For the last eight months, I’ve been a solo traveler, wandering around Europe and Central America while working as a digital nomad. Sometimes friends joined me for short periods, sometimes I stayed with friends in their homes, and sometimes I was facilitating workshops where I was surrounded by people. Mostly, though, I traveled alone.
“How do you deal with the loneliness?” That’s the question I heard most frequently when people learned I was traveling alone. Some of those people wanted to try solo travel but were afraid they’d be too lonely, some couldn’t imagine ever traveling alone and were incredulous that I had, and some were projecting their own fear of abandonment or isolation onto my story.
I understand the question, and have empathy even for those making projections, because I had some of those same fears when I set out on this journey. There’s also a part of me, though, that believes the question itself is worth interrogating for what’s under the surface.
The subtext I heard under the question was a belief that “together” is always better than “alone” – that “together” is the solution and “alone” is the problem. When we are together, we believe ourselves to have social capital, to be wanted, to be whole; when we are alone we believe ourselves to have less cultural value, to be rejected, to be less-than-whole.
It’s not true though – together and alone each have value, and I, for one, need a balance of both in my life. Though I value my relationships greatly, when I go through long stretches without any solitude, I don’t know how to listen to the deepest parts of myself and that’s when I tend to abandon myself the most.
Also, contrary to the assumption that many people make when they discover I travel alone, “alone” isn’t the same as “lonely”. “Alone” is a state of being. “Lonely” is a feeling that comes from a particular longing and feeling of lack, and that feeling can come whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. I’ve had some of my most lonely feelings when I’m the least alone, and some of my least lonely when I’m enjoying solitude.
As Maya Angelou says, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly if a thing is desired at any cost, it will be obtained at all costs. We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God”
There was a time when I would have judged myself – based on the hierarchical value our culture places on relationships – to have less value as a single person, especially when I’m traveling alone, and that judgement would have caused me to experience more self-pity and self-criticism and therefore more loneliness. That’s no longer a yardstick on which I measure myself, however, so my trip was full of a lot of joyful, peaceful solitude – just the way I like it. Even when a few people very pointedly asked me where my husband was and why I didn’t have one, I was able to laugh it off and not get weighed down by people’s judgement. I am very fond of my primary relationships, and I was glad when I had companionship on this trip, but I also love myself and I can be quite content spending many days alone. I don’t need anyone else to affirm that that’s okay – I KNOW it is.
With all of that said, there were still, of course, some moments when I was lonely, especially when I would get up in my head with thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt. Because this trip was partly about learning to know myself on an even deeper level and being tender with the most vulnerable parts of me, I paid attention to those moments to see what I could learn from them. Here are a few things I discovered:
– Almost every time I moved to a new location, the first day felt a little lonely as I learned to navigate my new surroundings. Once I knew how to navigate (i.e. where to buy groceries, where to catch the bus/water-taxi, etc.), the loneliness dissipated. In other words, loneliness was at least partially attached to feelings of incompetence or insecurity.
– I noticed my aloneness most when I was surrounded by other people who had family or friends with them and I was the only solo traveler (like when I’d go on an organized tour and was jealous of the parents who had their kids with them). In other words, loneliness was often about comparison and jealousy.
– I rarely felt lonely when I was in a location with great places to walk. That made me realize that loneliness was at least sometimes connected to boredom and/or restlessness and when I could get out and move my body, it would often go away.
– Similarly, I felt less lonely when I had access to good public transportation and knew that I could easily hop on a bus, train or boat to go exploring. In other words, loneliness was connected to feelings of isolation, restriction and lack of mobility.
– The least lonely locations were those that were near water or other large bodies of water. There’s something about water that soothes my nervous system and helps me feel connected to myself and to the natural world. In other words, loneliness is also about disconnection from nature and disconnection from what makes me feel most alive.
The shortened version of the above reflections is that loneliness is related to: incompetence, insecurity, comparison, jealousy, boredom, restlessness, isolation, restriction, lack of mobility, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from what brings me joy.
Here’s my even shorter conclusion: Loneliness isn’t about aloneness, it’s about disconnection.
Loneliness is a signpost, pointing toward the road ahead, and the words on it are “Make Deeper Connections”. Those connections don’t necessarily need to be with other people – often a deeper connection with myself (body, mind and spirit) or with the natural world will make the loneliness dissipate just as quickly as a connection with another person.
With this new awareness, I started to be more intentional about how I responded to loneliness when it appeared. First, I received it with tenderness, not judging myself for feeling it and not trying to chase it away. Sometimes that involved putting my hand on my heart, and sometimes it involved some tears (a good release is often the best “cure”). Then, when I was ready to make a move in the direction of connection, I tried one of the following:
– I pushed myself to have a conversation with a stranger. As an introvert, conversations with strangers don’t often happen naturally, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was always worth it though. I made quite a few short-term friendships, and some of them went surprisingly deep, nourishing my need for intimacy.
– I texted a daughter/sister/friend and sometimes asked for a Zoom chat.
– I did something that helped me feel connected to the natural world. Swimming, walking, bird watching, taking pictures of beautiful things – those almost always help to shift the ache.
