Approximately 35,000 feet in the air and headed 3,000 miles away from home, I was ready to immerse myself into idiosyncratic Portland, Oregon culture for the five days with nothing more than a backpack full of clothes. Even though this was a seemingly elementary trip, my brain kept wrestling over and over with this errant decision to pick a place on the U.S. map and book a flight. I had never been to the west coast and had certainly never traveled by myself. But I was desperate to make a change in my life.
At the time (two-years-ago), I was living in a cyclical panic of late twenties depression fueled by zero money, no upward job mobility and a recurring internal alarm whenever a person would walk too close to me or I would wind up in a room without a quick escape. My anxiety was becoming a massive structure that I couldn't scale (or treat due to the job situation), and I was finding it hard to really see the positives in the world around me. It was truly exhausting trying to navigate these symptoms that kept me from much at all — nonetheless travel. In the most self-actualizing of efforts, I decided that I needed to live like another person for a few days. Cue the solo travel.
Travelling Solo: An Exercise in Self-Confidence
I did a quick search for travel-friendly cities and landed on Portland, Oregon. The decision shot a nervous pang throughout my body even though it was very much the perfect city to escape to: public transit, cool art, food trucks. Still, my anxiety wouldn't let me forget that I was going to be alone across the country while having to navigate my anxiety in a brand new setting with known triggers (meeting new people, eating alone, not being in full control). My finger slowly made its way to the track-pad on my computer; repeatedly telling myself this was a way to stand at the precipice of my fears and acknowledge them. Click. Booked. Done.
"There is a really wonderful circular relationship between self-esteem and traveling. Traveling in itself is an act of confidence. The fact that you went somewhere by yourself demonstrates strength," says licensed psychologist Dr. Chloe Carmichael Peet. "If you do something that requires a certain amount of strength or independence, you then see yourself as a stronger and more independent person. Your behavior is reinforcing a positive self-esteem. As your self-esteem grows, you start engaging in more independent, self-serving behaviors."
Truthfully, I couldn't pinpoint where the travel antidote came from. Images of happy women taking charge of their lives stamped an impression into my brain of the person I wanted to be, but felt I couldn't — a woman who can pick up and go and feel confident in all of her decisions. I am, perhaps, the Diane Lane or Julia Roberts of the modern millennial woman — except without a closet full of tans and taupes to pass through metal detectors on my introspective journey.
Finding the Power in Being Alone
Previously, the idea of me getting on a plane and flying anywhere seemed far away from any agency I'd allow myself to have. Cool girls with bottomless bank accounts take weekend solo trips — certainly not me: a person forever amidst an adult acne breakout with mmmaaaayyyybbbbeeeee $200 to her name at any given time. Plus, there is the inherent risks of traveling by yourself. There is no one to hold you accountable for missteps, help you map out each destination, gut check you if you happen to stray into an unsavory bar or whisk you away to the restroom to tell you the guy you've been chatting with has murdery vibes. You are the only line of defense against the elements.
That first time, I sat in the airport Dunkin Donuts for one full hour before I could peel myself away from the terminal and make my way to my Airbnb. Walking outside would mean I'd leave the safety of my bacon, egg and cheese to immerse myself in the surroundings of the pacific-northwest. I felt more alone than I ever have in my entire life — almost as if everyone in that airport could tell I was cowering behind my breakfast sandwich in fear. "Many people feel uncomfortable being alone in general, and especially in public. They may feel that others are judging them and they tend to overestimate how much they stick out to others and how unusual it is to be by yourself," says licensed psychologist Dr. Margot Levin.
The ability to be okay with being by yourself, to not need constant stimulation and company, is extremely empowering.
But I did it, and did it well. I made my way to every touristy spot, chatted with the locals, made out with a cute guy at a bar and even got a sizeable tattoo on the back of my arm. Levin's statement echoes through that first experience, and I came out on the other side enfranchised. "The ability to be okay with being by yourself, to not need constant stimulation and company, is extremely empowering. It opens up choices for you that are not contingent on what others want and it enables you to be out in the world with others and then be with yourself to reflect, to regroup and to feel replenished."
When I got back from Portland, I felt such a relief from my anxiousness. The things that bothered me prior were a blip on my mental radar — pushing myself out of my comfort zone so much that I had no choice but to compartmentalize that tension and move forward with keeping myself fed, housed and safe so far away from my home.
Six solo trips under my fastened seat belt later and the noticeable difference in my confidence, self-esteem and decision-making has sparked this incredibly positive change — all from a simple decision to hop on a plane alone. After Portland came Kansas, Utah, Wisconsin, Texas and Chicago. Each one solo, each one with its own challenges, but each one a deeply personal learning experience of how I handle myself when I'm not in the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment.
Every solo dining experience became easier and talking to people became less horrific and more routine. I felt confident and in control of my every step — something I wasn't used to back in New York where my schedule, anxiety and lack of self-worth dictated my every move. I walked through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry like a pro and chatted up the bartender at a bar in East Portland; forever thinking, who am I? I was living this inconspicuous life where no one knew who I was, which made it easier for me to put my needs first and relax. Now, past stresses like direction seeking, unaccompanied dinners and asking guys out on dates don't even register in my brain as something to worry about.
Of course, you don't have to be on a personal self-help journey like I was. Solo travel in general is exhilarating! I find that one of the best parts is being incognito at all times. Anonymity is a powerful tool when you're in a brand new city. "When going through challenges related to loneliness or anxiety it can be helpful to stay mindful of the growth opportunities from solo travel. We are out of our comfort zone but have the safety of anonymity," says clinical psychologist Dr. Jon Belford. Yes, I do still feel that overwhelming rush while opening the door to a restaurant I've never been in to have sets of eyes turn in my direction to wonder who's this new person? But, being an outsider is a back pocket secret when you start to feel vanquished. Basically, know one knows who you are, so live and breathe in that experience.
Your Solo Travel Toolkit
Start small: Jumping on a plane across the country is not everyone's idea of a self-help experience. Catapulting yourself into a vastly different region might lead to more anxiety. If that's the case, but you also want to find a way to integrate travel into you life, I always suggest taking incrementally long bike rides or day trips. I did this in preparation of the introspection and decision-making that comes with being by yourself for long periods of time. Hopping on a bus or train and heading to a different part of town helps the initial push.
Remember why you're there: Another reminder is to remember why you're there so that you don't lose focus of your main objective. For me, it's a way to get rid of negative personal feelings by strengthening my relationship to myself. Others may need a creative boost that a new place can provide. In either case, Peet recommends assigning words of purpose to your travel so that you stay focused on your original mission. "It can be helpful to think of three words as a theme for your trip. Maybe your words for a trip are: resilience, adventure and relaxation. You can always remind yourself that this trip is all about you and your practice with those three words. That way, if you're not getting a lot of friendly connections, you can still find a way to feel good about the experience," says Peet.
Know it will get easier: My last solo trip landed me in Chicago where I sprung from the airport, dashed to the closest train and felt thrilled to explore an entirely new city on my own — no more hiding in Dunkin' Donuts. Once I got to my hotel, I itched to drag myself along every single street even though it had started pouring rain. I bought show tickets, made my way to Wicker Park and visited all the best brunch places around the loop. It is, now, less of a task to break myself out of my comfort zone and more of a new individual tradition. Sometimes I get nervous when I enter a new bar or have to eat by myself, but I'm then reminded of that one act of personal grit by the broken woman I was two years ago. She was nervous but did it; so I can do it. And I promise, you can do it, too.