What travelling shows us about ourselves

I was lucky enough to have a holiday in Europe recently, away for three and a half weeks and enjoying Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London and Brussels, as well as time in the English countryside. As the days continued I began to notice the bits of travelling that were fun, exhilarating and inspiring, and those that were draining, wearing and frustrating.

What I began to see is how powerfully my own ‘stuff’ was being mirrored back to me through the process of travel. Sometimes this was very affirming and sometimes it was uncomfortable, but always interesting. Like crumbs left on a trail we can follow these clues to give us a fuller picture of who we are and what we care about, what motivates us and what challenges us. So here are my thoughts on how travel* can reveal us to ourselves if we observe ourselves while away:

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Travel shows us what we are drawn to and what intrigues us

You may have a clear picture of all your interests and passions in life, and be able to list them quickly if asked. Others of us have glimmers of insight only for it to twinkle away into darkness, in the busy of our lives, or perhaps to have it retreat in fear of being neglected were it to show its face. While wandering around a new city and seeing what draws our attention we can have insights into what ‘tickles our fancy’. Even if we are scanners and it seems like ‘everything’ interests us, on closer inspection we can see that it isn’t really every single thing, there may be themes.

For example, as I travelled in Amsterdam I was fascinated by the street plantings of flowers and shrubs, their exuberant colour and cheer, how people had organised these around their tiny front doors, and the culture that accepted private gardens spilling out onto sidewalks. I know that I love flowers (colour, form, growing them, photographing them, botanic illustrations) but in this I learnt that I am also interested in how gardens and street plantings reflect culture or social norms, and how they interact with the urban form in public spaces. Compare this to Brussels, where the neighbourhood we stayed in had barely a plant – for days I didn’t realise this on a conscious level, but felt strongly that the area was ‘dusty’, ‘run down’ or ‘desolate’ until I realised that there were no grassed parks, very few street trees, no verge/ median strip plantings, and no use of plants by individual homes or apartments to cheer up the frontage of buildings.

Another thing I noticed I was drawn to in my travels were greeting cards, and specifically those featuring whimsical illustration, or printmaking. I would stop at every visitor centre or shop and enjoy the cards for sale, buying a few along the way and enjoying many. I found one brand of greeting card in England that featured only printmakers and I was enthralled, looking carefully to see whether they were lino cuts or woodcuts or etchings. I looked up their websites later and read about the artists, looked at picture of their studios, and dreamed about having a peaceful contemplative arts making practice drawing birds. It reignited an old love of printmaking, and I have been thinking since then of finally doing an etching course, and maybe pulling out the lino cutting tools once again.

And my old loves; sculpture and texture in stone, clay and metal, coffee shops with quirky menus and decor, seeing artists at work in their studios, artisan shops with people making things with their hands, handmade yarns, flowers, foraging wild produce, biodiversity and hedgerows, sky scapes and clouds, light and shadow, tiles, art deco architecture, circles in architecture and nature, gargoyles, door knockers all revealed themselves to me by what I chose to take photos of, or stop and stare at with longing and fascination.

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Travel shows us what is really important to us by revealing what is missing

By messing with our ordinary routines and putting us in places and situations that are different to what we might ordinarily choose, we are given valuable information about what is really important to us. This is especially so if our travels are in the company of others, or even better place us in environments where we don’t have complete autonomy, such as studying in groups, doing volunteer work, being billeted to a family or being a houseguest.

On my recent travels I stayed with our family in the English countryside and soaked up the restorative pace (I am usually a city dweller). I basked in the fresh air, the fun of playing with children, exploring new places, the history embedded into the soil in shards and whispers of previous lives, the vast and open landscapes, the reminiscing, and the gentle collaboration of people who are comfortable and kind with each other. But after a week or so I also noticed things I was missing through this ‘holiday’ lifestyle – spending time alone reading in depth about ideas that matter to me, having hearty discussions about ideas and how the world works, listening to music, and regularly drawing or journalling. Once I realised them, some of those needs required me to adjust how I behaved while I was away – taking myself off to a cafe one Saturday for a few hours to draw and write, for example. These insights into what I missed revealed what really matters to me, what I truly value and miss when it is gone. This can be different to the image of ourselves that we carry around, or the ‘interests’ we think we have. Music is an example of that to me, I forget how important it is to me and only notice this it when it’s gone, but in everyday life wouldn’t call myself musical or ‘a music person’ in the same way I identify as loving the visual arts. This strong feeling of missing it reveals to me that it is an important piece of my inner puzzle, and something that recharges, soothes and inspires me.

