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The False Humility of “Facilitating” Healing

Facilitating self-healing is either real but trivial, or interesting but wrong.

Paul Ingrahamupdated

SHOW SUMMARY

The idea of facilitating self-healing is a classic bit of insincere and muddled humility that is routinely expressed by alternative medicine practitioners as if it’s wisdom. Here is a classic formulation:

A healer is not someone that you go to for healing. A healer is someone that triggers within you, your own ability to heal yourself.

This is sacharine, silly, inspirational-poster nonsense, “so deep it’s meaningless.” Self-healing is a classic “deepity”: that is, the most prosaic interpretation of the idea is true but trivial, while the most profound and interesting interpretation is just paradoxical nonsense.

True but trivial…

What is the most prosaic interpretation of “your own ability to heal”? Well, yes, animals can heal. We can heal from most injuries and many illnesses. This is true, but so what? It’s neither surprising, nor is it anything that needs to be “triggered.” It’s an innate ability, not a rare gift only for properly inspired animals.

Or profound but wrong (in two ways)

There are two profound implication of this sentiment:

  1. We have the potential to heal exceptionally well, better than what is generally considered possible. That would be miraculous! And also not possible. We’re basically talking about magic now. Of course there is a natural range of how well people heal, but that’s attributable to genetics and fitness.
  2. This healing power can be unlocked or facilitated or triggered or whatever by your friendly neighbourhood massage therapist, chiropractor, or homeopath. That would be amazing, but it’s even sillier than the idea of exceptional healing. And, if someone belives they can do that… so much for humility!

Which brings us to the central paradox of the facilitated-healing meme.

The humility paradox

If above-average healing requires facilitation, then it’s not self-healing, now is it? That’s the central paradox of this meme: it’s asserting a claim of an impressive power over patients while also trying to sound like “it was nothing.”

And if it’s not self-healing — if one human can kick-start another human’s healing — then we're back to the idea of healing, not self-healing, and humility goes out the window.

You can’t have it both ways: you can believe in facilitating healing, or you can be humble, but you cannot do both. And you cannot pack them into the same statement without it turning into nonsense.

So what’s the appeal?

If self-healing cannot be profound without being unbelievable, and can’t be believable without being boring, why claim it?

The whole point of touting facilitated healing is to seem like a “healer” without coming right out and saying it. It’s blatant humble-bragging, defined as making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.” Perfect.

Crediting the patient with doing the heavy lifting is also a good way to avoid explaining how, exactly, healing is “facilitated.”

Examples of humble-bragging about helping people heal

A massage therapist asked, in a large Facebook group for massage therapists:

Am I the only one who feels like massage therapists are healers in a way?

As of this writing, there are 287 comments, with a fairly even mixture of yays and nays. Clearly many people are happy to embrace the term to varying degrees. One of the strongest themes in the comments is this seemingly self-deprecating idea that massage merely facilitates self-healing:

Again and again, you can see the attempt to humbly disclaim, to push the claim of healing away while still embracing the spirit of it. It’s particularly clear in a comment like this:

A distinction without a difference! Some therapists are willing to embrace the term “healer,” while others want to seem a little more humble about it … while claiming essentially the same thing.

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter.

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What’s new in this article?

Oct 9, 2020 — Converted from blog post to permanent article, polished, and expanded a little. (And this is a pretty simple article, so it may never evolve beyond this.)

2019 — Publication.