Penny was a social worker.
She was a deeply empathetic woman, highly experienced in tending to the trauma of others in her work with PTSD-wounded veterans. She was also a woman who had done significant healing work in her personal life, a veteran in her own way.
During a coaching session one day, Penny confessed: “Deep down, I kind of think of myself as a medicine woman – a healer – but I feel ashamed to say that out loud. I mean, I’m not a doctor or anything. Who am I to claim that I can actually help people heal?”
Her shame went straight to my heart.
As her coach, I could see that Penny was extremely talented as a healer: she was every bit as much a medicine woman as the physicians she worked for at the local VA hospital, if not more so. She had an incredible gift for creating safe space for veterans to move through trauma, and begin to put the broken pieces of their lives back together.
And I could also identify with every word she said.
I, too, had long felt a sense of calling to be a medicine woman, a healer – and felt a deep sense of shame at the idea of claiming such an identity as my own.
I felt that I wasn’t qualified to call myself a healer: I didn’t have the right degrees. The right letters behind my name. The right experience. The right amount of knowledge. The right amount of confidence.
Just as Penny did, I held back, a lot.
Several months ago, I read an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich that floored me – and completely shifted the way I thought about what it means to claim an identity as a medicine woman.
I learned – and was stunned that I had not learned before – that there is a long history of women being marginalized in their roles as healers. A long history of women being shamed for not being “qualified” enough. For not having the right degrees or letters behind their names. For not having the right experience. The right amount of knowledge. The right amount of confidence in their healing arts… even when they were actually masterful in their crafts.
Reading this essay angered me as much as it inspired me: I could see this pattern of women healers withholding their true gifts in both myself and in my clients, and I could feel the pattern’s centuries-old roots. I wanted to be part of a solution, rather than another woman living into the problem.
Over the past few months, I’ve been reimagining my own definition of what it means to be a medicine woman. And while I’m sure that this definition will continue to evolve, here’s what I’ve come to believe:
I believe that to be a medicine woman is to claim an identity as a healer, without shame.
To know that you have been called to do the work of healing the corner of the world that has been given to you, and to answer this call – even if there is fear.
Even if your corner of the world feels so big that you wonder if your work could ever make a difference.
Even if your corner of the world feels so small that you wonder if your work could ever make a difference.
I believe that to be a medicine woman is to have faith in an inner wisdom that is more trustworthy than any degree, and more dignified than any letters behind your name.
To be a medicine woman is to be a woman of vision: a woman who plants seeds, and trusts that they will grow.
To be a medicine woman is to heal with your most authentic gifts: your smile. Your touch. Your connection with nature’s rhythms. The way you can sense another’s emotions. The way you understand what is unspoken.
Even if, at times, you wonder if you have the capacity to heal at all.
Even if, at times, you feel like an impostor.
Even if you work in a system that’s broken.
I believe that to be a medicine woman is to do the work of aligning the intimate details of your life with your values: to choose authenticity. To step off of the treadmill, and onto a path that you can claim as your own.
And it’s my hope that you can find yourself in this identity, if you feel called to be a healer – and claim it as your own without hesitation, shame, or fear.