– I did something that helped me feel more connected with myself. Journal writing, a massage, tenderness practice, a nap, listening to a podcast, reading a book, mindfulness, “hammocking”, etc.
– I went on social media to connect with my community. Of course, social media can have the opposite effect and make a person feel more lonely instead of less, but I try to pay attention to that and stay off when it’s not feeling healthy.
There might have been a time in my life when I thought I’d fix or transcend these human conditions like loneliness, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth, or that they’d at least shrink in size and no longer be a problem I’d have to face, but that day is long past. Now I realize that life isn’t about fixing ourselves or evolving into beings who don’t feel these emotions – it’s about acceptance, tenderness, self-love, forgiveness and grace. It’s about learning to hold space for ourselves and then turning around to offer that to other people as well. It’s also about rejecting the measuring sticks that our cultures impose and learning to love ourselves unconditionally.
The older I get, the more time I spend in a place called self-love.
It’s not a destination I have fully settled into yet, but at least I spend more time there than I used to. It’s not just a hotel that I visit a couple of times a year – it’s an apartment I’ve furnished with some of my favourite books, artwork and comfortable furniture.
There are moments when I want to stay in that apartment, but I get pulled back to old familiar locations, like self-criticism, self-doubt, body shame, insecurity and fear of abandonment. When I make a mistake that hurts someone, when someone criticizes me, when my old trauma is triggered, or when I haven’t been tending my membranes and I’ve extended myself to the point of exhaustion – those are all times when it’s harder to stay in my cozy apartment with my favourite things. That’s when I use my tenderness practices to soothe my body/mind/heart and eventually I find my way back.
Before I made tenderness an important part of my life, I used to go on self-defeating loops in my mind. First I’d get triggered into self-criticism and fear of abandonment. Then, because I’d read a lot of self-help books about the importance of self-love, I’d try to find my way back there. Because I was already in self-criticism mode, though, I’d start to blame myself for not being better at self-love. Of course, that loop never served me well because personal growth can not happen in a place of self-criticism.
When I interviewed her for Know Yourself, Free Yourself, my friend, psychologist Dr. Jo Unger told me that “we react to self-criticism with defensiveness, just as we would when receiving criticism from others. We try to protect ourselves and we defend our choices and behaviours.” In other words, we become our own worst enemies, creating a war within our own heads.
How do we get out of these loops, then? How do we find our way to self-love when the self-critical parts of us keep blocking the path? Once I started on this Liberation and Tenderness journey I’ve been on, I started to find a few answers to those questions.
Firstly, I learned about systems theory and began to realize that my own tendency toward self-criticism and fear of abandonment wasn’t just a personal failing but was designed into the systems I was born into. That was an important piece for me, because it meant that I was neither fully responsible for developing (or dismantling) the self-critical parts of myself, nor was I solely responsible for my lack of self-love. (It also meant that my family and community were not solely responsible – the systems were much bigger and more complex than that.)
Capitalism, for example (a meta-system that infiltrates every other layer), doesn’t want me to find genuine self-love because then I might stop buying things to try to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. Capitalism wants me to keep seeing my body as shameless, because then it can convince me to buy all the body-shaping clothes, all the age-defying creams, all the self-help books, all the beauty products, and all the diet plans. If I love myself too much, and everyone else does the same, we might stop feeding the growth that capitalism relies on to live.
Contrary to what some of the self-help books teach, self-criticism is not just an inside job. It’s been shaped by many forces, from our earliest days of life. Unless we understand that, it doesn’t matter how many self-help books we read. We might get better at self-care, and perhaps even self-acceptance, but genuine self-love will remain illusive.
Secondly, I learned that, though I’ve been shaped by systems and the systems are still alive in me (and I help shape systems), I still have the freedom to make choices. I am not a slave to the systems. I can choose to heal the trauma that has left me with a fear of abandonment. I can find community support instead of trying to face this challenge as an individual. I can choose to deconstruct the beliefs that the system has convinced me I can’t live without. I can choose to challenge the voices in my head that tell me I need to climb the ladder of acceptability to be worthy of safety and belonging and I can work with my community to co-create spaces where the ladder has no value.
As Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in The Body is Not an Apology, we can choose to collectively dismantle the ladder. “Divest from this ladder. It’s only real because we keep trying to climb it. We have no more use for it. When I don’t have the ladder to climb and I understand my natural birthrights, the ladder is imaginary. We already came here with everything we need to be destined to be who we came here for.”
Thirdly, I discovered that Tenderness was my path back to self-love (no matter how many times I get triggered into self-criticism or self-doubt). When I started to experience Tenderness as an external entity (as I wrote about in The House That Tenderness Built), something that was always available to me whenever I chose to receive it, I found I no longer had to rely solely on my own internal resources (resources that often got blocked by self-criticism) to get to self-love. I could simply trust in it, the same way I trust nature to hold me when I go for walks in the woods.
When I write conversations with Tenderness in my journal, she teaches me how to treat myself and how to divest from the ladder. When I soothe my body with Tenderness practices, she reminds me how valuable, beautiful, and sensual my body is even if it doesn’t measure up to capitalist beauty standards. She reminds me again and again that I am worthy of love and she silences the voice of self-criticism.
