FIRST THINGS FIRST
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BRADSHAW
by Bill Bruzy
Bill You have taught us a lot about family systems, recovery, the inner child and I’m wondering what is the focus of your work now?
John I’m coming to Austin soon to do a workshop called “First Things First.” I’m gearing it for the recovery community because I’m doing it through the Greater Austin Council on Alcoholism but I think it’s appropriate for anyone. It’s about finishing the business with your Mom and Dad.
Bill It sounds powerful, to actually finish that business.
John It’s really been a more powerful workshop than the “Homecoming” which deals with inner child work, dealing with your own developmental stages and seeing where you have deficits. Those deficits are places we get drawn back to, regress to.
This new work is more about really dealing with the pain of the abandonment, the abuse and particularly the enmeshment that hurt us.
We look a lot at how children get set up to take care of their parents disappointed lives, their parents rage, their parents needs. What Karl Jung calls their unlived lives.
Bill What are the indicators, or the rewards, for finishing our work with our parents? How does it change a person, doing this work?
John I’ll give you a quick outline. Think of this as a road map. Basically I do three stages. One is grieving your own grief, really getting into it, not just talking about it. So I give people the opportunity to really grieve.
Next, we have people grieve their parents grief. I kind of took that from Robert Bly, the idea that we carry the grief of our parents. For example I have an exercise where you age regress and see your Dad as a little boy or your Mom as a little girl. You go over and take the hurts that you talked about before and you say, “Why did you hit me all the time?” “Why weren’t you ever there when I needed You?” “Why didn’t you ever take me to a ball game, or fishing?”
It’s a very powerful exercise. People get to demythologize, their parents. That means, and it’s one of the hallmarks of completing the work with our parents, that at the childhood level we no longer see our parents as godlike. The child believes the parents are gods. This was our first higher power, Mom and Dad.
What I’ve come to see is that even people who hate their Dad, made their Dad into a monster, he’s still bigger than life. They are still in some way dealing with him like the devil. Either Mom is a saint or she is a horrible bitch; Dad is a wonderful old wise man who we idealize or he’s a bastard or no good bum who left us.
Either one of those polarization’s is indicative that you haven’t left them.
Bill So finishing the work means we take up a place shoulder to shoulder with them?
John Yes. In this workshop I actually do a deathbed scene, a fantasy I take people through. You go to the graveyard and see your parents graves, the gravestones with the dates they died. I try to help people focus on the one parent they have the most trouble with, or even brothers and sisters.
In the exercise I have people walk in the room and have their parents look up at them and ask for their forgiveness. It’s a very powerful moment. People just collapse.
“I’m so sorry for all I’ve done to you.” The parents say. I ask people to look into their parents eyes and see the child in them. This is demythologizing the parents.
Grieving your parents grief is what I would call the forgiveness step. The demythologizing is part of the forgiveness. So, first we express the hurt and pain, then we see our parents for who they really were.
Step three is becoming our own parents, the nurturing source of our own life, the head of our own household, the begetter of our own life.
I think that we’ve worked through this when we no longer hold a lot of resentment. Unless our parents are true offenders we can be around them and not try to change them and also not change yourself. You can say to Dad or Mom I’m not going to midnight mass this year or I don’t think I told you that I’m a Baptist now. But also to able to say how much you admire the faith they have and the model that they gave growing up.
Something I understand now that I didn’t in 1985 when I did “Bradshaw on the Family” is that the only way to really leave is to stay connected in some way. You don’t actually leave if you emotionally cut them off, move a thousand miles away and say screw em’. You haven’t really left when you’ve done that.
Emotional cut off is always indicative of emotional intensity. It’s an intensity that two people just don’t know how to deal with. I cut my Dad off for ten or eleven years but I loved the guy deep down. I used to cry about him and have a lot of deep hurt. But cut off was not a separation. We just think we’ve separated because we don’t see them anymore.
I try to give people examples of what it really means to be emotionally separated. One of the things it means is that you don’t see them as a god and you don’t see them as a monster. You see them as a human, as an adult child maybe, as an adult that’s got a wounded child in them.
The other thing is you have really good boundaries with them. You have your own values and priorities and that you’re willing to stand up for those. You’re willing to disagree with your Father. He may yell at you and say, “This is my house!” You might say “Well, OK, then I’m going out in the front yard.” Or tell him you’re leaving today and you’ll give him a call tomorrow. You keep working on staying connected.
The reason for that is to the degree I am not finished with those relationships I am still going to be acting them out in other relationships.
It’s very important in the family work, putting first thing’s first, that we are as finished as we can possibly be with the whole family system. One of the best criteria that I am finished is that I can go back into it without reacting. I can think. I can stay in my thinking function rather than just reacting emotionally.
Bill When I worked in treatment centers in the late eighties there was such a frenzy of cutting off relationships. Where did that come from?
John I think the Minnesota group, Subby and Friel and Kellog and those guys, didn’t have that piece well integrated. They do well with the original pain but I never heard about this piece from them and I was very influenced by them as many were.
