A Salute to John Bradshaw – Visionary and Iconic Teacher

John Bradshaw explored the role that family plays in the guilt and shame that we have in adulthood

Back in August of 2015, an iconic teacher and author, Dr. Wayne Dyer, passed away at the age of 75. Remembered through a remarkable collection of his published works and videos, he lives on in the world of spiritual and self-awareness adherents.

More recently, on May 8, 2016, another iconic teacher and writer, John Bradshaw, passed away at the age of 82.

John Bradshaw may not be as familiar to the public as Wayne Dyer, since Bradshaw’s major works occurred through the 1980s and 1990s. His special contributions found voice in the recovery movement in the latter part of the last century. Himself a recovering alcoholic, John wrote and taught about the role of the family in the life of the addict. Not one to point fingers and lay blame, he believed that by understanding our own history, we can take responsibility for who we are today in order to learn from it. If we can identify and own where we came from and not deny our past, we are in a stronger position to change what isn’t working and build upon aspects of ourselves that do work.

John Bradshaw brought new understanding to the complexity of shame, which helped to bring it out of the closet. The role of the family and its secrets also topped the list of sensitive areas he explored. Although he has been associated with the recovery movement and its philosophies, he brought to the general public the knowledge of how shame affects us all and how the secrets that we keep can become the fuel for deepening our own shame. His book, entitled Healing the Shame that Binds, is a must read for anyone who is intent on helping themselves and others grow into self-awareness and believe in their own potential.

The All Consuming Nature of Shame

The insidious stranglehold of shame does not arise exclusively from any one individual’s unique problems or issues, but is in fact multi-generational, dating back centuries in our history and within our own family and DNA. What makes shame so insidious is its message that keeps re-enforcing within us that we are inherently flawed, not good enough, and not lovable.

The difference between guilt and shame centres around who we are and not what we do. While guilt tells us we have done something wrong (an idea that stems from our conscience), we can make amends, apologize to any persons we may have wronged, and move on. With shame, it is not so straightforward because it doesn’t revolve around what we do, but merges completely with our identity. It targets the very core of who we are. And the message that shame brings is – who we are is not okay!

In his teachings, Bradshaw explored the role that family plays in the discomforts and issues we may have as adults today. Everything we know about how to be in relationships, how to communicate, how to show and express emotions, and what we believe to be true about ourselves, all originate and are learned within our family environment. Thus, a shame-based family passes on the very shame that our parents themselves were contending with. As a result, the presence of toxic shame in a child’s environment will have far-reaching effects on how their needs, wants, and emotions are met – or more specifically, not met. In adulthood, a person filled with toxic shame does not have the wherewithal to tune into others’ needs, as they themselves are struggling to get their own needs met.

In the face of toxic shame, it is quite common to see behavioural and character traits emerge that are referred to as ‘shameless’. When our toxic shame is  powerful enough, we adopt behaviours and attitudes to cover up our shame. We do this and divert any attention away from ourselves so that no one can see the shame we are experiencing. An individual who is defending themselves from the very painful state of toxic shame will tend to exhibit some or even all of the following traits: envious, patronizing, perfectionist, controlling, angry, arrogant, critical and blaming, judgemental and moralizing, and prone to addictions. All these traits act not only as a shield so that others don’t see their shame, but it transfers their shame onto another person. Each expression of these traits can leave the targeted person feeling shame and erroneously believing they are somehow responsible for either that person’s afflictions or to have to rescue and save them.

All of us want to have privacy, we don’t want the world knowing everything about our private lives. However, the problem with this sentiment is that sometimes what it can actually mean is that we want the privacy to protect the secrets we are struggling to keep. Shame is held in place by the secrets that we must protect. We may have personal secrets, and we may also have the family secrets that we are expected to never divulge at the risk of making the family look bad. There is a saying that best captures this idea: “We are only as sick as our secrets.”

What We Can Do

Shame can be healed and transformed; here are some tips:
1) The first thing is to find safe people with whom you can be open and truthful. Perhaps it is a paid professional or a best friend. Choose someone who is non-judgmental, non-critical, and not demanding to control outcomes.
2) Write down on a sheet of paper, in your own handwriting, what secrets you are carrying around and are burdened by. Be aware of how you feel emotionally and physically as you put this list together.
3) Read this paper to a trusted friend. Allow yourself to feel the relief of not carrying the family secrets anymore.
4) Monitor your inner critical voice. Learn techniques to change the way you think. Notice how you beat yourself up and undermine your own sense of worth.
5) Distance yourself from those people who are shaming and critical. You don’t need to contend with their negative energy as well.
6) Join a group – formal or informal. The way to let go of shame is to be seen and heard and embraced for who you are, all of you including your inherent human flaws.

It takes time to allow ourselves to be out there and to be seen. If you’ve had 30, 40, or 50 years of living a shamed-based life, it doesn’t just disappear overnight. But no matter how old you are, you have the power within yourself to change it and live the life you want – free of others’ criticisms, expectations, and control.
John Bradshaw’s writings and teachings will live on and continue to influence and inspire all who read his books or watch a video of his lectures. His deep-rooted understanding of shame, the family, family secrets, and their interplay and interactions will assist people for years to come, helping them to break through and discover their true selves.

SPECIAL NOTE: At the time of this writing, I have learned that one of Transformational Arts College’s longest-serving and much loved instructors, Dr. Helena Ovens, passed away on June 2, 2016. Helena taught Homeopathy, Bach Flower therapies, and Pathology. A graduate of the College of Naturopathic Medicine, she maintained a private practice as a Naturopathic Doctor and joined TAC as an instructor over 20 years ago. Thank you Helena for your passion for teaching, your compassion for people and animals alike, and for your quirky sense of humour. We all have been blessed to have had you walk with us on this part of our journey! With much love!

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