Picture this: a group of women go on retreat to a magical place in Colorado called Salida. More specifically, the rugged and remote home of one of the women…a home that, while rugged and remote, is also an oasis of creativity and comfort.
These women, who met for the first time just six months earlier, bond in a way that takes their breath away. During their retreat, they cook together, they eat together, they write together, they walk together, they do the dishes together. They cry together and laugh together.
They are there, ostensibly, to move their writing projects forward, but they are also there to be broken open in ways they’ve never been broken open before.
They are there to become friends.
I am one of them.
It happened about 15 minutes before I was due to leave for the airport. My heart started pounding and my gut cramped up. I allowed myself to be present with all the sensations in my body. I did some 4-7-8 breathing and my heart stopped pounding but I felt like a limp noodle. Spent. No energy.
And for the first time in my life, in regards to flying somewhere, I said, “I am not sure I can go.”
(I have often wondered if/when that time would come that I refuse to get on an airplane).
My husband suggested that we at least start driving and as we drove, he asked me questions about my writing and the women with whom I would be gathering.
As I answered him, the anxiety left my body.
In my life I’ve hung out on the edges of groups of women, never letting myself be fully seen. I didn’t fully trust women. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have close friends. Individually.
But in groups? My experience was that I either didn’t belong or I didn’t want to belong. There’d be gossiping and the formation of allegiances or cliques within the group. I witnessed this in the women in my own family, and participated in it, too. They could turn on you in an instant. The minute someone left the room was the minute we started gossiping.
Not to mention being so enmeshed with my mother that I didn’t know where she ended and I began.
I’ve also made up stories like this:
I don’t “do” groups.
They will get tired of me and let me fall off the edge, and they will be so relieved that they won’t have to deal with me anymore.
I won’t be able to give them what they want so I will make it easy for them to forget me.
I will let myself fade away.
I will make up reasons for them to be glad I no longer belong.
I will act in such a way that they will be glad I am no longer part of them.
I will make up reasons for me to be glad that I no longer belong.
But I will never forget them.
And my mother? I’ve heard her say, more than once, wistfully, “I can’t believe they like me!” in regards to women she knew. She seemed genuinely surprised when someone liked her.
As am I.
And so it was, in Salida, on a walk with these women after dinner in the midst of the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, that I found myself feeling a what seemed like an ancient and primal fear:
I will either be swallowed whole by these women or I will be banished forever (and this is not a commentary on their behavior or who they are, at all).
The conversation had turned to our next retreat. As I listened to them talking excitedly about the plans, I panicked. “I’m not sure I can afford it,” I said.
Which isn’t the truth, but it’s what came to me in the moment. I was readying myself for what I thought was the inevitable rejection or the inevitable need to escape.
Then something magical happened. One by one, they let me be who I am. They let me have my fear. They listened to me. They didn’t try and change anything or convince me of anything.
These women do not want to forget me…nor are they going to let me fade away. They are not my mother. They are not all the other groups of women I chose to fade away from. Nor are they going to smother or suffocate me. Nor do they want me to conform or contort or please them at my own expense.
This is a new experience for me and it’s as much my doing as it is theirs. They love me unconditionally, they support me in being my best self AS I DEFINE IT, they call bullshit on my limiting beliefs, and, miraculously, I am ready, willing, and able to receive it and do the very same for them.
I am just as present for them in my own way, when they are cracked open, as they were for me in their own ways.
Getting to this place has been about me knowing me, my stories, my values, my preferences, my desires. This is what allows me to connect with others more deeply, and at the same time it’s what allows me to have energetic boundaries with those who aren’t yet ready for this kind of connection.
The more I unravel these stories and patterns…and let myself be seen and belong, I am finding my friendships to be richer and more rewarding. And, surprise surprise, I am finding that my friends love me just the way I am and am able to truly receive their love. And this has helped me truly love in return.
Something to consider: Without knowing it, you learned about friendship from your mother. You may have beliefs about yourself and other women that make friendships harder to participate in. It’s okay. Just notice.
Something to journal on: Think about the friends your mother had. What did they do together? What did she say about them and her experiences with and of them? What beliefs, values, and lessons did your mother teach directly (by telling you) and indirectly (via modeling) in regards to friendships with other women? Include things you’re glad you learned and things you wish you hadn’t!
Something to practice: Next time you’re with a bunch of women, simply notice the thoughts that run through your head about them – and you – and connect the dots to some of the older stories you have about friendships.