there and who trust you to know what’s good for you, rather than trying to control you by talking trash about everyone but themselves as a way to inflate themselves and make you doubt others who might have good medicine for you.
- Pushy, Fear-Driven, Or Intrusive Marketing
Good doctors, therapists, and healers never have to push themselves or their treatments on someone else. They usually have waiting lists and have no need to be pushy in order to get patients or clients. If someone you haven’t sought out is pressuring you to get treatment from them, that’s probably because they’re not getting good outcomes and are desperate for business. If someone is consistently curing people with “incurable” illnesses, you can bet they don’t need anything but word of mouth for marketing. One of the doctors I trained in the Whole Health Medicine Institute (WHMI) called me one day to say, “This is bad for business! I’m using what I learned in WHMI with my patients and their decades-long symptoms are going away after two or three sessions. But then they don’t come back and I have to keep finding new patients.” I assured her that if she was really helping to facilitate cure in two or three sessions, she wouldn’t have ANY problem making a living. Within a year, she had a full practice and had to hire help- because of nothing but word of mouth.
- Boundary Violating Psychic Readings
If someone ever “reads” you without your consent, even if their reading is accurate, resist the temptation to get all starry-eyed and impressed and just know you’re dealing with a boundary wounded and boundary violating healer- which means they’re traumatized. If they violate your boundaries in one way, you can be absolutely guaranteed they’ll do it in other ways too, and that can be retraumatizing for you (and the healer.)
- Arrogant Claims Of Enlightenment
If they claim or hint at being enlightened, run! Biggest arrogance on the planet. (If you don’t believe me, Google the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the DSM-V. It pretty much describes most of the unethical and boundary violating healers I bumped into. It also describes some of the most offending and traumatizing medical school professors who left me with PTSD during my training.) Whether someone who claims to help you heal sits on a stage with devotees swooning at them, gazing at them as if they are god incarnate, or whether you’re with a doctor who runs his or her OR or ER like they think they are God – get thee to a safer doctor or healer! News flash: There are not god-like humans. Thank God we can give up on some grandiose idea of human perfection. Phew.
There’s more on my list in the Sacred Medicine book, but feel free to help me crowdsource here. Did I miss anything on this shortened list?
The Shadow Of Sacred Medicine
I don’t say this to disparage healers or doctors or anyone trying to help you. I describe in great detail and in a trauma-informed way the psychology of Sacred Medicine practitioners (and doctors and therapists!) in my new book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Healing, which you can preorder here, which gives you instant access to reading the Introduction (my favorite part) as well as an invitation to the exclusive LIVE Virtual Pilgrimage and Group Healing with me, IFS founder Dick Schwartz, master healer Donna Eden, and artist/ priestess/ healer Shiloh Sophia on April 5 on Zoom.
But you have to preorder before April 5!
PREORDER SACRED MEDICINE HERE
As I say over and over in Sacred Medicine, all trauma deserves our compassion. But I don’t want you all to get hurt the way so many people I witnessed did.
So sure, be curious and consider all the medicines in the world’s medicine bag that might make you miracle prone. Keep grounded hope. Stay open. But don’t stay so open your brains fall out. And don’t let your body, your psyche, your heart, your energy field, or your pocketbook get hurt by someone who could do more harm than good.
The good news is that I learned all this the HARD WAY- so you don’t have to! If you want to learn and experience the results of me working hard and painfully to sift the gems from the dirt so you can experiment with the medicines in the safest ways I could find, I invite you to join me on my journey in Sacred Medicine. May your journey be not only safe, but restorative, healing, connecting, and heart-opening.
With gratitude for the discernment,
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