No Shame in the Self-Help Game: A Retreat That Changed One Man's Life

On man digs deep to understand his life in a more meaningful way. 

According to Taylor Swift (or maybe it was Madeleine Albright), there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. There is, however, a special place here on Earth, for women who do: A Gabrielle Bernstein workshop—so I signed up. 

Gabrielle is a life coach, motivational speaker and author; several of her books have made it onto The New York Times bestseller list. People swear by her books, lectures, weekly vlogs and live stream classes. Her website says, “Become the Happiest Person You Know.” She gives her audiences (made up of roughly 95% women) tools to clean up their past so they can live a little more freely today. Things like healing broken relationships, unhealthy behaviors, career drama and everyone’s favorite: stopping negative self-talk. 

Whether they know it or not, I think everyone would benefit from a little emotional closet cleaning. Gabrielle helps with that. On some level she saves lives, or at least she helps people revive them. I can say that with authenticity, because the simple tools she teaches (not preaches) along with a lot of self-work to put those tools into into action, have changed my life. Gabby, which is what most people call her, also happens to be my friend.

Being friends with a life coach in the self-help world is akin to being friends with Jennifer Aniston in the real world. Drop Gabby’s name in a yoga class and five heads whip around—everyone knows who she is. She’s been on Oprah, shared stages with Deepak Chopra, and has appeared on the Dr. Oz show and Today. She’s not limited in only helping women; women just flock to her naturally and she helps them.

She speaks with ease and she has a sense of humor about life—not to be taken lightly, but also not too seriously. Like Tony Robbins, she throws in some swears to get her point across.  

Gabby recently opened up a weekend workshop with a very personal story which moved many to tears—to lighten the mood, she concluded with, “See, we’re all a little f***ed up.” She’s like anyone else finding their way through this world—the only difference is she shares her struggles with anyone who chooses to tune in, in a very real way and backs them with solution oriented tools to change bad behavior, break old patterns and hopefully do something differently next time. This is why so many are drawn to her and as a result of working with her, they change.

I discovered Gabby in 2010 via a co-worker who knew I was struggling with a very difficult boss. On a Wednesday night I went to a Gabby lecture in New York City and during the Q&A I got up in front of the audience, grabbed the microphone and told her my boss was a total bitch and hard to work with and I spent 5 minutes going on about all the awful things she was “doing to me.” Gabby called me out on playing the victim role. I was told I needed to stop victimizing myself in this relationship and be willing to forgive my disaster of a boss to heal myself and move forward. She told me to wait for the miracle. 

That was not the advice I was hoping for—but I was miserable enough to be open-minded about it. She said being willing to forgive my boss didn’t mean I had to like her. I wrote down in a journal: “I’m willing to forgive her and I need a miracle." Two days later I got laid off with three months severance and I was able, in a composed and polite way, to tell my boss in front of a Human Resources professional who supervised the layoff, how I really felt about her. It was the relief I was looking for. I called Gabby and told her I was laid off and she said “Congratulations.” That was the miracle. I had been willing to forgive my awful boss who made my skin crawl and the universe released me from her presence, with three months full pay. Those were quantifiable results. I’ve followed Gabby ever since.

I attended her weekend workshop at Kripalu Center for Health and Wellness in the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts this summer. The theme this year was “How to bust through every block.” Gabby offered me the chance to volunteer at the event, meaning I could go for free and the topic seemed practical, and so I said yes. Also, my life is in a good place, so I figured I could go, observe and be of service. I didn’t feel like I had to go and perform open-heart surgery on my marriage or defibrillate a dead in the water career…My work with Gabby has helped me clearly see my part in creating drama in all of my relationships: husband, parents, and friends. I have a choice in how I react in a certain situations and day-by-day, I’m trying to do things differently and the work is paying off. Career wise, I broke old work patterns that lead me to “horrible bosses.” It never occurred to me, that I might have more work to do.

