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.