What I learned on the world’s toughest therapy retreat…

Sophie Goddard
·10-min read
Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

Im on my knees in a conference room, music pulsating in my ears. I have a yellow plastic bat in one hand and I am beating a pillow with it. Beating it hard. The only sound I can hear above the pulsing music is the steady thwack of bats and the 23 others around me – strangers until a few days ago – screaming and shouting as their bats slam down. We’ve been going for 20 minutes. We have another 40 to go. My back is damp with sweat, and despite the bandages provided, my fingers are already blistered and bleeding. An ache is building in my shoulders. How did I end up here?

Five months earlier, I’d been going through what you’d call a rough patch. I was 34 and single, and one by one, friends seemed to be slowly peeling away from me, forming families of their own. I had no idea what my own future held, and that thought – along with the growing sense of loneliness that came with it – became a constant companion.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Relationships within my own family felt strained, thanks to an ongoing rift, and as an only child with one surviving parent, I found myself struggling to cope with issues arising from my mum’s ill health. I noticed a sad lump forming in my throat when friends celebrated good news. That lump really worried me. I felt like I was becoming someone else – someone I wasn’t sure I liked much.

One night, I found myself at home, my face lit up by the blue screen as I trawled Google for answers. I may as well have typed “help me” into the search bar. A few pages in, I came across the Hoffman Process. It looked hardcore. Therapy, but not as I knew it: no phones, no contact with the outside world and no alcohol for two weeks beforehand, as well as a mountain of paperwork. Then there was the cost – £3,300 (there is a payment plan, and options for those who are struggling – I used the former).

The reviews were great, but they offered no guarantees it would be worth spending that much money. I sat on it for a few weeks until a friend gently nudged me into visiting an open evening (“Don’t worry, I’ll ask the questions, you just tag along!” she assured me gamely). There, bold promises of “improving relationships” and “discovering who you really are” sounded too good to be true. Could one week change my life? Honestly, I felt I had nothing to lose. Here’s what happened…

I’m parked outside Florence House, the Sussex venue where the Hoffman Process takes place. It’s a tall, rather grand-looking country house, with a sweeping drive and an unnerving number of windows. As I watch people start to arrive, I feel my stomach lurch. I don’t think I’ve ever been this anxious. What if it’s awful? What will my roommates be like? (Yes, roommates are part of the package, unless you pay extra.)

Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography
Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography

I remind myself I have some idea of what to expect – we’ve completed extensive coursework, and I’ve spoken with the Hoffman team at length on the phone. But as I drag my suitcase up the drive and wait to hand over my belongings, I’m filled with dread. While being stripped of my phone for a week is daunting, I’m actually most worried about the strict no-exercise policy (vetoed since it has the ability to change our mood, they explained). Even long walks are out and, as somebody who relies on the gym for endorphins, I wonder how I’ll cope.

Standing in the reception area,I discreetly steal a glance around. It’s difficult to tell who works here (as well as the course facilitators, there are staff who work at Florence House itself hurrying around) and who, like me, is here for the deep stuff. It’s mostly women so far, but I spot a couple of men milling around, too. Most of us seem unsure, fidgeting in our seats or with jewellery. As I reach the front of the queue to check in, I take a deep breath. No turning back now…

Scanning the dining room as we all congregate for our first full day, I make eye contact with the people next to me, who are clearly wondering what on earth they’ve signed up for too.
I’m reassured by how friendly my roommates – two women, around my age – seem. The rooms are sizeable but basic, dotted with single beds, with views of the countryside. Like me, they admit they’ve never done anything like this before. We don’t discuss what’s brought us here, and it feels too probing to ask.

Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography
Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography

We’ve already been introduced to the facilitators leading the programme, which draws on a combination of NLP, CBT, mindfulness, psychodynamic and Gestalt work. Over the coming week, we’ll be doing everything from meditation and guided visualisations to more “physically expressive” exercises. There’s something freeing about knowing that everyone here is just like me – searching for answers – and within hours of us gathering in the dining room, I’ve gone from shyly introducing myself to discussing things so personal I haven’t shared them with my closest friends.

By the time the “bashing” part comes around, I barely recognise myself as I smash the bat down with such force I veer dangerously towards my neighbour’s pillow. As our voices grow louder, I watch the words and negative patterns we’ve written and placed on our pillows – things like “unavailable” and “defensive” – get torn into smaller pieces by the bats, floating away into the air.

Today we reach the most intriguing part of the course. Upon arrival, we were told there were some “surprise” elements involved, and that much of its effectiveness is thanks to this. The hush-hush of it all panicked me (in a moment of paranoia I called to ask whether being naked was involved – it’s definitely not).

