How to grow your resilience while travelling
In my last blogpost (it’s right here) I talked about personal baggage and how it affects every single one of us. Everybody has a history, good and bad experiences, a certain way of seeing the world and interacting with it. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing. We get wiser the more aspects of life we discover and phases we go through. Most experiences make us stronger. Not all of them though. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” sounds all positive and inspiring but it’s not the full story. I’m pretty sure some life events just leave us devastated and not everybody can overcome the trauma it has caused. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It just means you didn’t get the needed support in your early life to learn how to deal with these events later on. We don’t choose how resilient we are.
Resilient? Yes, resilient! It’s the key to all of this. So what does it mean exactly? Resilience is derived from the Latin verb resilire, which literally means “to recoil” or “to jump back”. When we apply this to human life, we get the definition: the ability to recover from misfortune or change. The definition for objects gives us extra insight in what this means: the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. People who are resilient don’t undergo dramatic changes when faced with a difficult situation. They don’t get depressed when a parent dies or lose all their self-esteem when confronted with a bully at work. A resilient person can put changes into perspective and is more pro-active to deal with them heads on.
How resilient you are right now might have its origin in your childhood but this doesn’t mean it’s not open to change. While travelling many occasions arise that give us the change to build and grow our resilience. Concepts like thinking patterns, self-esteem and social support are tied together with how well we can handle difficult situations and are the ones I’ll highlight in this blogpost.
Let’s start off with thinking patterns. If you believe your personal characteristics such as intelligence and qualities or talents are set in stone and not open to change, you might have a fixed mindset. People with these beliefs prefer a familiar environment and known task because they can predict how they will perform. They’re not the ones to keep on trying but just accept that they’re good at something and bad at other things. People with a growth mindset face the world in a different manner. They believe that with hard work and experience, change and development is possible. They see failure or a setback as a part of the learning process and they try to see the potential in difficult situations.
Luckily we have a say in which mindset we have from now on. We can’t change how we see things in an instant but we can become more aware and question the way we think. Travelling already puts us in an unfamiliar situation. We can never fully predict what’s going to happen and hard situations often cross our paths. In these moments, be aware of your thought processes. I can’t do this. People will think I’m a failure. I’m not good or strong enough to deal with this. Stop and take a step back. These are all thoughts typical for a fixed mindset. Try to see the possibility for growth! Most people don’t get it right on the first try. I can only learn from this experience. Nobody can blame me if give my all. If I don’t try, I will never get better. Through actively challenging our fixed mindset by growth thoughts, we realize we do have a choice! We can choose to listen to the growth voices and face our fears heads on.
By practicing and experimenting with this, you’ll soon realize that change and dilemmas aren’t necessarily bad things. You’ll notice that trying and failing means you’re learning and moving forward. And I truly believe by challenging ourselves and stepping outside our comfort zone, we open the door to more meaningful experiences.
Now what about the second concept, self esteem? I believe you all have a handful of examples of how low self esteem can have an impact on our travels. My personal struggle in summer is that I’m not comfortable in my own skin. I don’t like going out in shorts or a dress even when it’s 50 degrees outside. I hear the voice in my head saying: what will people think? They will stare and judge. They will like my slim friend more. I should cover myself. I objectively know this is crazy since I’m not even overweight and people aren’t that superficial. Sadly enough my objective voice has been overshadowed by my critical voice for a very long time. One thing that has helped me and will help you is experimenting with this. I try to look at the situation as a scientist, without my insecure glasses on and try to notice if people treat my differently according to what I’m wearing. Over time I’ve noticed that I don’t shock people by showing some leg and my mindset has a bigger impact on how many people I meet than the way I dress that day.
Another way to question your negative self-concept, is by comparing the way you view and evaluate others to the way you examine your own worth. We all tend to be way less critical for others than for ourselves. The times I’ve looked at a girl in a bikini and thought to myself “damn, she has some nerve showing her body like that” are very, very, very rare. I like curves on other women and love their freckles or their glasses but I hate them on myself. Try to create a more generous look on yourself by imagining how your best friend would describe you. How would she react if you said those negative thoughts out loud? And how fast would you try to prove her wrong if she had the same insecurities?
