I’m in the office getting ready for next week’s Building a Better Future course, which my husband Peter and I run for people who want to make changes in their lives. The list of names has been shifting all week, some people dropping off because of changes in their circumstances, others being added at the last minute.
We’ve been in the self-development field for many years and have worked on this particular course during the last three. It was initially aimed solely at people who had been in prison, but we soon realised there are many more people needing this kind of input, so opened it up to anyone who is ready and willing to change. We have teamed up with the homelessness charity Crisis and run the course in their Skylight Centre in London four times a year. Participants now include the homeless and recently homeless, people who have struggled with addiction, and those looking for a new way forward. Anyone is welcome as long as they come for the full five days, are prepared to look at themselves and their situation, and are open to change.
We’ve had people of all ages, from young people of 18 through to pensioners; men and women; many nationalities and from all walks of life. Whatever the backgrounds of those in the room, at the end of the week there is a group of people who have been on a journey together, who care about each others’ future and are prepared to offer one another support if it’s needed.
Despite the range of people who attend the course, their issues are often similar: a difficult childhood or traumatic event that caused deep pain, low self-esteem, anger and self-pity. This often led to disengagement with education; violence or crime; substance abuse; and/or mental health issues. Most people are deeply ashamed, but often mask this by blaming their circumstances, other people or society for their ills.
During the week we explore the emotions that control us, discover how to identify them and to release them safely and effectively. We identify the best in us and the worst in us; most people find it much easier to see what is wrong with them than to acknowledge their qualities, but by the end of the week everyone knows their strengths and how they can use those to move forward. We look at our life stories and how they have made us who we are – we take responsibility for the decisions we’ve made, and forgive ourselves for those bits of our lives we aren’t proud of.
We use a variety of processes to achieve this. The key thing is to build trust within the group, and a range of simple exercises help participants get to know each other and feel comfortable in the room. On the first day we look at a model of emotions, allowing people to explore what emotions have dominated their lives and how to manage them; we use discussion and drama to do this. Throughout the week we use relaxation techniques, breathing and visualisation to manage stress, build self-esteem and release old emotions. We use stories, poems, drawing and symbolism to by-pass old thought patterns and explore new ways of looking at things. Once the group has bonded and there is a high level of trust, participants can use a listening circle to express and release the parts of their past that are holding them back. By the end of the week the group knows each other well and are able to give each other powerful feedback that leaves people feeling valued and recognised. The final day involves making a practical action plan for next three months and a simple ritual to leave the past behind and step into a better future.
The course allows people to let go of things that have been holding them back, leave their past behind and to decide what needs to be done to embark on a positive future. There’s a lot of laughter along the way and often a few tears. For many it is healing place and a turning point in their life. It is powerful and effective because it addresses the causes of the participants’ destructive behaviour. Once these have been identified and released, the person is able to move on from their past and start making constructive choices. Whilst the journey is by no means over, participants usually leave with a sense of self-worth feeling that a burden has been lifted from them. This makes it easier for them to address mental health issues, addiction and offending, and so not only improves their life chances, but also reduces the amount the state will spend on them in their lifetime – a week’s investment with a high return in every sense.
So back in the office I’ve done the confirmation calls and am looking forward to meeting those I’ve spoken to. I look at the list and wonder who will arrive and who will not, and who will stay the course. I’m looking forward to getting to know the personalities, hear their stories and witness the struggles and triumphs they experience during the week. But most of all I’m looking forward to learning what each person I share the week with will add to my life.