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

In the end, it makes total sense. We’re told, quite firmly, that we cannot tell anyone what is involved (knowing what lies ahead could stop the technique being as effective), although it centres around caregivers in early life (in my case, my parents) and the negative behaviours we learn from them. But it’s not just bashing (quite literally) our upbringings,
or blaming them. Instead, we’re encouraged to show – or at least be open to the possibility of showing – compassion, respectfully honouring their caregiver roles before “severing the umbilical cord”. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and I sleep deeply.

First thing each day, we’re asked how we’re feeling – “I’m fine” or “OK” is off-limits. Instead, we’re prompted to use more specific, Hoffman-approved words, like “excited” or “optimistic”. Today, I tell my group leader, I’m “upset” – only to be firmly reprimanded. “‘Upset’ doesn’t mean anything, Sophie – do you feel afraid, or frustrated?” she offers.

Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography
Photo credit: Matt Bode Photography

At times, I’m pushed so much I feel like snapping. But I also notice how much more comfortable I’m becoming speaking in a group about experiencesthat I once found embarrassing, or shameful. And, in turn, how speaking about those things makes them feel smaller somehow, and much less significant.

One of the reasons the process intrigued me so much is because of the physical work involved – today, there’s plenty of that. While I can’t go into much detail (sorry), there are elements of role play and “expressive exercises” (hello again, GCSE drama).

At mealtimes – today we’re allowed to chat, sometimes we have to eat in silence – I notice how we delve into topics that dinner-table talk wouldn’t ordinarily deal with. I suppose now we’ve all seen each other bawling our eyes out over our childhoods, chat about the weather feels a bit trite.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Weirdly, I haven’t missed my phone. Someone makes a joke that the Queen could have died, and it strikes me as bizarre that this could have happened and we wouldn’t know.

I’m beginning to feel apprehensive about leaving. Every minute of each day here is so structured, I worry if everything I’ve learned will come crashing down once real life resumes. Today, we work on setting our vision for the future – where we see ourselves, but also what might trigger us (like, erm, a global pandemic?). A lot of the work we do is written down in notebooks, but plenty is shared as a large group, too. I suppose there’s a sense of accountability that way. We’re reassured there’s a network of support once we leave, and one of the group members promises to set up a WhatsApp chat so we can stay in touch. In smaller groups, we discuss steps we’ll take when we leave, and I surprise myself by announcing I’m getting a dog. Where did that come from? Everybody agrees it’s a great idea, so I suppose that’s that, then.


It’s recommended you take time out post-process, alone, to acclimatise to the “real” world. I book an Airbnb in a small village in Sussex and, after saying an emotional goodbye to the friends I’ve made, I drive with my phone off until I arrive, nervous about turning it on. I needn’t have been – not much has happened, but seeing a flurry of messages asking how it went feels heartwarming.

I spend the next two days mulling over the week’s events with a dazed grin on my face and, as I walk in the countryside, I notice how bright and loud everything seems, as though the volume’s been turned up on my life.

I chose to complete the process a few days before my 35th birthday – a milestone I’d been dreading. Another year celebrating being single – no closer to marriage, children or any of the things I’d imagined I’d have at 35 – had felt a little bleak.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

But, incredibly, I had one of my best birthdays ever. At an impromptu gathering in a pub with a few friends, each gesture, gift and message felt moving in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Similarly, returning to my flat post-process, I realised my best friend had let herself in to decorate it with balloons, gifts, flowers and a “welcome home” banner. I burst into tears – and I’m not really a crier. What had happened to me?

Of course, friends asked if I felt different. Change, though, is difficult to measure – while I feel happier and more like myself again, life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. Some relationships remain strained, and many of the issues I was struggling with still challenge me greatly.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I suppose the difference is my awareness in the part I play, and the knowledge that it’s up to me to parent myself in a way I perhaps wasn’t parented (no shade to my mum, she did the very best she could). Serena Gordon, the co-founder of Hoffman Process UK, likens it to grabbing an oxygen mask as we’re plummeting in emotional freefall. That rings true. While I can’t stop certain situations from occurring, I can try to pause before reacting in a more conscious way. But it takes work – when I feel myself slipping into negative behaviours, I force myself to reconnect with my Hoffman workbook and tools.

Still, there has been one significant change – as I write this, a tiny puppy is nestled in my lap. And as her paw pats my knee, reminding me it’s time for a walk, I feel a lump in my throat realising how far I’ve come. This time, though, it’s the good kind.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Cosmopolitan UK. You can SUBSCRIBE HERE for future issues.

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