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Why It Takes Courage to Retreat

June 28, 2020

Who among us doesn’t feel a pull towards a peaceful weekend away, in a beautiful setting, with all the time in the world to do what we love doing? Women respond with so much heartfelt enthusiasm whenever I talk about our retreats. Yet, most of these women will never get so far as to book a retreat for themselves. If you feel hesitant, you are in good company. For many women, the barrier of resistance is surprisingly strong. As with most things in life that hold us back, the moment we can call it, it loses much of its power.

So let’s shine a light on this mysterious source of the resistance to retreats: It is fear. Normal, valid, universal fear. What can possibly be scary, you may ask yourself, about lying on your back and staring at cloud formations with birds chirping in the background?

READ: Spiritual Retreats in South Africa

Oh, let me count the ways!

We are scared of doing nothing. Our identity seems to hang on our busy-ness. It is the stock standard ‘complaint’, whoever you are and whatever job you do – so much to do, so little time. It’s more a statement of value than a complaint, though.

‘Who am I if I have nothing to do? Who needs me then? What is my worth?’ And evermore scary: ‘What sadness or pain will creep up on me if I become quiet?’

We know that there are truths inside of us which will be hard to face. We’re scared that, if we start listening to what needs attention within us, it will overwhelm us. It’s good to remember that our inner voice will never scream at us and force us in any direction we don’t choose to go. It is a loving whisper, seeking the best for us and our loved ones, and will at most only gently nudge if we allow ourselves to tune in. The person who is manically busy “does not know how to be sad, and at peace, and at play[1]”.  It is without a doubt harder to do nothing than to do something.[2]

The psychology of us

Women are wired to connect. We love, we care, we serve. What kind of woman leaves those around her for the weekend – not to volunteer for the church outreach, not to support a friend whose husband cheated on her – just to chill? Oh, the judgement. There are mothers, husbands, sisters and friends who really don’t think one should do that. ‘What do you mean, running on empty? Empty from what? You have a wonderful life.’ You know those. They’re real. Their judgement scares us.

We have pets, we have children, we have house alarms. Someone needs to stand in for us when we take a few days out for a retreat. But asking for help scares us. People who experience this kind of fear most intensely, are usually those who are the most helpful to others. This might be uncomfortable to hear, but helping others make us feel strong. When you help others, you are in control. So when you ask for help, you can feel needy and weak[3]. We are scared of feeling weak.

Not only do our loved ones need us, but we need them to need us. We fear that the family will cope amazingly well without us. Better, in fact. What if they hardly notice my absence? What if they have more fun without me than with me? Or what if there’s not one moment of longing for me? That will draw a line through who I am and what I live for. This fear is enough to keep some women home for life.

All of us are scared of the unknown. At retreats, there are strange people. They might have strange ideas. They might make me do strange things. It is always safer to not attend a retreat. Of course, safety is the most dangerous path to spirituality there is. It is a dead-end, yet we are comfortable with what we know. We fear not being able to handle what we don’t know.

Further thoughts

Do you notice the thread running through these fears? Ultimately, it is the deep-seated fear of not being good enough, that holds us back most. I’m scared that if I don’t appear busy, I’m inadequate. If I appear selfish, I’m inadequate. If I’m not there all the time for my kids, I’m inadequate. And If I ask for help, I’m inadequate. And if my family realise they can cope without me, I’m inadequate. Or If I can’t handle my own emotions, I’m inadequate. Ouch. What a painful pattern. Now it is clear why it’s so hard to step into the unknown of a retreat. It takes a lot of courage.

The longer we hideaway, the deeper and more fixed our fears become, and the more challenging it is to tune into fear’s opposite: love. It is ultimately the question that James Hollis poses, which gives the courage to face the fears:  “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?”[4] If you can let the fear stand aside long enough for you to hit that “Book”, you’ll be taking the first courageous step in the direction of love. Love always expands. When you care for and love yourself more, you have more capacity to care for and love those around you. If a retreat is what you want, then the choice to go will make you larger.

Be a warrior; have courage; fight for love.

  1. (
  2. For more reading: Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein
  3. (For more on the fears of the typical “helper”, you can Google Type 2 of the Enneagram.)
  4. Read James Hollis: On this journey, we call our life: Living the questions.


  • Reply
    June 28, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    I totally agree with everything you said. Going on a retreat would sound like such a selfish act, yet it’s choosing to give yourself that little bit of love! Sigh!

  • Reply
    June 29, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Absolutely! Erich Fromm wrote this in his book The Art of Loving: “Selfishness and self-love, far from being identical, are actually opposites. A selfish person doesn’t love himself too much but too little.”

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