Growing Sideways

Monica ZwolsmanI am officially a personal-growth workshop failure. I tried but was asked to leave within four hours. Hmmmm….here’s the story!

Have you ever felt a bit stuck in your life – need something a little more, something different – but you are not sure what it is nor how to find what it is you want?

Well, that is me. So I decided to go on a weekend self-development workshop to “ignite my inner creative passion”, run by a certain British self-help guru person, former muso as well as producer and director of the multi-award winning films and albums.

Being that it was being held in Hippie Central, a friendly NSW town, and I was a self-help-course virgin, I was a tad nervous and had no idea what to expect. Being instructed bring along a cuddly toy with eyes didn’t help, and then when I saw he was also giving a talk two days earlier on sex, I felt even more alarmed. What if this inner passion was about SEX and had inadvertently signed up for some kind of tantric sex thing involving plush stuffed animals?

On arrival I was swept into the room on a tide of earnest alternatives swathed in Indian scarves, with long shirts and skirts, fishermen pants and sensible footwear. And as I walked into the room, I caught the whiff of fake deep and meaningfuls, the extra-long embracing between friends, head stroking, endless Western namastes accompanied with little head bows, and much soulful smiling.

Quite a few opted not to sit on the chairs, but rolled their blankets onto the floor and camped out there. Some sipped their water out of wine bottles, others out of plastic butter containers, while heaps took sups of green stuff in glass jars.

I sat on my chair and struck up conversation with those next to me, one of whom seemed pleasant enough and not too out of my comfort zone. Others I felt needed perhaps more help than a weekend course.

It started ok. SHM (Self Help Man) gave a chat about us embracing the uncomfortable and painful feelings head-on, letting them wash over us like a wave, to focus on where the pain is etc etc – nothing madly new about that idea. But he did say that ignoring the personality stuff we didn’t like about ourselves didn’t make it go away so we simply had to accept it and see it for what it was – and I felt that might have been a bit of a dig at the sotto–voiced yoga types with their gentle sing-song voices espousing peace, love and light everywhere.

Then we had to sit facing someone looking deeply into their eyes for seven minutes. I know. I thought I might faint with the confrontation of such strange intimacy but actually, it was quite extraordinary. Other worldly. Of course, I wasn’t sure what eye to look at so bounced between the two. And when my partner started to cry, I felt so sad for him, so after a minute or two of watching him battle to staunch the flow of tears, I crossed my eyes to make him laugh. It was a pretty powerful exercise.

But then it was all downhill. SMH started to lecture us like schoolkids, he started to appear edgy and grumpy, he burped a few times, and the workshop became slow and ponderous.

I couldn’t buy into his premise that we store up past hurts because we or others don’t allow ourselves to deal with them appropriately. Hmmm. Didn’t ring true for me. I find if they are biggies, I shout and scream and resolve, and the littlies only grow if I focus on them. The more navel gazing I do, the bigger problems grow. If I dismiss and skip forward, they simply evaporate and are blown away in the wind.

We did exercises to make us comfortable with public affirmation. This didn’t work for me either. I gave a great speech to my group and when they clapped, I seriously didn’t need them to tell me I had done a good job. I don’t need strangers to like or approve of me. Of course, if they do, I preen. And if a friend, family member or person I admire doesn’t like what I say or do, I feel like a popped balloon. But I missed the point of the long and tedious exercise.

So we sat in the hall and outside, it was a glorious spring day with a gentle breeze and the beach calling me down the road. I started to feel cheated. When was our inner creative passion going to be unleashed?

It was when we had to write about past conflicts from the other person’s point of view that I really started to feel like I was wasting my time. Who the hell can carry a grievance for ages and not have gone through all sides of the argument many times, telling the story every which way, even if we only publically tell it in a way to suit ourselves. I have absolutely no problem talking about the deep and painful stuff others prefer to keep hidden to protect their ego or privacy. Just read my book Love. Life. Loss (MFBooks/ Jacana) to see what I mean. I do this simply because being authentic about my feelings and experiences, however silly and embarrassing, connects me with others who might secretly feel the same. The result is that I have had so many beautiful letters from people who understand what I am talking about and feel less alone with their strange or awkward secrets.

So when SHM felt it necessary to waffle on for ages about keeping what went on in the hall private, I was both amused and irritated. Hell, if a stranger shares something interesting with me, I will share with my friends. I will blog. I might even Facebook. I don’t know these people, nor do I know their names or any of their friends. However it would be cruel to identify or hurt someone unnecessarily by talking about their secrets to those who know them. And if you that horrid person, instructions not to do so are ineffective. Very odd. I started to point this out. SHM told me to sit out – so I eagerly took the opportunity to pick up my stuff and run, run into the sun to the sea to swim and celebrate my escape.

I did feel a pang of guilt because the weekend was so very well organised by one of my dearest Australian friends, and SHM’s British assistant is a past colleague and all-round glorious being who clearly admires her boss.

But the next day, after pondering my failure to complete the workshop, I started to wonder if there was in fact something wrong with me…like WHY did I not need approval of strangers, who did I feel like I had heard all this before, why was I bored, why was I not able to conjure up feelings of inadequacy and bitter recrimination, why was I not quickly able to access my personal grudges? Was I too shallow? A psychopath? An evolved being? Was SHM and his followers neurotic navel-gazers making mountains out of moleholes?

Maybe I should have given it another go, sat through a few hours the following day. Then again, at 51 years old, every moment counts. I’m going to read SHM’s blogs instead and see if there is anything interesting he might have to say that I might have missed out on.

Or maybe not! Whatever…


NOTE: I didn’t mention names or places to identify specifics as that would just be mean-spirited and it was only my experience I wished to share. 



  1. Pam says

    sounds to me like the “personal-growth workshop” was the failure – not you! And I really don’t think you need a workshop for “personal growth” – just plenty space to dance and laugh, and maybe the occassional bottle of something fun :)

  2. says

    From the second I met you in 1989, I admired you. Your smart, funny, mischievous ways. I bet that you could teach SHM a thing or two about living life authentically

  3. Jackie says

    Monica, “smart, funny and mischievous” exactly! That’s how you were in Class 1, and still going strong …the very best SHM’s of this world need to learn what you’ve forgotten! Authentic to the core, you are.

  4. Lucy Francois says

    I attended a 4 day workshop on becoming a personal coach and was told I was a hopeless failure because I kept telling my fake mentees what to do! I was supposed to just nod knowingly and let them lead themselves into the place of knowing. Whilst I agreed totally with the seminar leader that I was a failure, I like you, was strangely comfortable with being just that! We cannot be wonderful at all things (well so they say!!!!) I picked up a lovely quote in Nepal – if you have a problem and you can resolve it, then why worry about it, if you have a problem and can’t solve it, then why worry about it! My only problem was that I was sponsored by my company and forced to sit there and endure the pain for 4 days!

  5. Karen Willis says

    OMG you crack me up – I too don’t need anyone’s approval either but those close to me…. yep I’m the balloon too! I’ve done a few workshops over the years and loved some parts of it …BUT I have also grabbed the microphone (yes there were a lot of people there – over 100 at this one) and I told the presenter to go fuck themselves, very loudly more than once! So lovely to read all your latest happenings – warning: I’m coming over to visit real soon :) x

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