Would you try group therapy? Recently I suggested to a friend that she try an intensive psychotherapy retreat. ‘But you have to talk about yourself in front of a bunch of strangers,’ she said with horror. ‘No way could I do that.’ A few years ago I would probably have said exactly the same but now, having been on many such retreats, I can honestly say that ‘talking to strangers’ is one of the most incredible and valuable experiences I’ve had.
Yes, group therapy can be frightening. When I first spoke about my past at the Penninghame Process, I thought I would be sick. My hands were shaking and my voice came out in little more than a whisper. I was waiting to see distaste, even disgust as I talked about things that were, to my mind, horrific and deeply shameful. Yet all I saw was compassion and understanding. I noticed that a woman sitting on the other side of the circle was softly crying and she told the group that she had experienced something very similar. She hadn’t thought she would dare to talk about it but hearing my words gave her the opening she needed.
You realise, very swiftly, that you are not the only one, not by a long shot. Pretty much everyone has something nasty lurking in the woodshed. Honesty and bravery cracks open the heart and lets you be vulnerable, while hearing other people’s stories gives fresh insights into your own life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had that ‘aha!’ moment as someone’s story sparked off a flood of memories or gave me profound realisations about my own psyche.
At The Path of Love much of the work is done in groups of around eight or nine people. They say that, by the end of the week, your group will end up knowing you better than your family and closest friends – and I found that to be true. Something similar happens at The Bridge – you create deep bonds, precious bonds.
Of course this deep knowing also happens when you work one to one with a psychotherapist yet I feel there’s a difference. Professional counsellors rarely share their own ‘stuff’ back, yet with a group, it’s a level playing field. You’re all in it together and there is nothing so bonding as admitting deep hurts and betrayals. It creates a level of trust that is profoundly healing. I am still in touch with many of my co-retreaters from Penninghame, Path of Love and The Bridge – they’re the people I turn to when I need honesty mixed with deep compassion.
Once you’ve experienced that level of communication and acceptance, it becomes hard to live without it. You inevitably find yourself wanting to be more open and authentic in all your relationships. The beauty of a good group retreat (and I recommend all three mentioned here very highly) is that they teach you the tools of honest communication. I found my relationships with family and friends become far more authentic, as we stopped skating around the tough stuff. That honesty ripples out and can, I believe, slowly bring about a more honest, compassionate world. Now, more than ever, the earth needs us to heal our personal wounds so we can come together to find solutions to the deep pain of our beautiful planet.