“Everything is a candidate for inquiry,” says Gabor Maté, “even intensely negative experiences like self-loathing. Rather than admonishing ourselves for hating ourselves, we can be curious as to why self-hatred arrived on the scene in the first place. A question posed in that spirit often illuminates. When the beauty in us can compassionately accept the beast – allow it to ‘be our guest,’ if you will – the latter may transform into a handsome and loving companion; at the very least, it can relax and stop hounding us so ravenously.”
That brings me to some thoughts about what self-love really is. Last week, during a lunchtime conversation at Brave Earth, British-Chilean artist and activist Felipe Viveros shared that in mapudungun (the language of Mapuche people, an Indigenous tribe in Chile) there is no word for hate. “Ayün”, the word used for love, means that there is a special kind of light in your eyes and that I can see myself reflected in that light. The only way to understand hate, then, is to say that the light in your eyes has gone out and I am no longer able to see myself reflected.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about that in relation to self-love. When I look in the mirror, I want to be able to see myself reflected back to me through the light of my own eyes. I want to stand in that light and nurture it for so long that it is never at risk of going out. I want that light to shine as brightly as it can so that everyone I meet can see themselves reflected.
Another conversation this week had a similar impact. My friend Michael was talking about wonder and awe, and how it’s easy to be in wonder and awe when we look at nature. It’s harder to do, though, when we look at ourselves. But if I am a part of nature (which I am), should I not be able to witness myself with wonder and awe? Since then, I’ve been trying to look at myself that way, witnessing myself as a beautiful and adaptable part of nature, the same way I look at the trees in the jungle on my daily walks here in Costa Rica (where I’ve been for a month).
A couple of weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the texture of leaves in the jungle. It was remarkable to place them all together in a collage and see how much variation in shape, size, colour and texture there was. Each leaf has adapted differently to its environment, doing its best to absorb whatever light is available to it in the jungle, to turn that light into energy. In a sense, the way the leaves respond to the light is just the way I want to respond to the light I see in my own eyes when I look in the mirror – to photosynthesize it into energy and to pass that energy down to the tree that holds me.
Since then, just the way I did with the leaves, I’ve been marvelling at my own body and the bodies of the people I encounter. What beautiful variations we all are! What wonderful ways our bodies have adapted to our environments! How remarkable it is to witness the ways we’ve all reached for the light, transformed it into energy, and helped to reflect it to others!
Today, as I write this in the shade of a circle of tall palm trees, I send a wish out to all of you, my readers. May you see the light in your own eyes and may you reflect it to all you meet.
Recently I wrote a post about worshipping our wounds. In it, I talked about how sometimes we cling to our wounds too long because they become part of our identity or healing them might feel threatening to those who don’t want us to change.
I’ve been thinking about that post since, and I think it might need a few additional words to give it balance.
As much as I think it can be unhealthy to worship our wounds, I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we should rush to heal our wounds, that we should pretend we don’t have wounds, or that we should feel ashamed for having those wounds.
It takes time to heal trauma. And even before the healing begins, it takes time to admit to ourselves that we have trauma and that we need healing. When I think about my divorce, for example, I have to admit that it took me a surprisingly long time to admit to myself the extent of the trauma from my marriage, and then it took even longer to speak about it to others. I’ve always prided myself in being resilient, strong and reliable, and those things felt especially important to me when I needed to be emotionally stable for my daughters and my clients. I was afraid that revealing my woundedness would mean that I was weak and people couldn’t depend on me.
Six years after the marriage ended, I’m still in therapy working to heal not only the wounds from my marriage, but also the wounds that I took into the marriage as a result of my rape as a twenty-two year old.
You have permission to take the time you need to do your healing work. You have permission to take longer than anyone else around you. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if it takes longer than you expect. It just means you’re human.
One of the dangers of not acknowledging the time it takes to heal deep wounds is that we can be tempted to slip into spiritual bypassing, where we grasp onto any spiritual practice or healing methodology that offers us a quick fix but that only masks what’s really going on or tries to “transcend” it instead of going deep enough to heal the roots of the pain. And one of the risks of spiritual bypassing is that it often excuses the perpetrator of the harm that was done to us and doesn’t allow us to feel anger or to seek justice for the wrong as part of our efforts to heal.
Healing is a journey, with lots of detours and rest stops along the way. It’s like a labyrinth that takes you through all kinds of twists and turns that sometimes feel like they’re getting you closer to the centre and sometimes take you further toward the edge. It takes the time it takes. You’re not doing it wrong if you stay on the path, rest when you need to rest, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
You’ll get to the centre eventually if you stay on the path.
As long as you don’t intentionally get stuck and start clinging to your wounds, worshipping them, or allowing them to define who you are, you’re on the right journey.
p.s. If you’re on a healing journey and want to learn more about holding space for yourself and others, you might want to check out The Spiral Path, a self-study program that takes you through the three stages of a labyrinth journey. Or check out our Holding Space Foundation Program.