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A little self-help goes a long way

AMY JENKINS, creator of 'This Life', felt unfulfilled until she stumbled across pyschologist John Bradshaw
You're doing well, you have your health, you're an achiever, you have nice home furnishings, you have friends, you've just bought that fab designer thingy you've had your eye on, you have a sex life, you have a fridge full of food. You get in from work, you are at loose end for once and you flick idly through the television listings. There's nothing on. Tonight's offerings bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "nothing on".

A gloom settles over you, a kind of low-grade depression. It is a feeling you know well. But why do you feel like this? You go and stare into the fridge aimlessly. There are no answers in the fridge. There never are. But you always check, just in case.

Sound familiar? Well, it does to me. And I'd always thought I was some kind of ungrateful freak for feeling like that. Until I heard John Bradshaw describing me to myself on my car stereo one balmy summer evening while driving back from the countryside. I'd driven out of town for a bit of communion with nature, searching for something - I wasn't sure what - probably that elusive thing called peace of mind.

It eluded me again. So on the way home I forewent my usual mind-numbing dance compilations and bunged on a self-help tape someone had lent me. By the time I got back to London I was in a kind of a warm glow. I had found, after all, a little piece of what I was looking for.

The tape was a recording of a talk on shame that Bradshaw had given in America. Bradshaw is that very late 20th-century thing - a self-help guru - but with thankfully little New Age spookiness (unless you count the time he hung a piece of string out of his nose to stop people sitting next to him on a plane). The man's a kind of genius really; delivering his clarion call for change in the way we treat each other - and ourselves - as a stream of hilarious stories about his life and an incisive understanding of human emotional evolution, referencing Descartes and Nietzsche along the way. He has a love of you-manity, as he pronounces it, that is impossible to resist. And then there's his voice - what a voice. It's warm and Southern and it wraps you up in a great big bundle of self-acceptance.

Shame is Bradshaw's thing. Bradshaw is doing for shame what Betty Ford did for alcoholism. Getting it out in the open. And I'd be the first to admit that when I first heard Bradshaw going on about shame, I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't have a concept of shame. I knew all about embarrassment, but shame - what was that?

Bradshaw defines it as that feeling of not being right. And we have that feeling because we live in a world that strives for perfection. We become humans doing not humans being. "When the work stops every weekend," said Ginger Spice on telly this week, "I start crying". It seems the millionaire superstar cries a great deal: "It's about low self-esteem," she explained, "never feeling good enough about yourself."

This spiritual emptiness, says Bradshaw, creates a shaming culture. Parents shame children, we shame each other. There's a song in the charts at the moment: "What's wrong with you?" the strident vocal demands over and over again. When people say that to me, I've always vaguely wondered whether they meant "what's wrong with your life?" or "what's defective about you personally, Amy?". Naturally, I settle for the latter. I've got a lot to say on the subject.

We mainline narcissistic gratification, says Bradshaw - success, money, sex, cocaine - to medicate the pain of our shame. But of course (Ginger Spice take note) this doesn't work, or if it does work it doesn't work for long. An important part of the answer, according to Bradshaw, is to name the demon, to get our imperfections and, most importantly, our feelings out into the open. To do the work of getting to know ourselves and taking responsibility for our behaviour to others.

One hundred years ago wife-beating was a national pastime. Gradually women started complaining about it and now it's a crime. As a society, we named the demon - "battering" - and we've developed organisations and systems dedicated to changing the behaviour.

Bradshaw would have us do the same with shame. "Accept your humanity!" he cries. And so, when I'm low, I have a little dose of Bradshaw and then I feel you-man again.

John Bradshaw is giving a two day workshop in London on 15 and 16 May at the Business Design Centre, Islington. He is also appearing in Copenhagen, Belfast and Dublin. For information, call: 00 353 1 284 9046.