Center for Creative Growth
Toxic Shame: A Root Cause of Conflict and Misery

Toxic Shame:
A Root Cause of Conflict and Misery
by Jason Saffer, M.A., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

As we emerge into the 21st century, it has become increasingly clear that a basic root cause of human misery, violence, despair, and conflict is the widespread experience and perpetuation of toxic shame. Underlying almost all instances and episodes of human conflict — whether on a grand scale as in the warring of nations, or as experienced in the microcosm of the individual dysfunctional family — we see the devastating effects of toxic shame, that deeply rooted and deeply ingrained sense of being flawed, being bad, being “not enough.” It is this learned sense of being defective that almost all people in our society attempt to escape from, adjust to, ignore, deny, or transform.

The need to address the debilitating effects of toxic shame, both on an individual and societal level, is compelling and urgent. Lasting and profound change, for individuals and as a world, seems unlikely without this fundamental shift in self-awareness and self-perception. As we look over the last 50 years in the United States and the world, we can see, in fact, a growing movement, in both professional communities and on a grass-roots level, to identify and address the myriad negative effects of toxic shame in our lives. This movement includes the initial creation of the 12-step recovery movement and its burgeoning popularity, the emergence and popularity of humanistic and transpersonal psychotherapies, as well as the mushrooming of self-help literature and tools. All these have combined to help raise our collective awareness of the core challenge presented by toxic shame, and have empowered individuals to come together to begin to create lives based on a new, more affirming and healthy self-view.

One of the major figures and contributors to this significant and essential shift in self-awareness is John Bradshaw. John Bradshaw has pioneered the concept of the “Inner Child” and brought the term “dysfunctional family” into the mainstream. He has touched and changed millions of lives through his books, television series, and his lectures and workshops around the country. In so many ways, John Bradshaw has been a pivotal force in bringing people out of hiding, and out from the toxic shame that always accompanies hiding. Through his teachings in his writings, on TV, and in person, he has synthesized and articulated complex principles of human growth and family dysfunction, so that not only can people understand it, they can put these learnings to good use. As any good teacher does, he opens our eyes to new possibilities, he helps us remove the crusted prisms through which we’ve seen life. He gives us hope and he shows us a way out. And, as any good teacher, he leaves it to us to do the work, to practice the principles, to live according to our highest values. John Bradshaw has helped so many to understand how we got to be the way we are. He has demystified the process of human learning and growth, and he has done so much to help begin to remove the stigma and burden of self-shame, self-blame, and self-hatred.

John Bradshaw offers a message of hope: that there’s a way out from the painful and hurtful patterns that we learned growing up in a dysfunctional world and in dysfunctional families. It’s not a new message, really. He doesn’t pretend that it is. In fact, more than any other superstar in the human potential movement, John is quick to acknowledge where he learns the things he teaches and who said it first. His mastery and his contribution come from the heartfelt ways that he has synthesized diverse psychological material and in the way he shares it. He gives us permission to be ourselves, to feel our pain and our grief, and to transform those feelings over time into serenity, acceptance, and purpose.

John Bradshaw is, of course, part of a larger movement at work today: a movement of all life towards enhanced awareness and fulfillment, a great shift in consciousness from scarcity and deprivation to a deeper grounding in ourselves as spiritual beings, not “human do-ings.” As part of that consciousness shift occurring throughout the world, more of us are determined to shed the weight of old shame and hurt that has been passed from generation to generation and we are finding potent paths to uncover our true selves and to drop the encrusted residue of the old. As a true Teacher of our Times, John Bradshaw is helping point the way.


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