On Friday night I scanned the room during Gabby’s opening talk, sizing people up. Her audiences are brimming with hip and fashionable people Instagramming and Snapchatting her words of wisdom while sipping raw juices, snacking on overpriced Kale chips and taking notes on triple-recycled paper. As she talked about all the emotional blocks we have in our lives that hold us back, I found myself struggling with judgment and reading people based on their outward appearance. It was a sea of fancy yoga pants from places like Bandier, a Louis Vuitton bag here and there and really big wedding rings. My mind started to wander--did they manifest all of this? Was her Goyard bag on her vision board? 

These are highly accomplished women, the ones you look at and compare yourself to, thinking they have it all and that your life sucks. But when this seemingly polished group of people starts getting down to business and getting real about life in these workshops, the smartphones go away and the magic starts happening.

That first night Gabby asked us to write down one thing that’s blocking us or anything that comes to mind. What I wrote down shocked me: “Do I have a sense of self, truly? Or is my view of myself dependent on how others view me?” Yes, I’ve been accused of doing things just for the sake of getting a good a Instagram shot. 

Then she asked us to write one more thing that keeps us blocked. Again, I wrote without thinking, “I don’t allow myself to rely on others.” That opened my eyes really fast and in that moment, I wasn’t a volunteer, I was one of them. I was there to get unblocked.

Behind closed doors and when the cameras aren’t rolling for live stream, people get honest. Really honest. The type of honesty where you are shocked and can’t believe what you just heard. 

And then you find yourself grabbing for the tissues because you can’t stop crying and then handing some to the people sitting around you. Everyone’s crying and I realize, we’re all identifying. I’ve felt that way too. Or that’s happened to me too. Or, I screwed someone over like that, maybe this is how much I hurt them without even knowing. The room starts overflowing with tears and empathy as people raise their hands to tell their story in front of 250 other people (often strangers), in hopes of Gabby sharing some tools to help them heal. The room is a safe space, almost sacred. This isn’t a Barbara Walters special. This is life.

People sharing stories about being abused as a child, domestic violence, addiction, eating disorders, miscarriages, cheating, stealing, lying or thinking about suicide. The things that people generally don’t discuss during Sunday brunch. These, Gabby explains, are emotional traumas or traumatic events that impact our lives and to some extent, alter them, and not in a good way. Gabby believes we keep these parts of our lives secret because we think if people knew the truth, they wouldn’t love us. A trauma could be anything from being violently attached or something that seems as innocent as someone calling you stupid in the third grade, which leads you to a life of overcompensating. These are the things Gabby wants us to start talking about, so we can heal from them, and then help others heals. I’m not saying she wants us to talk about them at brunch, but she wants us to start talking about them to people who love us and whom we trust. 

If you’re having visions of downtrodden people who are sad or pathetic or beyond help filling the rooms Gabby speaks in, it’s not like that. These are not the women you see on the street and pity—because you would not know what they have lived through our almost died from by looking at them. These are people you know, hang out with, work with, and have fun with.

The theme that emerged during the weekend is that not enough people are talking about this stuff openly and that many of these topics are considered taboo or frowned upon when light is shined on them-so people hold it in. As a culture, all this holding it in is making us angry, sick and resentful. Shame and trauma and hurtful things eat away at us.  

Being part of the Kripalu weekend is where support happens and healing begins: no slut shaming, no body shaming, no judgment, and no shooshing when someone says “date rape.” 

A lot of people I’ve encountered at Gabby workshops come to “get it out.” No one looks horrified or embarrassed for a person. No one has a look that says, “Is she really saying that out loud?” It’s not even a look I can describe other then maybe, compassion…I outed my shame, and no one ran out of the room. You can see people pulling for you.

No one leaves there healed. They leave feeling like something got revealed. That’s where the work begins, in the seminar. But the actions you take to heal it once you go back out into the world is what counts. For me, I didn’t think I had any white light experiences. It wasn’t until I started writing this and really thinking about what “I don’t allow myself to rely on others” meant. It kind of baffled me. I think I’ve made peace with my past. So I really started digging into it and I was brought back to sixth grade—the first time someone called me a “flamer” in the gym locker room. Naive as I was, I asked what that meant. He slug another derogatory statement at me. It made me feel like someone forced a rock down my throat. 

