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 Interviews with People Who Make a Difference: The Inner Child and the Next Step  
Interview with John Bradshaw
   as interviewed by Daniel Redwood DC

John Bradshaw has in recent years become a prominent figure in American culture. His book Homecoming reached number one on the bestseller lists, and a 10-hour PBS series on his work, seen by millions, won a coveted Emmy nomination. His lectures and workshops fill halls from coast to coast, and audiotapes of his books also top the charts. He has been the subject of writeups in virtually every major magazine and newspaper in the nation. In short, it's unusual for people in America to go for too many days without hearing the name John Bradshaw at some point.

His fundamental message, which grew out of the emotional wounds of his childhood and was fired in the crucible of a raging alcohol addiction, is this: virtually all of us were significantly wounded in childhood, and must heal our inner child if we are ever to become healthy, integrated adults.

Bradshaw's "inner child work" sees shame as a pivotal, insidious and destructive force, planted within us by misguided parents and kept alive until it is exposed to the healing light of day. His work focuses on healing these deep, shame-based wounds.

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Bradshaw goes into greater depth than ever before on a number of subjects, including one controversial issue in the recovery community--the question of labeling. If a man like Bradshaw hasn't had a drink in decades, Redwood asks, should he still label himself an alcoholic? Bradshaw's answers to this and other questions reflect both independence of thought and recognition of complexity.


DR: Do you believe that all families are dysfunctional, and that all people are addictive personalities?

JOHN BRADSHAW: I believe that all families have some level of dysfunction, in the sense that everybody is carrying the same kind of parenting rules, especially patriarchal parenting rules. Repression of the emotions, blind obedience, corporal punishment. I can't imagine anyone born in this culture who doesn't have some measurement on them which is not accurate.

DR: Do both women and men carry the patriarchal rules equally and similarly?

JOHN BRADSHAW: I don't really know, but I certainly think that both are impacted by them. In the book I'm writing now, I talk about two types of confusion that come out of them. One is the confusion where you get it that "I'm most lovable when I'm not being myself." In other words, what you do is not okay, what you feel is not okay, what you want is not okay, and what you feel is not okay. The other kind of confusion is one in which you just don't develop an identity at all, where the violation is so severe that the victim becomes the offender.

I think it's possible that men and women can be violated equally. Men are taught power more, are taught to repress more, and are expected to repress more. So my feeling would be that men probably carry it more, but women also continue the wounding with it.

DR: Is it your sense that this is true across cultural boundaries throughout the world and throughout history, or are there exceptions you are aware of, either now or historically?

JOHN BRADSHAW: Recorded history shows the dominance of patriarchy. I know there was an anthropologist at Rice who argued for a matrilineal culture, but recorded history is dominated by the patriarchal system, where the legal rights go through the male - the kings and their slaves, the kings and their provinces.

My understanding is that this is universal. We've had Russian scientists do our workshop and say we desperately need this in Russia. We've had Japanese, Iranians. Iran and Iraq are perfect patriarchal societies, and all Moslem countries are all highly authoritarian and patriarchal. Communist China is patriarchal in the sense that people are subjugated and measured. So I think it's universal.

I look to Nuremberg as the end of the patriarchal era, even though historically it isn't completely changed yet. Since Nuremberg and Hiroshima, we've had the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and now the adult-child movement, which is fighting the social oppression of the child. There's been a men's movement, a gay and lesbian movement. A whole vulnerability movement has taken place since the end of the Second World War. So I think we're in a very powerful historical change of consciousness.

DR: Do you think someone has to hit rock-bottom before they can heal themselves?

JOHN BRADSHAW: No. I think bottom is a relative state. I quit drinking December 11, 1965. I was 31 years old, and I certainly had a lot more drinking in me. I'm very grateful that I stopped when I did. I sometimes may describe the end of my drinking a little more dramatically than what really occurred, but the truth is I still could have gone on a long time.

I'm grateful I saw at that moment that if I continued, it was just downhill from there. It was a breakthrough moment, which I would consider a moment of grace as well as a moment of decision. So no, I don't think you have to hit bottom.

