Do You Really “Find Yourself” When You Travel?

by Anne Dorko

“I know this sounds cliché, but I have to ask—do you really ‘find yourself’ when you travel?” the girl asked me. Her young friend crouched next to my table, gently stroking the cats as they slept.

Café Neko is a small coffee shop in Vienna that allows cats to wander freely. My girlfriend and I sat next to the window with the beds where the cats enjoyed laying in the sun. We sipped our espressos while bemoaning the number of visitors who would clumsily reach over our table to interrupt the napping cats.

Sleeping orange tabby curled in a cat bed How adorable the cats were is beside the point.

These two were different. They were clearly on a school tour and made interesting conversation with us. One topic led to another and the girl wanted to know: In all my travels, what did I get out of it?

It’s a Gradual Process

Being able to travel constantly comes in gradual steps. Much like the myth of overnight success, few people wake up from a normal life and suddenly decide to jump on the next flight without ever looking back. It’s just not that simple. Believe it or not, there’s many things anchoring you to one place. Each needs to be addressed before you can move on.

Learning to part with things over and over again is a process. It can be both physically and emotionally tasking. It forces you to constantly prioritize only a few things.

Every day you have to intentionally ask, “Is this worth keeping in my life?”

Travel is outside most people’s comfort zone in this way. Even a temporary trip makes you evaluate what is important, in the act of packing. How much stuff do you really need to survive for a weekend trip? A week trip? A month trip? Does it change after a year?

The more often you travel, the more you wonder what it is you need all that extra stuff for.

Travel Can Be Spiritual (But Doesn’t Have to Be)

There’s the holiday high everyone gets after escaping the normal world for a while. Like any high, these exhilarating feelings wear off after a while. As a frequent traveler, you learn to look past those highs for something a little deeper. What is it that makes each place unique? What is the underlying belief system and mindset in each new place?

Whether you are religious doesn’t matter. Traveling gives you the opportunity to see life from the perspective of others.

Low perspective of orange tulips growing into the sky

Think about the wide spectrum of color.

People who don’t pay attention can only identify basic groupings like blue, red, and green. If you take a class on color theory, you start learning about all the shades in between. You notice nuance and tone, or start to see how these subtle changes impact the feeling of a room or even change behaviors, such as your choice of food. You see a huge range of color everywhere you go, long after the class is over. Those colors were always there, you just didn’t know how to see them before.

Travel is kind of like this.

The more you travel, the more stories you hear and the more lifestyles you are exposed to. You begin to realize that you were living in a one-dimensional space based on the perspectives you were raised with. Your perspectives aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re not the only ones out there, and they’re not the only ones that are valid.

This realization can be intensely powerful. Just because you were born into one way of life doesn’t mean that it’s the best fit for your personality and core ethics.

While traveling, some find meaning and purpose in another way of life—for example, learning that you love life on a farm. Others discover a belief system that works for them. Still others gain a fuller appreciation for the complexity of human nature. There is so much out there we don’t know, things we may connect with that change our entire outlook on life.

These experiences all range in intensity on the religious/spiritual/self actualization scale. One way or another, the colors of this world become more vivid.

You Are Regularly Forced Out of Your Comfort Zone

If you follow the same routines every day, it’s not often that the boundaries of your comfort zone are pushed. This isn’t to say boundaries aren’t important, because they are.

However, toeing the lines of your comfort zone is the fast track to self improvement.

Questioning why your boundaries are what they are forces you to do a lot of self evaluation.

  • Do I do or believe this because society expects me to? Because I was trained into it?
  • Is it to impress the people who I want to respect me? Or do I do this because I truly believe this is the right way?
  • Why do I believe this is the right way?
  • What does the “right way” mean to me?
  • If this is the right way for me, do I think everyone else should do it exactly how I would?

…and so on. It starts getting existential pretty fast. Think of it like boot camp for your morals, values, and ethics. The thing to remember is you’re not here to prove anything. You’re asking these questions to become a better person.

You Begin to Understand Privilege

Kat and I often joke about our typical middle-class white girl concerns. Of course these are the things we’re concerned about; it’s par for the course. Unfortunately, our curse is being self aware enough to realize that finding ourselves is our privilege to do. (Please note that “curse” here is used with some sarcasm.)

Having depression and anxiety, being queer—all of these things have not been fun for me to deal with in the real world.

But seeing the daily lives of others all around the world provides me with some perspective. I cannot apologize for the lot in life I was given, but I can do good with it. For me, that means helping others and providing a platform where people can share their own voices.

“The more you know, the less you understand.” –Lao-Tse

As I travel, the more I realize that things are wildly beyond my control. It is not in my power to fix the world. Most days, I can only try to fix myself. Meanwhile I try to be a voice for something better, to set an example for how people can pass on their own privilege.

Travel offers a unique opportunity to shape yourself into want to become with every passing day. You’re constantly in a new place with a fresh audience. But honestly, who is to say you can’t do that anywhere? You find yourself wherever you start looking for yourself.

So what I guess I’m saying is, if anything: You don’t find yourself when you travel. You lose who you thought you were entirely.

What about you?

Do you “find yourself” when you travel? Do you think I’m way off? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.

First published July 16, 2016

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