All these other memories started floating to the surface. The first day of seventh grade in Home Economics class I was at a table of bullies who made fun of my pink shirt. I know exactly who was at the table and what was said. I was so ashamed and never wore that shirt again, despite the fact it was my favorite. There are countless stories from my childhood and young adulthood that all add up. The things people said and did to me, caused me to alter my life. I would constantly think about how people saw me, so I was always thinking about my appearance and coming up with ways to seem or look less gay. It now makes sense that when Gabby asked us to write down where we are blocked, I wrote down, “Do I have a sense of self, truly? Or is my view of myself dependent on how others view me?” Growing up, my sense of self was dependent on how others viewed me. And the definition of a good day was if I didn’t hear a gay slur muttered as I walked down the halls. My daily goal was to survive without hearing nasty words spattered at me.

I revisited my first day in Drivers Ed class: A group of popular guys in the back throwing gum, paper clips and flicking rubber bands at me, taunting me and making fun of me for being gay. When things like this happened, I pretended not to notice. I wouldn’t look back at them. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction to let them know I was hurting. I ignored it and never spoke of it. Not to my friends, not to my family. I felt if I told my parents people made fun of me for being gay, I would out myself. I also held onto shame that if my parents knew people didn’t like me, I would be considered an embarrassment to the family. I would go home from Drivers Ed and take the gum out of my hair and be sobbing and pounding my fists on the floor. I never knew why people were so mean to me. But I kept this secret, I couldn’t talk about it. How could anyone help me, I have to help myself. This is my secret, my deal with the devil and I can get myself through it. 

Then my breakthrough came last week; this is why I don’t rely on others. Growing up, I was afraid to tell anyone I was hurting, for fear of having to out myself. In high school some of my closest friends stopped inviting me to hang out with them because the guys they were dating were making fun of me and it was getting too uncomfortable for them to deal with it. Who was I supposed to rely on?

To be fair to all involved above, I can’t blame them. I never really tried to speak up to anyone or confide in them. I never gave anyone the chance to support me, because I was busy curating my outer appearance and relying on myself to get myself through this. At the same time, I wasn’t a wallflower. I had a lot of friends, I ran track, I got good grades, I went to cool people parties. On some level, I was JV popular. So in present day, I never really talk openly about being bullied while growing up. The main reason being, I don’t want people to mistake the fact that I was bulled to mean I was an unpopular loser. So somewhere in my psyche, I’ve pushed down a lot of these memories and naturally assumed I’ve made peace with them because “all gay people are bullied.” I’m not unique and nor is my story. This is kind of the deal when you’re growing up gay, right? Well, actually, no. Being gay doesn’t mean the expectation is that I was bullied so I should automatically get over it. I generally don’t talk about it, because I feel shame that I wasn’t liked for who I was by very many people growing up. On some level, I’ve spent so much of my adult life over compensating for that fact. 

There’s a reason this is all coming up now. In college I went on a spiritual retreat and wrote out a lot of bad memories and names of people I resented for calling me names. I went to the beach and lit it on fire. Poof, I was healed as the smoke went up and paper turned into embers. Well, maybe not all healed. Forgiveness and acceptance of the past happens, perhaps, in layers. I’m not all healed, just yet. I’m at the next, deeper layer.

I am now committed to healing this trauma—even though I thought I accepted it long ago. Being part of the Gabby Bernstein Busting Through Every Block Weekend Workshop unlocked this. My life isn’t debilitated as a result of being bullied. I’m successful; I have a great husband and wonderful friends and a supportive family. I also love myself and take good care of myself—which wasn’t always the case. All that shame I held for so long, at times, led me to some really self-destructive behaviors. 

Today, I’m okay—I’m writing about it, talking about it and opening up about it.  Will my life be better as a result of unearthing past situations that have created emotional blockages? Not sure yet. Will sharing my story help me and perhaps help others? No doubt.  

Gabby’s new book The Universe Has your Back is out September 27.

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