A lot of people get sick and tired of being sick and tired. Some change out of life cycle, or trauma. The death of someone can be a very powerful instrument of change. I'm looking to other kinds of things to help effect change.

DR: After an inspiring talk or workshop, it's not uncommon for people to feel a letdown. There's a sense that the high brought on by the personality of the presenter, the content of their message, or the interaction among the participants, is hard to sustain when we return to our homes, jobs and families. It's a serious problem. What do you think is the solution?

JOHN BRADSHAW: At workshops I hand out lists of support groups, or 12-Step Groups. We put people in groups in the workshops. I encourage people to make contact with each other. We do not do any workshops without a treatment center sponsoring us, and we ask them, if they can, and if it's not artificial, to create 10- to 20-week after-programs, where people can sign up to continue doing the work.

There is a sense, with what I do, that people can get high on feelings. Addicts can get addicted to feeling-work. So when you go out of the workshop there's a big letdown. I think what you said earlier is true--there's a natural letdown. Support groups are the answer to that. We need that all our lives, I think. Ultimately a support group becomes a network of true friends.

DR: Regarding alcoholism, if someone was once addicted to alcohol, and hasn't had a drink for many, many years, do you feel it's accurate to call them an alcoholic? Should that be the way they define themselves forever?

JOHN BRADSHAW: No. My own therapist has helped me with that. You know, I go to my "I'm a recovering alcoholic" when I'm scared. It's sort of a way to take refuge. What I believe is that any time you define yourself completely and rigidly in any way, you limit yourself.

Now, I am strongly steeped in the belief that once an alcoholic, I can't go back to social drinking, at least until some new knowledge emerges about the chemistry of alcoholism. But I certainly think there's a danger in keeping on labeling ourselves, and labeling ourselves as sick. It's been a strong tradition in the 12-Step Program for alcoholism to say you're recovering, but not say you're recovered. That's because there have been so many people who, after 15 or 20 years, went back to drinking because they quit going to meetings and got cocky and smug.

But my basic position is to stop calling ourselves names, to stop labeling ourselves past a certain point. But in the beginning, it's good to have a definition of something that's been confusing you your whole life. It's like naming a demon.

DR: Do you feel that the best therapists are people who have personal experience with the problems their patients are having? For example, should drug counselors be former drug users?

JOHN BRADSHAW: That's an interesting question. I have mixed views on that. Someone who has no experience of the problem can be coming out of a book, and missing the connection. Also, when you have people who have had the same problem, it tends to resolve the toxic shame much more quickly.

If I go in and I know you've had the same problem I have, I feel more comfortable. I mean, I've made a conscious decision to talk about myself and my problems, and that allows other people to come out of hiding. On the other hand, I think that there can be a blind spot in being a recovered alcoholic.

Let's just take the issue you brought up earlier. So I'm a recovered alcoholic, and I'm talking to a client who continues to call themselves an alcoholic. My own therapist, who is not an alcoholic, confronted the hell out of me on that at a certain point. You know, "How long are you going to hold onto labeling yourself that way, putting yourself down and limiting yourself?" So it may be easier for someone who doesn't have the problem, after a point, to be more objective.

DR: You mentioned the concept of "toxic shame." Would you define it?

JOHN BRADSHAW: It's a feeling that has become internalized as an identity. The sense of the identity is that "I'm flawed and defective as a human being." It's not something I did; it's about my very being, that deep down I feel there's something wrong with me. So it has the feeling of hopelessness about it. It's like being born short. There's not much you can do about that.

DR: How would our society be different if our toxic shame were healed and our inner child were allowed to flourish? If we were real and authentic, what would that look like? Have you seen glimpses of it?

JOHN BRADSHAW: I have seen glimpses of it. You know, I see glimpses of what functionality can be. Functionality doesn't exclude problems from life, but it means there's more of a co-creation, a synergy, people working more together. I know in my own relationship that's true, and in my relationship with my brother and sister. We're all in our processes of growth. In the past, we'd have fights and then not talk to each other for a year, or six months or two weeks or whatever. Now we hang in there. We get through it, and we function really well together.

