The Getaway That Changed My Life
By Red Beauty Team Posted on January 5, 2017
How five days on a French retreat taught us to let go and live fully
Can spending a week with strangers in the French countryside heal your past, future-proof your relationships and and rebuild your self-esteem? We sent mother of three Kelly Cowin to find out
"As a mother to three young boys, juggling marital, parental and domestic responsibilities with part-time work and a full social life, I was feeling trapped and overwhelmed. Self-development books, podcasts and counselling had helped me to understand my self-limiting behaviours on an intellectual level - in particular, the work of Brené Brown had helped me identify that I was a perfectionist, and that setting the bar high for myself and those around me had resulted in waves of self-pity and resentment. In my eyes, I wasn’t a good enough Mum (especially to my ‘spirited’ first born) and no matter how many parenting books and blog posts I read (and I read A LOT) I would often resort to shouting – and feel hugely guilty afterwards. Work was just as bad. Hours spent obsessively researching my industry peers had done little for my self-esteem, and both my anxiety levels and my need to control everything around me were sky high – something my counsellor linked back to my Dad’s sudden death 13 years ago. But although I knew what I had to address (or so I thought) I didn’t know how to go about making any actual changes.
And then I found The Bridge. This 5-day personal development retreat, held in Somerset and France, is the life’s work of Donna Lancaster and Gabi Krueger - two of the wisest and most nurturing and empathetic women I’ve ever met. It’s designed to take participants on a journey across a metaphorical bridge of love and trust (upon which many of us get stuck) and to help us confront and ultimately let go of our deepest fears and greatest losses. It’s about recognising what impact our family lineage has on our beliefs and behaviours, and how to change the ones that aren’t serving us. And more than anything, it’s about learning to love our true selves.
Or arrival in France, I was greeted by a rainbow set in a Daliesque sky - the perfect start to what turned out to be a deeply soulful retreat. The converted barn with wood burner, cosy chairs and woollen blankets was the ideal space in which to heal, while the surrounding countryside was breathtakingly beautiful, especially in autumn (appropriately the season of letting things go).
There were ten of us on the retreat, and over the next five days we’d be guided through a series of cathartic rituals that included music and dance, written work, ceremonies, silence, meditation and touch, all weaving in and out of our pasts, presents and futures. I particularly loved the music - I have always danced, from lessons as a child to nightclubs in my teens and twenties, and leaping about in joyful abandon reminded me how deeply healing music and movement can be (moving out of London had brought a stop to anything more than the odd ‘Mums night out’ and family kitchen discos). We were encouraged to use music to get out of our heads and literally shake and stomp the tension out of our bodies, bringing suppressed emotions to the surface (I planned to do this at home with my boys, especially when tensions are fraught).
The days were long. Breakfast was at 8am (the deliciously nourishing home-cooked food was the perfect complement to the emotionally challenging work, which left me ravenously hungry) and we often wouldn’t finish until 10 at night. There were periods for rest, during which we were encouraged to sleep, though I found it incredibly hard to switch off, even at night.
We also had periods of solitude and silence – any reading materials we’d brought with us had been confiscated on arrival so nothing could distract us from the thoughts and emotions that were welling up. For the same reason we were also discouraged from strong yoga practise and running. I can honestly say I didn’t miss my phone or laptop but I found the latter rule especially hard as I’m used to exorcising my feelings on the mat or pounding them out on the pavements.
We worked in groups and although I hadn’t been sure how I’d feel sharing such intimate details with people I’d only just met we were all quick to bond, probably as our stories were so honest and heartfelt. In fact, what made this experience so special was the element of sharing. I found it incredibly powerful to witness such raw emotions, and to be witnessed in turn myself - it took real courage and I’d often feel my heart racing before speaking. It taught me how feeling heard without judgement is the deepest level of empathy we can give and receive. It also made me realise that I’m not the only one who feels confused and alone at times, despite having so much. It was a reminder that we are tribal beings, and that finding our ‘tribe’ can be so supportive.
The work around grief and loss work was hardest bit for me, and I felt a huge resistance towards it. I desperately wanted to go for a run that day and hated not having a book to take me out of my head. I thought I’d fully grieved the loss of my Dad (who had taken his own life) but in fact I’d only worked my way through the sadness, which meant I had denied myself anger and was now stuck in fear. It felt like a major betrayal to feel anger towards him but supressing it for so long meant I hadn’t been able to fully let go of the loss or the consequential feelings of fear - fear of my own mental health and that of my children, fear of living a life too ‘small’ when life is so short and precious, fear of building up my business in case it became too stressful, fear of my loved ones getting depressed or ill and even dying. “In the western world we are not generally taught how to process pain, or to understand grief and loss as part of the human condition,” explained co-founder Donna, and suddenly I understood why I try so hard to control everything. The Bridge supported me to fully remember and comprehend my story, to deeply feel the loss of my Dad and to start the process of letting my fears go.
In the last two days I learnt about the beliefs and behaviours (referred to as loyalties) I’d taken on from my family heritage: worrying about money, a default to authoritative parenting and striving to “do my best”, to name a few. We also worked on the unmet needs we’d had as children, which we often bring to our adult relationships. This was a big “Aha” moment for me as I realised that much of what I expect from my husband, I should actually be giving to myself - I could literally feel the resentment slipping away. Lastly, I explored what my personal strengths are and finally accepted I am who I am because of my life experiences, not despite them.
This was an emotional detox like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I left with a renewed desire to fully live my life. No longer encumbered by resentment and self-doubt, I left France feeling ready to embrace being perfectly imperfect. Back in the real world surrounded by piles of washing, arguing kids and work deadlines this is much harder than I’d like it to be. Donna and Gabi were very honest with us on Day 1, when they told us that self-development is a lifetime’s work and a daily practise. What The Bridge has given me is a deeper understanding that I need to accept whatever that happens to me as a series of lessons, whether it brings pleasure or pain. I need to relax into uncertainty and be vulnerable enough to admit my limitations, and to have the courage to receive help as readily as I offer it. The work at The Bridge has awakened a desire to love with my whole heart, not just others but also myself. I know this will positively impact all my relationships, in particular with my husband and my boys, and for that I am truly grateful."
A five-day retreat with The Bridge costs from £2,150 for five days, including full board, all tuition and pre- and post-retreat support; Thebridge.events/
This story first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Red Magazine.