Bill How can you do this work if your parents have passed away?
John My belief is that what we’re really dealing with is the image of the parent that the little child in you is carrying. That’s why I make the workshop so dramatic, because I want to change the image in there.
Bill So we’re shifting the internalization, the internalized image?
John That’s right. It’s an internal remapping.
I’ve heard, as a therapist, as you must have, somebody talking about how rotten their mother is. Then I meet this little old lady, my client is a huge six foot four guy and I say to him “That’s her? You’ve got to be kidding!”
What I’m seeing isn’t the grown up man who could pick her up with one finger, it’s this little kid in him who still sees her as a monster.
Bill You have had a lot of influence on the recovery field and popularizing and legitimating this kind of work. Recovery is part of our culture now, every sitcom has somebody recovering in it. Treatment and recovery have been legitimated and I wonder if you see recovery changing, being influenced by its normalization?
John Certainly the almost frantic intensity that was there say in 1985, where I would have eight or nine thousand people come to a talk and two workshops, is over. Now I get maybe two hundred people.
It’s been internalized, normalized, it isn’t magic and I think the inner child always wants magic. It’s like people said here’s this guy Bradshaw and he did this meditation on Oprah and if I can just get to that workshop everything will be all right.
Now I’m really clear with people that this is only a road map and people may need to do two or three years of work on this. These are the steps along the way. It’s good to have a road map.
I don’t particularly know what direction things are going to go. I don’t particularly like seeing them go in the direction of Deepok Chopra, not because I don’t think he’s an honorable man, but because the ageless timeless body takes us back to the early seventies. That was very popular.
Bill It’s a lot of magical thinking?
John It’s a lot of magical thinking and the quantum shift and all that. I don’t see those guys’ bodies looking younger. As much as I like her I don’t think Marianne Williamson with the Course In Miracles, which was popular in 1975, sort of ran its course. It seems like this stuff is cyclical and that it’s coming back.
My belief is that the recovery movement should move into a more mundane life skill building, learning, reinforcing boundaries, disagreeing with someone that I disagree with, being able to communicate openly and honestly with people, being able to say no, being able to do a lot of the things I couldn’t do because of the developmental deficits that we describe as codependency. I think that life skill building for adults is really important. The word I’d use is adulting. How do you be an adult?
There is a lot about me that is still childish. I realize what growing up means. If I’ve really left my Mom and Dad and grown up it means delaying gratification, it means discipline. That’s why Scott Peck’s work has been so universal. Here is a guy talking about discipline.
This is just a fantasy of mine, it may not be true at all. What I actually see people doing is moving toward some kind of higher consciousness. That would be a good development provided people have really done the hard ego work of working through delayed grief, family of origin issues and skill building that it requires.
I see a lot of so called spiritual people who are pretty dysfunctional in terms of relationships.
I want to be functional in my relationships, as much as anyone can be. Relationships have a touch of madness in them. The divine has the upper hand. There is nobody that has figured out relationships.
One day I called everyone I knew who had written a book on relationships. All of them were having trouble in their relationships.
Bill I feel relieved hearing this John.
John Honest to God, we’ve got to talk about this in an honest way. I’m still struggling with relationships and I’m really comfortable with it now.
Thomas Moore talks about soul as being the deepest part of you which is really something that no one can ever understand. There is always going to be a mysterious depth to everything. You get two human beings together with their whole multi-generational family histories and it’s very hard to see past the ‘stuff’ to the other person.
It is a place where you’re dealing with something sacred. It can’t be fully understood. That’s what I believe about it. You take all these courses and do all this stuff and still there is this fundamental thing that has to go on between two people.
You can work through your mother and father issues. That’s going to help a lot. You can learn some life skills. That’s going to help a lot. But ultimately there is going to be a mysteriousness about each one of us, a uniqueness, a presciousness that no one will ever totally figure out.
My ex-wife amazes me. I thought I knew this woman. I lived with her twenty years. There is stuff I didn’t know about her evidently.
Bill For so much of human history we were determined by our roles, by power, by economics and those roles, even though still prominent, are less of a determinant in relationships today. We don’t have experience, culturally, with soul to soul relationship.
John I think the old marriages worked. It didn’t meant that they were soulful.
Bill The work with our parents has so much to do with our relationship to authority in later life. Does shifting this internalized parent, the image of the first gods in our lives, change our relationship to external authority?
John Absolutely. I have some good feedback on that over five years. Especially on the father workshop or often with men and women who have had trouble with female authority figures.
Some guys have very domineering castrating type fathers. They set themselves up in jobs and never assert themselves. I’ve gotten letters from people telling me how they confronted their boss after feeling they were going to be fired but got a better job out of it.
There are also people who have been rebels all their lives and can’t stay anyplace where there is authority. It does help people.
Nothing is totally magical, as you well know, but this can help a tremendous amount. A person will have to work at it.
Bill Bruzy is a counselor, writer, community college instructor and owner of the Austin Men’s Center.