The Healing Power of Groups
Initial reflections from the retreat that rocked my world
This is not the newsletter I was planning to post today. I had something else lined up, because I knew I’d need time to recover from a group therapy retreat I went on last weekend. But when I came back, everything felt different, and the post I’d drafted just wasn’t accurate anymore. Besides, all I can think about is the experience I’ve just had, which was incredibly transformative and allowed me to find peace with parts of me that, frankly, I didn’t know I ever would. So—let’s talk about that instead!
When my therapist invited me to a group retreat she was planning for her clients, I jumped at the chance to attend. I trust her deeply after working with her for years, and I knew that whatever she’d create was not to be missed. But as the day approached, I was a nervous wreck. Umm, could anything be more terrifying to a person who shies away from the spotlight and hates crying in front of people than the phrase “drama therapy”? There will be nature immersion too, I reminded myself. You can do this.
I really wasn’t sure that I could, though. I have never, ever, in my life felt comfortable in groups. I’ll be okay with small clusters of 4 or 5 people, but any more than that and I freeze up. I spend so much energy absorbing what others are saying that I can’t really process my own thoughts, which makes it hard to contribute to the conversation, which leaves me feeling like dead weight, useless, uninteresting. (To make things more frustrating, it’s not that I don’t have anything to say, just that I can’t find it in the moment—my reactions and witty responses usually don’t bubble up until after the conversation has moved on, or hours later. Fun!) Over time, I internalized this idea that I’m really not a very interesting person—all because of my inability to speak up during classes and parties and other situations where group conversations were required.
I felt completely sick to my stomach driving to the park where we would all meet in person for the first time. Once there, I was in awe of the other members of the group—they all were amazing and I couldn’t wait to get to know them better—but I still found myself in a state of existential loneliness after we parted ways for the evening. The usual self-doubts pummeled me like a sharp, cold rain. You have nothing to contribute to this, the inner voices said. Your therapist is going to regret inviting you.
But over the course of the next few days, we went on an unforgettable journey together. As we took to the stage for drama therapy, as we moved and laughed and wept and made weird noises and crafted and swam and stood in circles by the waterfall and the river and the sea, we found our (true) selves—and each other. Initially it seemed that we each had our own private underworld, but as it turned out, our inner depths were all connected. Even the darkest tunnels contained interlocking passages we could meet each other in.
It’s such a common practice in our culture to focus on the positive and to suppress any “negative” emotions. But during the retreat, we ran toward them instead. So, yup, I was crying for days, and watching other people cry, but it was all good, because it helped me finally change my perspective on tears. Thanks to the messages I’ve been bombarded with my whole life, I’d always seen them as a sign of weakness, something to be avoided and hidden—but that’s not right at all. Tears are purification. They are signs that you’re encountering something real. (And expressions of emotion are actually quite beautiful and cathartic.)
Despite my worries after our first meeting, once I was fully immersed in the experience I didn’t feel the need to desperately prove that I was “interesting” and deserved to be there. I didn’t talk about my books, didn’t say I was a writer, any of that stuff—which, in that setting at least, was the norm. We all knew more about each others’ inner workings than our careers or accomplishments, and loved each other regardless. It slowly dawned on me that this was what I had come here to do. It wasn’t about learning how to mold myself into the social butterfly I’ve always wished I was. It was figuring out how to find a sense of ease in a group without feeling like I needed to change anything about myself.
At the end, we had a heartfelt final ceremony where we whispered to each person all the things we loved about them and wanted them to know. And with every sweet word that poured into my ears in that shady glen on that bittersweet final day, I knew deep in my bones what it means to feel seen and accepted for exactly who you are. I might always be quiet in large groups—and that’s okay. Because listening deeply without judgment, bearing witness and holding space, those things are contributions too.
“Healing cannot happen alone. Healing can only happen with other people.” I’ve heard phrases like these many times over the past few years, but I haven’t wanted to believe them (Noooo that can’t be right! Groups are too scary! I can figure this out myself). However, I can now attest that it’s true. It’s one thing to have some self-awareness of what’s happening inside you. You can get to a certain level with that. It helps to have a healing professional to talk to, absolutely. But it’s yet another to hear the unfiltered stories of others and to see reflections of your own experience in theirs. There’s a kind of magic that happens when someone else brings their insecurities out into the open where they can be alchemized and released—somehow, that made it easier for me to let go of old patterns that often make me miserable, but that I’d been clinging to out of habit. I could finally relax my grip, say a gentle goodbye, and settle into a new sense of spaciousness and freedom.
It’s proving impossible to truly capture this experience in words. Right now, I’m left with an ineffable swirl of emotion, love, enchantment, and… sadness. I spent five days immersed in a world that felt realer and more true than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life before. Coming back has been disorienting and weird. I miss the people who began as strangers and are now dear forever-friends. I wonder if I’ll be able to hold on to the magic, or if the old voices of self-doubt will take over once again; if the change I feel now will last, or if the ordinary world will slowly wear me back down to a state of disenchantment. But a lot of it depends on me, on the choices I make internally: which story do I believe? Which paths do I follow, and which do I decline to take?
No matter what happens next, I can confidently declare that my “I’ll just figure it out by myself” era is officially OVER. As is my “I must be perfect in order to be loved” era. And my “I’m not an interesting person” era. I know now—and not just intellectually, but in a way that is deeply felt in my mind, body, and spirit—that my imperfections actually make me more interesting. More lovable. More alive.
And, damn, what an amazing thing it is to be able to experience this life fully—the painful parts, the joyful parts, and everything in between.
One last quick note: My birthday’s coming up so I’m giving myself the gift of a week off from posting. See you in August! ❤️