Embracing Loneliness: A Solo Traveler's Guide
My first solo time abroad was after I had my heart broken, and graduated from college all within the same two week period. It was such a toxic time in my life that I didn't believe I would make it out of college without having a mental breakdown.
Where would I go? What would I do?
How could I imagine a life without my significant other? Someone who, if I'm being honest here, I had started putting all of my happiness on. All I saw in front of me was a dark tunnel. I yearned to be back on my Semester at Sea, where I seemed to understand where I was heading. What I was going to do with my life. The confidence. The clarity. The excitement I felt each, and every day.
After laying in bed, barely going to my classes, and only eating out of the same dominos box for a week, I realized my self love level was at an all time low. I felt like I was completely numb and that was starting to scare me. Everyone probably knows this by now, but the movie that really stuck with me during this time was Eat, Pray, Love. After reading the book and watching the movie at least five thousand times, I started to contemplate everything I accomplished when I was abroad. The person I used to be so assured, and happy with. I didn't know who the person in that bed was, and I needed to know I was capable of more.
It was time to get out of bed and prove all of this to myself.
I talked to my dad about using my graduation money on a trip to visit my friend in Italy. But I was straight with him, I was going to do this solo, and explore some other countries. No plan, just winging it. There were a few points made that really helped my case. First, I would start out the trip seeing my friend in Italy, who could be there for me in an emergency. Second, at the end of the trip I planned to visit my family in Germany, and third, I was so depressed even my dad could see I needed this. Therefore, despite the fact that he had just watched Taken, he let me go.
I packed that night, and we moved all of my stuff into a storage locker the next day. Some of my friends were nervous for me, and after seeing me in bed for the past two weeks I don't really blame them. However, things seemed to fall into place once I got my one-way ticket to Italy, which is how I knew I made the right decision.
Of course, I was nervous but the excitement and exhilaration tugged at my bones. Here's why I usually recommend traveling solo after a break up: every task you accomplish is a big deal. You made it from the Florence airport to your hostel? You go girl. You went for a walk in the sunshine, and visited the duomo today? Love that. It's a way to build yourself back up, away from everything you know in that comfort zone of yours, the one you shared with your ex. You immediately separate yourself from the life you had with that person, which is one of the key aspects to healing and moving forward. Thinking about yourself rather than what the other person is feeling or doing.
Something to note however, is that loneliness will creep in when traveling solo, even if you're not coming out of a break up. It's very natural for this to happen, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. If anything, it can be taken as something to embrace. Not shy away from.
Back then, I would feel it so deeply and intensely that I thought there was always something I needed to do for myself so I wouldn't feel lonely. That I was broken and needed to be doing better, fixing it in some way. While a part of that might have been true, there's only so much that you can do. At some point, it's about embracing it. I now feel it at times and know that it is something to appreciate. I will say, it happens less, now that I've been to so many places alone. When it happens today, I kind of smile and think to myself, I'm never truly alone. That the universe has gotten me out of some sketchy situations and there's always other lonely souls around looking to make friends.
You are never alone.
Everyone always asks the same questions when they find out I travel solo: "What's your favorite place you've been to?" (like I could choose just one), "Isn't it scary to do it alone?" (depends on where you go, and how smart you're going to be) and, of course, "Don't you get lonely?"
To which I answer yes, of course. I'm human. I like to think of it as time to reflect on myself and the world around me. If there's anything quarantine taught us, it's that maybe we needed that, right? It's time to be still with ourselves. Well, it can become rather spiritual when you do it as you travel. The level of introspection that comes from it can be enlightening. Whether you are spiritual or not, I think this kind of thought around the loneliness is what enhances your confidence at the end of the day. It's walking along the Seine river on a beautiful day and thinking how incredible this world is, rather than thinking the day would be better with someone by your side. It's knowing that you are beautifully, essentially whole in every way. That your happiness depends on you. Not on anyone else.
By no means am I saying that I was fully confident after traveling solo, but it does help little by little. You learn more about yourself when you are stuck in a negative situation, out of your home country, in a place you've never been before rather than if you'd had something happen at home. In which case, you would probably lean on your friends and/or family. That's just something I believe. Which is why when negative things happen now, I kind of take a moment to feel it, but then understand that everything happens for a reason. Even those darker moments when you go through a break up, or grieve a death. At the end of the day we have to do what we can to survive, to feel better, to move forward. To help ourselves through it.
