In January 2017, I was dealing with pretty debilitating grief, and all of the anxieties and emotional ambushes that come with it. In a move that was arguably out of character, I quit my job, got a one way ticket to Bangkok and didn't look back for 18 months.
Solo travel is terrifying and liberating all at once. It's a sharp shock to your perceptions and prejudices, that forces you to learn as much about yourself as the places you visit. Home truths inevitably get served - sometimes cold and stark- but they can give you the prompts you need to ultimately grow and develop as a person...
Being an introvert isn't the same as being antisocial
I’ve always pegged myself as an introvert, as I’m sometimes exhausted rather than energised by hyper-social situations. But here’s the thing – being an introvert isn’t the same as being antisocial. By giving myself a nice convenient label I was masking social anxiety and an unwillingness to put myself in uninviting situations that were actually healthy for me.
It’s a cliche for a reason – solo travel really does make you a more social creature. It puts you in scenarios where your only choice is to smile and extend a hand, and on my journey I remembered that I genuinely enjoy interacting with strangers. My introversion isn’t misanthropy, it just means that sometimes I need my own company for a bit, to reflect and re-energise.
And that’s the beauty of solo travel – when you feel it’s time to put your feet up and read a book, no one can force you to do otherwise.
First impressions are fundamentally worthless
We all make judgement calls on people based upon first impressions, archetypes and prejudices. Solo travel reminded me how futile this line of thinking is. Someone whom I’d flag as brash or rude ended up being sensitive and thoughtful, and vice versa. Fast friends drifted away, forced conversations evolved into beautiful friendships – after a while it became clear that first impressions are essentially worthless, and that it’s always worth getting to know people on a deeper level.
Everyone has a worthwhile story to tell, and people will continuously surprise you.
Self-compassion is something we can all practise
Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.’ In an era of ballooning rates for anxiety, depression and eating disorders, this now reads less like egotistical wit and more like sound advice. The western mantra of relentless perfectionism makes us all bully ourselves, to some degree.
As I journeyed through Asia, Australia and New Zealand I realised I wasn’t as compassionate to myself as I was to the people I loved. I blamed myself harshly for things that were outside of my control; I negated my talents and achievements and dwelled on my insufficiencies. Solo travel gave me an opportunity to clear out some of the cobwebs cluttering my mind and be more mindful about my thinking patterns.
As I travelled I read up on stoic philosophy and I learned to listen to myself. I noted the type of language I’d use when I made a mistake, and I noticed that aggressive self criticism was having a pretty significant impact on my thoughts and actions. Through meditation and mindfulness I learned to be more compassionate with myself, and had a lot more clarity about what I wanted to achieve and what I was capable of achieving.
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Grief is a rite of passage
According to Elisabeth Kubler’s famous framework, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In my experience its more like being randomly punched in the face by feelings that are not so easily categorised. Grief is a fundamentally isolating experience, posing questions about how the self can cope with loss and sudden change. Travelling solo provides a microcosm of this – the dizzy individual trying to negotiate an entirely alien landscape.
Grief makes you feel like the whole world has ended. When I travelled I spent some of my days just wandering around new cities, silent and reflective – just comforted that the planet was still spinning on its axis. When you travel you feel an intimate connection to the earth and its people, and it was consoling to know that these disparate faces and races all have gone or will go through the same thing as me. In time I remembered that death and grief were all part of our shared experience – a universal rite of passage – and that I was only ever as solo as I wanted to be.