I get glimpses of people being much more in community, and really handling differences without it getting polarized. We need polarity and difference, but we don't need polarization, where it's all or nothing.

DR: I want to ask you more about what you mean by "polarity." Am I understanding you correctly that this would include an ability to see an issue from more than one vantage point?

JOHN BRADSHAW: Yes, to see it from more than one vantage point, and to see the shadow side. It's like polarity is me getting it that I am a very good man and really committed to being good, but also capable of evil. And that I have been evil at times, I have been crazy at times, and I have run over people. I have screamed at my wife and children. That there's a Mother Theresa in me and there's a Hitler, possibly, in me.

I don't ever want to forget that, because then I'll become polarized as a righteous person, judging everybody else as unrighteous because they don't measure up to my standards. I think there's a sense of fate and mystery about every human being that will not allow them, ultimately, to be in a category.

But our theories are very helpful to us. They allow us to get some kind of definition out of chaos, and lead a person to a point where then we're on our own, you might say. Where each one of us is called, like Maslow [Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology] said, to that point where you move into "being needs" and higher consciousness and self-actualization.

He found that people who were on those high plateaus of their being needs were not affected by what other people thought, or by common opinion. They listened to disagreements, and to other people's opinions, but they didn't immediately run and change everything because of the other person's opinion. That's the person's sense of integrity, what Erikson called ego integrity. At that point you do become, as the spiritual masters say, a law unto yourself. Now it's very dangerous, the fine line on that, and people need a community, to always be checking out that fine line.

DR: Your books and talks show a tremendous willingness to reveal yourself, which strikes me as something that is very healthy, and of real service to others. Do you ever find, in yourself or others, that there is such a thing as too much self-revelation?

JOHN BRADSHAW: Yes. I was certainly guilty of that, and I'm sure I could do it again. I was taught in the 12-Step Program to be rigorously honest, and because of my boundary problems, I've sometimes gone into areas that I don't think need to be revealed. Also, I have on occasion violated people close to my boundaries. A couple of times my children have gotten angry, my ex-wife got angry, and my mother of course gets very angry . . .

I think there's an appropriate place for self-disclosure, but you can certainly go too far. We need privacy in our lives, and that's about having a good boundary. In my own journey to wholeness, I have come to understand that better and better. I disclose where I think it's appropriate, and where it will help other people to reduce their shame and come out of hiding. Those are my criteria.

DR: Your work appears to focus largely on mind and spirit. What about the body? Do you see bodywork as part of your healing process, and do you see a physical component in the healing changes that take place when the process is working?

JOHN BRADSHAW: Yes. I've been sort of weak on presenting that. I personally have been Rolfed. I worked with Alexander Lowen for a week in New York and have been very much into bioenergetics, I've been into Feldenkreis, Ilana Rubenfeld, Betty Fuller, Al Huang.

I'm still having some trouble with food. I haven't gotten my body where I want it. So in some ways it's a blind spot. But I certainly would like to see more and more stress on the idea that therapy needs to be accompanied by work on the body . . .

DR: What is the John Bradshaw Center at Ingleside Hospital?

JOHN BRADSHAW: It's a 40-bed unit for treating shame-based syndromes. We're using the new model that Gershom Kaufman first described in The Psychology of Shame, in which we understand shame as an affect [emotion] that goes with other affect. It's based on the primacy of emotion, on the theory that the emotional brain develops before the thinking brain. So we do a lot of deep emotional work.

We have four therapists there who have been with us from the beginning, who are highly skilled in gestalt and psychodrama, and getting people into safe places where they can really do that deep discharge work.

The biggest thing we concentrate on at the center is creating a non-shaming environment. Everybody there is in their own process, and we're willing to say to a patient or client that "we screwed up" or "I'm confused right now." We are willing to really own our own stuff, while once again having some boundaries with that. We avoid therapeutic mystification, in which we create a model so rigid that we start shaming people with it if they don't measure up to our model.