Here are my best tips to embracing the loneliness (when traveling solo):
1. Rest & Rejuvenation
Often when I was first going solo I felt the need to do what I normally would do at home. Over schedule myself. This way I could distract myself from what was really going on. Truth is, this is going to make it harder for you to actually deal with what you're feeling. Take the time you need to just sit with the emotions, the changes going on. It's not an easy task whatsoever, but it allows you to let the emotions out in a healthy way. To take a moment to soak it all in. Take a walk around the town, find a tour you can do solo for the day. Whatever you choose, just take the time you need. Soak it all in with a walk around town, or sitting in the nearest garden or beach with a journal.
Listen to yourself. Listen to what you need right now in this moment.
2. Positive Thoughts
What definitely worked for me is changing my thoughts, especially when I am alone. You are forced to bond with yourself when you're traveling solo. Suddenly you realize, "wow, I'm pretty hard on myself" or "I'm not that much fun to be around." That is the beginning of understanding your own thoughts and how you can change them.
Thinking of this in simple terms, you wouldn't want to travel with someone who is negative, right? That would be a downer. Why would you want to be alone with this person? The same goes for your thoughts, treating yourself the way you would your favorite person. Building yourself up to understand all the reasons why you should want to be with yourself. If you don't want to be around you, why would anyone else want to?
Soon enough, you will be your favorite person to travel with if you can learn to alter those thoughts and appreciate every thing you do. Even when you make a mistake, which believe me they are natural and will happen so often when traveling, you will learn to laugh at it all, rather than punishing yourself or reacting negatively. This used to be one of my biggest hurdles, now its something I can look back on with confidence in myself.
3. Wandering Solo
The saying goes, we always want what we don't have right? When we're crazy busy, we want some alone time. When we finally get the alone time, we crave social interaction. When we travel with someone else, we don't always get to do what we want to do. But traveling solo, makes you think of other people. It's engraved in us from such a young age, we don't often realize how it affects us. So if you're doing it solo, the challenge for you is to take a day or two every week and think of things you want to see, what you want to do. Write all of it down. Book at least one of them every week. Have you been dying to get scuba certified? lets book that class this Thursday. It forces you to push through that uncomfortable feeling. Those moments when you're scared and there's no one to lean on but yourself and the world around you. Even if it's just wandering on a hike, do it. Even if you make friends on your trip (which everyone does) stick to the plan. One or two days every week. Just you.
One of the scariest aspects of this that will arise is where your thoughts lead you. You might end up sitting in a park crying under a tree (happened to me in Nice, France) but let it happen. Continue to turn those thoughts into positives as well, and you might find something profound. If your immediate thoughts lead you to a negative situation think, look at where I am now because of it.
It's beautiful how it all plays out.
4. Nix the Anti-Social Culture
We are the anti social culture. It's so common to want to put your earphones in and reject the world around you. Or go on your phone when there's no one familiar around. There's a time and place for this, and it is not going to help you when you're wandering the streets or hiking around. If you want to make friends around the world, you have to move away from your "norm" and open yourself up to random conversation. Most likely, people are going to be incredibly open where you are (unless you're in a closed off culture, to which I say you're going to have to try a little harder sorry 'bout it). When random people talk to you, do not be wary. Just don't be stupid. Am I going to have a conversation with this stranger I just met at my hostel? Yes. Am I going to go out alone with this man I just met? No. Instead, you could strike up a conversation with a few other people and ask if everyone wants to go out together to the local pub. Or see what others are doing tomorrow, ask to join in for the day. I've never had someone flat out say no to me. Know why?
Because we all get lonely. Everyone around you.
And everyone who is traveling solo out there in the world, we all have something in common: we are seekers. We seek something new, exciting, out of our comfort zones. We are open to new possibilities. Even just travelers in general. It is the kindest, and most open community you will ever be a part of. Embrace that with every chance you get. At some point, you will look back and miss those moments. What you will never regret is putting your phone away. I never look back and say man, I wish I was on my phone. Think about that the next time you're on it surrounded by potential friends.
5. Look At What Works
Do more of what works for you. Sounds simple enough. In reality, it takes some time to figure out what does work. I always thought I was a planner for the most part but when I planned everything out as I traveled I felt like it was kind of exhausting. Often times, I also found better things to do once I got to the place.
Today, I might even fully wing-it on some trips. Things change and you find out what you like, what works for you. It might surprise you with what you loved most about a trip, and what you actually could do less of for the next time. Do more of what makes you happy. Not what you think you should be doing or what other people tell you to do. So many people told me not to travel solo, but it works for me and I love it. I think every moment that you travel solo should be thought of in the "will I regret it" state of mind. Weigh out the negatives and positives, but then ask yourself will I regret doing it, or not doing it. Regrets are the worst possible thing to have. This is because we never truly know how things will play out in our lives, how much time we have to spend (I often think of time like a currency, which is why I don't like to waste it).
Do more of what makes you happy.