I’m not one of those people who can’t bear to be alone. In fact, I’m more than happy in my own company. Spending at least some time in solitude every day strikes me as a basic human need, something that’s utterly essential to my wellbeing. All of which makes the fact that I chose to lock myself away for a week with 23 strangers all the more surprising.
Despite being a bit of an introvert, I also have a gregarious side. My outgoing streak may expand with each glass of wine I imbibe, but I can be very sociable sober, too. In small gatherings of friends, family and acquaintances, I can be the life and soul. Present me with a big group of largely unknown entities, though, and the reticence kicks in.
I also recoil from the spotlight when out of my comfort zone, like some startled sea creature retracting into its shell. At school, just the thought of being asked a question in class had me squirming. Years later, training to be a journalist, knowing I would have to read my efforts out to my peers petrified me. I was often unable to write a word, frozen by fear of being exposed as not good enough.
My tutor told me to get over myself or get off the course. Her rather harsh ultimatum served me well. I may be self-conscious, but I can also be single-minded. I was determined to be a journalist. I got over myself.
It wasn’t the last time I’ve had to override my inhibitions, but embarking on the Hoffman Process took things to another level. I couldn’t be sure just what I was letting myself in for when I signed up – although they explain the activities beforehand, certain details are intentionally surprising. Still, I’d taken part in enough ‘self-improvement’ workshops over the years to know that personal development in a group setting is never a spectator sport.
Firstly, there’s the introvert’s nightmare of introducing yourself to the other participants, including some kind of preamble about why you’re there. Then there’s the trust-building exercises, often pretty excruciating affairs involving a lot of eye contact – awkward for just about everyone, but potentially agonising for self-conscious types.
I may not have known the details, but I’d assumed Hoffman would be a whole week of this stuff with bells on. To top it all, as well as spending seven days baring my soul to a bunch of complete strangers, I’d be sharing a room with one of them. There seemed little chance of escaping to the precious, restorative solitude I crave.
So why sign up? Basically, I wanted serious change – and fast. Years of sporadic one-to-one counselling have helped me keep the depression I’m prone to at bay for many years. But there were issues stemming from my childhood that still hung over me like a cloud. They had darkened my life for too long and I was determined to get out of their shadow once and for all. I hoped the intensity of the week long Process would finally do the trick, difficult as I knew it would be.
Watching 23 other nervous people enter a bright, sunny room on our first morning at Florence House in Sussex, I got over myself very quickly. Introvert or extrovert, it was pretty obvious each and every one of us walked into that space with a sense of apprehension. Stepping into the unknown is always scary and this was new territory for all of us. Some may have been used to public speaking, but in this totally new context even seasoned speakers were anxious.
Then something curious began to happen. As we began, one by one, to go around the room introducing ourselves, I started to relax. I wasn’t looking forward to the focus being on me, but hearing others speak with such sincerity made me want to reciprocate. Fortunately, we’d been asked to keep things brief, so I knew the spotlight wouldn’t be on me for long.
The Process is designed to encourage trust, openness and honesty. It works like magic so that bonds form very quickly. On the face of it, my fellow Hoffies (as I affectionately call my Process peers), were all very different. From a range of ages, backgrounds and nations, on the surface we were quite diverse. But what we all had in common was a desire to make things better for ourselves and our loved ones, to put our demons to rest and clear the way for happier, more fulfilled lives.
Our days together were full-on. There were times when things felt so challenging I wanted to run for the hills. But our camaraderie was entrenched and to quit would have felt like a betrayal of the rest of the group.
I’d feared being with so many strangers, but they were a huge part of what kept me going through that week. A kind smile gave me strength when I was struggling. Having a giggle with the smokers outside lightened the mood when things felt too heavy. There were even opportunities for solitude and my roomie turned out to be an absolute joy. I soon went from regretting not requesting one of the few single rooms to being grateful that I hadn’t.
Expressing thoughts and feelings to other human beings – whether it was one-to-one, addressing the entire group or something in between – brought a sense of validation. Voicing my sadness, anger, fears, resentments and pain was an incredible release after so many years of bottling things up. Listening to others was equally powerful. Over the week, I grew more conscious and less self-conscious as we all shared our truths.
The Process is gruelling and at times painful. But it’s joyous, too. I laughed and cried with those 23 people as a unique bond formed between us. Two years after we headed off in different directions following ‘graduation’, I’m still in touch with some of my Hoffies. There’s no pressure to keep in touch – some of us just do.
When we occasionally get together, we feel a special connection. It’s a unique type of understanding and trust we have between us. We also always have a lot of fun when we catch up. No matter what, laughter is always guaranteed.
Two years on from that incredible experience, I can say with confidence that I slayed my biggest demon. I’m happier and calmer than I’ve ever been. I’m more accepting and less fearful. So what if I make a public mistake? So what if I do something silly or sound stupid in front of others? It really isn’t the end of the world. The sky won’t fall in. It could even be quite amusing.
I’m not exactly an exhibitionist now, but I’m no longer immobilised by inhibition. I can be the first on the dance floor, stone cold sober, for example, and often am.
In fact, I’ve barely touched alcohol in over two years. You’re advised to lay off the hooch for at least two weeks before starting the Process and then for around a month afterwards, both of which I did. Since then, I’ve had very little desire to drink at all and I feel much better, physically and emotionally, for my almost total abstinence. I used to use alcohol as a social crutch. I no longer feel I need to.
I still get irritated and riled, but less often and less intensely. I still have resentments, but milder and fewer of them. My relationships have improved and I feel my life is better in every way. And I have some wonderful people in my life that I would never otherwise have met.
Was it worth the discomfort? You bet!
Trish Lesslie is a freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in health, beauty and wellbeing. Find out more at trish-lesslie.com