Last spring, I nervously stepped into a bright pink ballroom. A Meghan Trainor song was blaring and women were dancing, hugging one another, and shrieking. “So, this is what a women’s retreat is like,” I thought to myself as I looked around.

I offered a small smile to the girls in the room as I quickly beelined to a seat in the corner. As I settled in, I checked my phone, hoping it was almost time to begin, but there were still ten minutes before the event started. Part of me hoped no one would sit next to me so I wouldn’t have to make small talk. Another part of me hoped someone would so I wouldn’t look so obviously alone.

I had to be willing to open up. This was my first women’s retreat and I wanted to conquer it myself. I’d made a point to not ask any of my girlfriends to come with me. But as I sat alone, surrounded by a room of happy-go-lucky girls, I suddenly wished I’d had the comfort of a friend alongside me.

When I looked up from my phone, a girl with wavy black hair caught my eye. “Is anyone sitting with you?” she asked. I shook my head.

“Come sit with us!” she offered, nodding to a friendly-looking brunette next to her. A wave of relief washed over me. By nature, I’m an introvert. When I feel uncomfortable, I take on the I-don’t-need-anyone attitude. But, I knew I needed to let go of that mindset this weekend if I wanted to grow and make connections.

I met some really nice girls that first day. As it turns out, they were all as excited and nervous as I was. It was refreshing to be around others who felt the same way. The speakers were inspiring and moving. I hung on their every word and vigorously took notes. The different sessions encouraged us to be raw and deep with the women we’d only just met.

It was equally scary, difficult, and empowering. I was as honest as I possibly could be. I opened up, smiled at everyone, and even initiated conversations.  But as I went back to my hotel room for the night, I felt like I wasn’t doing it right. I didn’t feel how I thought I’d feel. Some of the women around me were so fired up, as they ended the day with hugging, crying, and new best friends. I had made progress, but I wasn’t quite there. 

The following day, I noticed myself feeling more and more estranged from everyone. The speakers and artists were so moving and impactful. I felt tears getting trapped inside my throat, but I was afraid to let them out. The women around me were openly crying and holding each other, but I kept holding it in as the lump in my throat grew. Negative thoughts and worries whirled around in my head, as my stomach tightened and the old, familiar feeling of massive self-judgment returned.

The turning point occurred toward the end of day two. We were led through an exercise that required vulnerability and a willingness to be supported. All 500 attendees were instructed to walk around the ballroom, hold hands with another woman, and tell her one thing that was beautiful in her. We’d then move on to the next woman and repeat the exercise.

To each woman, I gave my most honest impression of what I found beautiful about her. You’d think this would be difficult considering I’d never spoken to most of them, but as soon as I saw these women, eyes shining with hope to hear what makes them beautiful, I had no problem genuinely seeing the unique beauty in each of them.

It may sound corny, but I’ve never experienced depth like that with most people, let alone a complete stranger. It was an experienced that could only come from being completely open and vulnerable.

Then, the highlight of my weekend came from one of the very last compliments I received. As I locked eyes with a girl I’d never met, she said, “I noticed you a few times throughout the weekend and I thought you were beautiful. You have such a brightness about you!”

I teared up and gave her a big hug. That moment was so impactful for me because I’d been beating myself up all weekend. I’d been so busy telling myself this story that I wasn’t doing it right; that I didn’t fit in, while an outsider saw nothing but good in me.

That weekend, I learned there’s so much strength in being vulnerable. Leaning on one another takes bravery, and that’s something I learned from every woman in the room. At the end of the day we’re stronger together than we are apart.

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