One last thing to grow your self-esteem: try to be aware of your own strengths, the things you’ve already accomplished, the steps -how ever small they may be- you are taking and how you’re already trying so hard to improve yourself by traveling. By reminding ourselves of our good sides, it’s so much easier to be our own compassionate companion when things do get hard.
Social support is the third major factor I want to talk about. There is a lot of research that shows that a good social network is a protecting factor when dealing with a variety of mental illnesses and stress. The funny thing is that the stronger your social support is, the better you get at coping with problems on your own. Social support is beneficial for your self-esteem (double win here!) and makes you feel like you have a choice, increasing your sense of autonomy.
Alright, so the conclusion is that social support is good. But how do you create such support when it’s not naturally there? Be realistic! You can’t support all your friends on every life aspect so don’t expect the same from them. Have a good look at your already present friends and family members and seek out the things they can support you in. Maybe your mom can help you when dealing with low self esteem (“no honey, you’re the most handsome boy ever”) and your friends are there for your love problems. Maybe one particular friend has had similar experiences and can offer you understanding where others can’t. We all have a lot of different relationships and they can offer different kinds of support.
While travelling for an extended period of time take advantage of the digital area we’re living in and reach out to your network at home. Sometimes you’re going to be lonely and it can help to sit down and have a Skype session with your mom or best friend. The internet also gives us the possibility to meet new like-minded people, whether or not you’re on the road. Instagram can be a tricky thing from time to time but it can also give you the chance to truly connect with other travelers.
Meet new people while travelling! My experience is that a large portion of people I cross paths with while on the road, share the same interests as me. They like adventure, discovering new parts of the world (and themselves) and they tend to be more creative and open. I’ve also told some people I had only known for a few hours (and a few drinks) more intimate details of my life than some long term friends. I’m not saying all conversations in a hostel are emotional and meaningful. I just noticed that sometimes it’s easier to bear your heart to a stranger and it means a lot when they just give you empathy and understanding without judging your character.
Sometimes these things don’t go as easy as you would want and the social support you’re receiving isn’t sufficient enough. There’s no shame in seeking out help or looking for a (real or virtual) place that connects people going through a similar situation.
And oh, never forget it’s a two-way street! Don’t expect people to be there for you when you never take the time to ask about their well-being. Research even suggests that offering emotional support is even more important than being on the other side of the interaction. Helping others is proven to be beneficial for your self-esteem and may even has a bigger impact than just being able to rely on others.
Let’s combine all the things I talked about in an example some of you might recognize! Let’s say you’re travelling alone but you’re too afraid to talk to random people in the hostel. Why? Do you think you’re not likable enough? Are you afraid they’re going to be bothered? Scared you will say something stupid and make a fool out of yourself?
Time to take a step back and be aware of all the processes that are working to keep you from meeting new people. You might have a negative self-concept and believe you lack social skills. You might have had some bad experiences with meeting people and didn’t or still don’t have the needed social support to tell you you are awesome (which you are!). Notice the automatic thinking patterns and examine if they fit into a fixed or growth mindset. Realize that you can improve through practice and try to put a possible failure into perspective. If the guy at the breakfast table doesn’t keep the conversation flowing, there might be a lot of possible explanations. Think of what you would say to a friend in the same situation. And how would you react if another traveler tried to talk to you? Are there circumstances where you would try to avoid contact and does this automatically mean that the other person is stupid or socially flawed? Try to think of the positive experiences you did have in the past, however small they may be. Maybe you asked for directions on the street and the other person didn’t just ignore you or stare like you’re some kind of weirdo. Maybe you chatted a bit with the receptionist while checking into your room. Be proud that you’re at least trying and realize you can only grow from here. Be aware of the fact that a lot of people are insecure and you already have at least one thing in common: the love for traveling.
A big round of applause for the readers who made it all the way down here. This definitely turned out longer than intended but we’re dealing with sensitive matter right here. I’m so curious to find out what you struggle with while abroad and how you deal with it! Tell me through the comment section or Instagram!