I’ve written before about my social anxiety, which I think I always had to a certain degree. I was a shy child, but the real serious social anxiety started in my early teens and persisted halfway through college. I didn’t start to discover the solution for it until I went to Israel for a study abroad semester… well, not really discover… rather, the solution came to me. The solution was travel.
I can’t say I don’t still sometimes experience social anxiety or anxiety in general, but it’s much, much less than it ever was. Travel forced me to sit with my alone-ness and realized that I was strong and independent enough to stand up for myself and navigate my own choices and desires. Travel forced me to talk to strangers and to make friends (even with cacti – see the featured photo). If I didn’t like someone, I never had to see them again. I could be myself. I could recreate my social circle.
The travel itch and scratch came in waves – first was a month in Greece, then six months in Israel, then ten months in Czech Republic. And that last one turned into three years and counting. Baby steps – but effective ones that allowed me, over time, to grow into myself as a person and manage my anxiety until it was practically non-existent.
There are two more ways I’ve noticed a big change.
For one thing, I’m more patient and open with plans. In the past, plans had to be scheduled to a T. I had to know exactly what I’d be doing, with whom, and where, in order to feel safe. Now, I’m open. You don’t have time now? Okay, we’ll do it later. Stop by when you have a free moment. No rush – I’ll be around. If not, another day. You suddenly don’t feel like going to this place? Fine, we can find another.
I’m also more willing to meet people where they are. Before, the personalities of others were my personal barrier. To protect myself, I would put people into categories. “Sympathetic.” “Brisk.” “Can’t read them.” “Seems nice but I’m not sure.” “Flexible.” “Superficial.” I would assume this person would always stay the same – that one experience with them was the be-all and end-all of my perception of them. I would brace myself around people I didn’t feel comfortable with. I would sometimes force myself into interactions with them just to be cool, not to seem too uptight. Ironic, right? (Or I’d just avoid them and look awkward as hell.)
On the one hand, now, I simply don’t give people I don’t like my time. I know what I want and what I don’t – that’s one thing about coming to terms with social anxiety. On the other hand, I simply have more tolerance for people’s personalities. They don’t have to be “my type of person” 100%. They are who they are, just as I am who I am. I am not so quick to judge, and am more relaxed to the idea that someone might be having an off day. I can’t control other people – I can only control my reactions to them. And that takes time and patience, but with yourself.
I don’t know how much living in Europe has influenced this exactly. I think it’s a side effect of travel in general, and of course also of me getting older. But the more relaxed atmosphere and feeling of having all the time in the world – as well as the necessity to allow time for Czechs to warm up to a stranger – is certainly infectious.
How has travel changed you?