Over New Years, I attended a retreat for gay, bi, queer and trans men. It was a really challenging and powerful experience.
Since returning home, I have been thinking alot about the role of a community in healing an individuals emotional pain.
We (In the Western world) live in such an individualistic society and increasingly live separate and isolated lives because of how society is evolving. We can find it hard to trust people or other humans can be difficult to be around. But I think it can be really easy to slide into a mindset that says we don’t need anyone. This can be especially true if we have been hurt or rejected by people. It can feel like self-protection to withdraw and close the doors to ourselves.
But we do need people. And people, the right people, can be integral to helping us heal from our pain. I think of something I read once that said “we hurt in relationships, so we can only heal in relationship”. Basically meaning that most of our emotional pain is relational, and so it can only be healed by having an opportunity to have a different kind of experience in relationship (and by relationship, I’m not talking about romantic relationships, though it can include that. I am talking any circumstances in which you are connected in someway to another person or people.)
The relationship between client and counsellor is at the heart of counselling, and it’s a place, where if the conditions are right, a person might have a healing relational experience.
But bringing it back to the retreat. I observed 3 ingredients present at the retreat that seemed to be integral to the healing to take place. (If anyone reading has any experiences/thoughts/observations to add, I would love to hear them in the comments section). The first was the holding of the space by the facilitators. The second was the willingness of the people attending to trust the safety of the space and to open up and talk about their emotional pain and experiences. The third was the witnessing of the emotional pain and experiences of the person sharing by the other participants on the retreat.
All three elements needed to be present for the healing experience to take place. The facilitators on this retreat were obviously very experienced and had also done extensive work on themselves, to be able to own their own feelings and create a safe environment for the sharing to take place. In counselling we sometimes call the safe place, or the feeling of safety where feelings can be shared a ‘container’.
There was a very strong container on this retreat, and because of that, there was a feeling that you would be safely held if choosing to talk about difficult experiences or express painful emotions.
The third element of witnessing by others is really important on a couple of different levels. Often we can feel shame about things we have done, things that have happened to us, or things that live in the darkest recesses of our minds. To share those things, to have someone (or many someones) witness them and not run away from us in horror (as we often expect will happen) can be incredibly healing. It can reduce the level of shame we feel around the thing. There is also a powerful experience in community witnessing. Having your community hear your experiences, emotions or fears and knowing that they are there to hold you can be incredibly healing. I think this is why the queer, lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities exist and why being connected into these communities in this way (if they are safe, which is another topic) can be really beneficial.
There were many people on the retreat, and the experience was very much about healing and processing in a group setting. But these elements of containing (creating the safe space), the feeling of safety enough to share experiences and emotional pain, and the witnessing is also (or can be when it’s working at it’s best) present in the 1:1 counselling relationship. We are doing the same thing.
I suppose the experience on this retreat really gave me an insight into what healing can feel like when the conditions are right in a group setting with a supportive community that is ready to witness your life experiences and hold you while you heal.