The lights were dim and the air was full of wafting waves of incense. I was surrounded by 25 other women, each of us dressed in various combinations of yoga pants, jeans and sweatshirts with the same nervous expression on her face. We were cross-legged in a circle and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. What had I gotten myself into? Who were these women? What was I supposed to do, or say? Was I going to have to do anything weird? Who was I to spend this kind of money and take this much time away from my responsibilities at home to come and sit in a circle? Then the group’s facilitator entered the room, sat down next to me and smiled at every woman in the circle. She invited us to breathe. So I breathed.
Thus began my first experience at a women’s retreat, just two short years ago. I am still not sure entirely why I decided to go, but I do know that it absolutely changed my life. Since that day, I have attended four more women’s events and I already have more on my calendar. The question is – why? What do I get out of these events, and why are so many women going to them?
Whether it is a retreat in the mountains or a conference of thousands in a huge ballroom, women’s events are becoming more popular and well-attended than ever. While I can’t speak for the other attendees, I can share my experience and help explain what I get out of them. Maybe it will help inspire you to attend one of your own.
So, why do I go to so many women’s events?
I got to be a better woman, wife, mother, colleague, daughter, sister, friend and human.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to give yourself oxygen before you can be of service to others. You may have heard the phrases, and they may sound a bit trite to you (I know in the past they have to me). But, it’s true. You absolutely cannot be of service to anyone in the world until you take care of your own needs.
The first time I booked a plane ticket to attend a women’s retreat, it was hard for me to justify the time and monetary commitment. I wondered if maybe it was a little bit selfish to spend so much on my own personal growth. Yet, taking responsibility for my well-being is in fact the least selfish thing I can do. If I don’t care for myself, I can too easily shift into a mode of expecting others to care for me and blaming them for my dissatisfaction when they don’t. True empowerment comes from self-responsibility. When I am 100% in charge of taking care of myself, I can be of true value to those around me – and to myself.
I go to understand that I’m not alone.
Those of us who have been socialized as women in today’s world have challenges that are unique from the population at large. We may have been taught that we have to look a certain way or perform certain functions in our lives, such as caring for those around us, putting ourselves second, or having a so-called acceptable body size. The beliefs we pick up and adopt in our lives can be empowering at times, and they can also be constraining. Sometimes the beliefs we pick up simply don’t fit with the people that we are becoming as we grow. When that happens in my own life, I can feel very lonely. I can feel as if I don’t belong anywhere, as if I’m inferior or weird or wrong for wanting my life to look a different way.
When I get a chance to connect with women who look very different or very similar to me and I hear their stories, I get a beautiful chance to realize that I am not alone. The stories that women tell may have different characters and scenes. They may have to do with careers or families that are unfamiliar to me. Yet, there is always a thread of familiarity in the stories. When I listen to another woman share her struggles and her triumphs, I can always spot a little bit of myself in what she says. Someone may talk about confusion about balance, or speaking her truth in spite of those around her challenging her beliefs. She may speak about her fears of not measuring up, not succeeding or not fulfilling the dreams she had when she was a little girl. She may speak about confusion about friendships, romantic relationships or family dynamics. Each authentic word opens my mind and heart just a little bit. When she speaks, I see myself … and I realize that I am not alone.
Two of the most powerful words in the world are “me too.” We humans are social creatures and we want to connect with those around us. If we feel as if we are struggling alone and no one can understand us, we can get very isolated and fall into a downward spiral of shame. When, instead, we can sit with another person, seek to understand them and connect with them, we can drop the barriers of difference and feel a little bit more whole. We can begin to understand that we are not alone.
I go to get inspired.
We often go to motivational events to get motivated, hoping that there is some secret sauce out there that can help us get off our lazy bums and go out and achieve the things we want out of life. There is a slight difference between motivation and inspiration, however. Motivation is an external force that compels us to act or behave in a certain way. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a word stemming from the Latin inspirare which means “to breathe or blow into.” Inspiration conveys a sense of breathing life into the world. Though we are often inspired by the words or actions of others, inspiration itself emanates from deep within.
Without exception, I’ve gotten to listen to or meet with truly inspiring humans at each event that I’ve gone to. Sometimes it’s the person on stage that has words for me that charge my soul and help me see things in a different light, and sometimes it’s the person next to me at the water fountain that inspires me with her simple wisdom or gentle laugh. She says something that rings true for me, and it breathes life into my spirit. That’s what inspiration means to me.
I go to feel alive.
What exactly happens at a women’s event, anyway? Well, in my experience, the events vary wildly. Sometimes we sit quietly and listen to inspiring speakers. Sometimes we dance, sometimes we sip Cacao Bliss out of steaming Styrofoam mugs, sometimes we meditate and sometimes we scream. (Screaming is fun). All of my senses can be activated at a conference or retreat. I start to feel my heartbeat, hear my breath, smell and taste the tea, and see beautiful expressions of peace, joy or sadness on the faces of the women around me. All of it conspires to bring me back into my body and feel. If it’s true that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, then I get a chance to experience the authenticity of that human-ness. Whether I’m overcome with grief or doubled up in laughter, I get to experience all of the rawness that we get to feel as humans, and the result is that I feel unabashedly and unreservedly alive.
I go to get perspective.
Our daily lives can get really loud. As a stay-at-home mom and a budding entrepreneur, I’m often caught in the minutiae of my everyday life. Breakfast, carpool, errands, cleaning, cooking, laundry, carpool again, cooking again, more laundry … phone calls and texts to return, permission slips to sign, volunteering to complete, meetings to attend, invoices to send and pay, budgets and schedules to create and revise and revamp. It’s easy to get stuck. It’s all too easy to turn myself into a victim of my circumstances. It’s also really easy to start ruminating on tiny little so-called problems and send myself into a tailspin over meaningless things. What if my son’s handwriting never improves and he fails school? Is my marriage strong enough? Did I have a typo in the email I just sent out?
At a women’s event, I get to hear a different perspective. Many people are going through the same things as me, and many are also dealing with things that are much bigger than my kid’s handwriting woes. When I hear someone talk about their recent cancer diagnosis, their messy divorce or their infertility, it puts all of my struggles into perspective. Yes, we all have struggles. And also, those struggles don’t have to be as all-consuming as I can often make them when I’m stuck in my own little world and my own little head.
I go to be reminded of who I am.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by life, I often find myself retreating into old patterns of behavior or thinking that don’t serve me well. Instead of standing confidently in my truth, I’ll often reach for the masks of insecurity, people-pleasing, perfectionism or any number of other ways of being that I imagine will help me fit into society and be accepted. It’s as if I erase myself, trying instead to blend in and just get along.
None of us were meant to simply blend in. We were each meant to be unapologetically ourselves.
When I sit in an audience or in a circle at a women’s event, I get to be reminded of who I am at my core. I can take off the masks and remember that I am a creative, compassionate, loving, joyful creature. I get to re-mind myself, meaning that I actually get to revamp the thoughts I have going on in my brain. I get to remember who I am, and whose I am, and who I am here on this planet to be.
I am hooked on the connection and healing that happens when I get to spend time with women. It is now an integral part of my life and my well-being. When women come together and authentically share and connect with each other, true magic can occur.