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So long self-help, bring on the penance party

The hotel ballroom is packed. At least three hundred people—mostly women in their 20’s and early 30’s— fill the room. The speaker on stage has just completed a brief but aspirational monologue—heavy on poetry and personal struggle; light on substance or advice. But the course is about to turn.

“Life is hard!” she exclaims. “Life is damn hard and not about to get any easier. Let’s help each other! We’re in this mess together! What should we heal tonight?” As soon as the words are out of her mouth, the crowd starts yelling. “Abuse!” screams one woman. “Betrayal,” says another. “Infertility,” cries a third.

“Yes,” the speaker says with a smile. “Let’s unpack all this pain.” And the crowd cheers.

Now this is heady stuff.

It’s a Penance party

For fifty bucks, my fellow sisters (and a few brothers) witnessed something less like therapy, and more like a Sacrament of Penance party. Except this was not in the sanctity of a confession booth, it was, as the speaker explained, through “one-on-one conversational interviews from the stage.”

For almost 90-minutes audience members threw out sensitive (sometimes uncomfortable) topics and the speaker doled advice. There was a lot of laughter, more than a few tears, and the nonstop sound of mad scribbling into notepads. There was music, mood lighting, and a bit of dancing in the aisles. I half-expected to see an open bar at the back of the room.

Is this the return of the revival?

What is going on here? What makes people profess their problems or seek encouragement from a roomful of strangers? Isn’t this material best left to a personal therapist?

Public acts of conciliation are nothing new. Consider the revival—heavily steeped in religion, revivals were part party, part vehicles for the mass conversion of non-believers. Over the years, revivals moved inside: into tents, churches, auditoriums, and yes, ballrooms.

Likewise, support groups have been around for centuries. Faith healing—be it spiritual, supernatural, or paranormal—has inspired throngs of people to publically bare their most intimate transgressions in exchange for a cure.

Self-help in the modern form dates back to 1828 with The Constitution of Man, by Victorian phrenologist George Combe. Today, the industry represents greater than $11 billion a year in the U.S. alone. While books and personal coaching have leveled off, public seminars, like the one I attended, are increasing annually by 6 percent.

The people behind the self-improvement movement go by many names: life coach, spiritual guru, motivational speaker, or teacher. Oprah, Sally Jessy, Dr. Phil, Dear Sugar, and Dr. Laura. The king of them all? Tony Robbins. His most popular live seminar will run you about $1,300 a seat, where you and 5,999 others can Unleash the Power Within. For thirty-eight years he’s been teaching people to overcome their fears (firewalking anyone?) and sharpen their strengths.

Gender or generation

Some say the revival return has to do primarily with gender. Marketdata Enterprises reports that 70 percent of self-improvement purchases are made by women—affluent and educated women. By nature, women process emotions differently than men and physically react to negative stimuli more expressively. Women may choose to participate in public seminars because of the passion and intensity that is generated off their collective reactions.

In 2014, Oprah took her “The Life You Want Weekend” to eight cities, where at each stop upwards of 10,000 women (and 100 evolved men, quipped one attendee) came looking for inspiration on life, love, and work.

Women are also willing to share more personal information publically than men. On social media, they statistically reveal more about their families, preferences, and personal struggles. says, “Women are biologically wired for social networking.”

Kerry Flowers, president of the Flowers Consulting Group, agrees that while demographics are driving the industry’s change, it’s more age-related than gender. He cites that Millennials and Generation Z think in teams rather than as individuals. They appreciate the group atmosphere of seminars over one-to-one therapy.

The ‘Why’ is complicated

The answer to ‘why’ is probably a complicated combination of several factors, including the pure social component. “My friends and I love coming to these events,” says 26-year-old Jennifer Rodal. “We talk about all this stuff with each other, so why wouldn’t we talk about it with everyone? I don’t feel I need to keep the private stuff private. And it’s a great Friday night. We’ll go out after this and keep talking.”

But is anything getting solved at these revival-type seminars? Rodal’s friend Marjorie doesn’t think so. “I feel amazing right now. I’m inspired and excited. We all are. But we’ll probably do another one of these in another couple months. We’ll need it again,” she says with a laugh.

But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. People are talking, sharing, and helping each other.

Whether it be gender, generation, or something in-between, the revival appears to have been reborn.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.