So that's the idea. Milton Erikson [a physician best known for his work with hypnosis] is the greatest example of a non-shaming model that I know, because he had no theory. "I don't have a theory, I meet people at their map of the world." That's what we try to do.

Obviously, no one can do that without some contamination, but we really work hard to do that. I've got a gifted clinician there who's the head of my program, Kip Flock, the guy I had on television. He's done years of gestalt work, and he's the most non-shaming person I've ever seen. He can find the strength in a person faster than anyone I've ever seen, and we work on that. Seeing what the person did right rather than what they did wrong, and affirming and reinforcing people's strengths. That's what we go for.

DR: You mentioned something about theories becoming rigid, and cited Erikson who, without a theory, was very admirable. Do you feel that theories inevitably become rigid? How do you guard against your own theories becoming rigid?

JOHN BRADSHAW: I don't think they inevitably become rigid. I think the more we live in polarity, the more we don't polarize our theories, making them into absolutes. In other words, I see in my own recovery process that I could polarize recovery. Suddenly, "recovery" would be a standard and a measure, with a right way to do it, and it's "my way or the highway."

I don't think theory inevitably becomes rigid at all. I think it's valuable to name something, and call it co-dependency for the first five years if you want to, because it gives the person something clear to look at and to work on.

But there is a place where we probably need to let that label go, and help that person to expand beyond the limits of that label, or even beyond the limits of that theory. I believe in flexibility. If something doesn't work, try something else. I'm not anti-theoretical. I don't think anyone can do what Erikson did. Everybody keeps trying. They even wear purple ties and bolos, and purple shirts and hats. People have tried to use some of his stories, and probably hurt people doing it. Erikson had some kind of powerful intuitive genius. He was an unbelievable therapist.

DR: I read that you have spoken of becoming more involved politically in recent years. How has that manifested?

JOHN BRADSHAW: It's only manifested at this point in contributions, and of being more socially responsible, and of course voting. And wherever possible, making clear a position I'm taking, the things I'm concerned about. I'd like to do a lot more. I'd like at some point to actively get into somebody's campaign, and really work for them.

I have no thoughts of running politically myself, because I just wouldn't want what went with that. It's almost the diminishment of oneself. If you have a truly good man or woman who wants to do that, it's a beautiful thing, a calling. Whereas, I doubt a lot of politicians have a calling. I see them as just very needy, narcissistic, with all that need to be in the center, to be admired, to be looked at. I have some of that myself. I understand that.

DR: Are there issues or approaches which you are troubled to see omitted from political campaigns?

JOHN BRADSHAW: Yes. I would like to see a lot more emphasis on schoolteachers, the importance of schoolteachers in a country where we pay a second baseman five million dollars a year, and a first grade teacher next to nothing. We pay somebody a hundred thousand dollars to sing at a Vegas lounge, and we pay schoolteachers nothing. There's something radically wrong with the whole value system. I'm a teacher myself, at least that's what I think of myself as. I was in the system. I've taught high school. I taught Sunday school, and in universities. So I'm very supportive of teachers.

I'm also troubled that there is not more stress on the etiology of addiction. While I believe that I may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, it's also true that you have to learn to be an alcoholic or an addict, and you learn through the ideology of abuse, through abandonment, neglect and enmeshment. You get this emptiness, a hole in your soul, and you've got to keep filling it up. You numb out emotionally, so the only way you can mood alter is with your addiction. I would like to see a lot more emphasis on that.

I'd also like to see somebody come along and start talking about soul, restoring the soul of our culture, because I think we've lost our soul in a lot of ways. I'm more of the prophetic voice, which is easier than being the practical one, who knows how to put that into action. But I guess you need prophets, or at least prophetic voices.

Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor, writer and musician who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health (A.R.E. Press), and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at

©1995 Daniel Redwood
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 About The Author
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College - Kansas City. He is editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today ( and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the......moreDaniel Redwood DC
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