A Different Way to Be
The slow and steady work of building a more supportive culture
During the group therapy retreat I went on recently, I was immersed in a completely different culture than the one I’ve always known. To give some specifics, it was an environment where:
Playfulness, curiosity, creativity, and emotional honesty are encouraged
People give each other the benefit of the doubt, and take care of each other in a way that empowers everyone to feel supported instead of minimized or dismissed
You don’t have to do or say anything to impress anyone, and are free to be your goofy/weird/dark/awkward self in all your imperfect glory
There is zero implication—spoken or unspoken—that there is anything wrong with the way you look or the body you inhabit
Talking and intellectualizing have their place, but there are many opportunities to self-express through other means like movement, sound, and art
Mistakes are okay; we learn from them and use them as an opportunity for repair and connection
There are no power structures, or posturing to attain higher rank, or competing for limited resources—instead, there is a general sense of abundance and a mutual understanding that everyone is powerful in their own unique way
It isn’t strange to tell someone you love and appreciate them
Everyone feels seen in the most comforting way possible
People are not defined by their achievements, but by who they are at a deep level, and how they treat others
This really expanded my sense of what is possible, and it was so liberating that it’s gotten me wondering… is it possible to bring some of this into my everyday life?
The truly magical thing about this culture was that we co-created it through our interactions with each other—it arose organically without the need for a bunch of theorizing or rules. At the same time, it certainly didn’t happen by accident. The retreat was designed with careful intention by an experienced therapist. We all came into it because we wanted to be there, and were willing to drop the masks we wear in day-to-day life. Each of us had already done a substantial amount of inner work leading up to it. There were firm boundaries around certain important aspects (confidentiality, respect). All of these things definitely influenced the bonds we were able to form, and I’m not sure how reproducible that culture is in a world where self-protection can be key to survival.
I’m still craving something just a *little* better than what we currently have, though. And the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that nothing on the list above can happen without a foundation of solid, secure interpersonal relationships.
So, what I’ve concluded for now is: if I want to do my teensy-tiny part to shift culture in a more positive direction (and, oh, how I do!), I need to focus first on relationship-building. This is the scaffolding that’s necessary in order to allow bigger, more systemic changes to take root.
Retreat-culture is still alive inside me, too, and I intend to draw on that as I move forward with strengthening both old and new relationships. Not that I’m going to suddenly start telling random people that I love them… but I can tell people specific things I appreciate about them more often. I’m not going to demand that everyone around me confesses their deepest secrets, because that wouldn’t be safe or appropriate. But I can listen to whatever they choose to volunteer (if anything) and meet them where they are. I can continue to work on putting my authentic self out there—because revealing my imperfect self can also show others a different way to be.
There’s a big caveat to all this for me, though. As an introvert prone to social anxiety, relationship-building can take a considerable amount of energy, so it will likely be very slow going. But that’s okay. After all, good things take time, right?