When we left the countryside and went to London for a few days my senses were delighted – fresh off the train I began noticing more vibrant colours and variation in fashion (Aqua suede shoes! Shiny patent leather two-tone spats! A saffron yellow wool asymmetrical coat! Sparkly full ear cuffs!). This surprised me because I don’t think of myself as someone who is ‘into fashion’ – but nonetheless, here it was revealed to me that my eyes love variation, colour and design, in clothes as much as anything else, and that I had missed it when traveling through rural areas seeing more consistent and practical clothing, in the earthy tones of village life. Important crumb to have found in leading me to myself.

Our first night in London we went for dinner at modern Bombay-cafe style restaurant, full of people hidden away in dark candlelit corners and surrounded with warm and funky decor. When the meal arrived and we started to eat, it was like an epiphany – flavour! texture! I felt moved and almost close to tears. My senses were completely alive and I felt into my bones that despite being blessed with fresh and healthy food on our travels, and enjoying many lovely meals, I had missed diversity in food: herbs, spices and other strong flavours and the variety of cuisine styles than I am used to (as a city dweller in an international city, who grew up with diverse food and married a chef). This lack of diversity and intensity in food had left me feeling washed out and less stimulated but I didn’t even realise it properly until I had what was missing.

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Travel shows us what pushes our buttons

Even as a wealthy western traveler (in the scheme of things, globally speaking, I am wealthy) traveling through Europe with all the modern conveniences (online check ins! wifi on the train! running water and clean toilets! safe travel with rules and guards and conductors!) there are moments when travelling presents us with our great unwashed selves – tired, unsure, worried for our physical safety, frustrated, physically sore, in need of the toilet, hungry, delayed, or just plain sick of being in transit. For me, I saw myself at times be impatient, completely self absorbed, needy and demanding. I also saw myself avoid issues rather than create conflict, and ignore my own needs for the sake of harmony in a group. These are things I am aware that I can tend to do at home as well, but they were much clearer to me in a travelling context when so much else of life is stripped down.

Travel revealed an impatience and sense of entitlement about getting ‘good service’ in airports and cafes, which although grimly satisfying at times, was also a bit disquieting.  It leaves me wondering, ‘Have I really taken on that city persona of exacting expectations and constantly making comparisons?’ I wondered. Have I really become so impatient that I feel aggrieved when people are slow at their jobs or don’t make eye contact, or have systems that appear inefficient?’. I could feel the tightly curled beast of judgement, efficiency, standards and entitlement curled in me and awakened by slow baggage screening or flakey waitstaff and I was shown a part of myself that I don’t always own up to in my self perception of ‘easy-going’ and ‘flexible’. It leaves me wondering how to reconcile expectations with gratitude, and how to manage this skill (of seeing ‘room for improvement’) so that it serves me on the occasions I need it, rather than dictating how I see everything. I am left musing quietly to myself about the balance of acceptance and judgement, which response is most useful when, and what triggers me to respond with either.

Travel also revealed to me that my buttons get incredibly pushed when I have a physical need that I feel like I am not in control of meeting, or if I perceive that something is standing between me and meeting that need. This might be when I’m hungry, standing in icy winds I didn’t dress for, needing the toilet or am extremely tired. And in my experience, these situations pop up more frequently when you are making your way around a city on foot, in neighbourhoods you don’t know. Imagine (let’s say hypothetically!) a tired whiny me traipsing across London with my husband complaining that I am HUNGRY right now and that if we don’t eat immediately I will be extremely upset. We finally found a restaurant that he was happy with too, although later than I would have preferred, and although we were safe and warm and food was on its way, it took me a good 20 minutes to calm down and stop feeling angry, anxious and panicky. I could really notice these responses, and see how communication is so important, but also approach with curiosity the extreme feelings these situations engendered.

Noticing these strong emotions, feelings of frustration and powerlessness, helped me to be more aware of my physical needs and also think about how to communicate them. A very non-glamorous example was I started saying ‘I need the toilet at about 4 out of ten, so some time in the next half hour I’ll need to find one…’ or ‘I am about a 9 in needing a toilet and I need to stop at the very next one we find’ (not to random strangers of course, just to my traveling companions). This helped me to feel like my needs were clear and I was taking responsibility for meeting them. Of course this may sound like life skills 101 to you (you may be asking yourself ‘in what way is it hard to say you are hungry or need the toilet?’ ‘who cares if you overreact when you are hungry’), and in a way they kind of are, and another time I’ll explain more about this, but for now let’s just agree that we all have our learning edges, and travel is a great way to reveal them whatever they are!

On coming home I plan to keep thinking more about these ‘base chakra’ issues of survival and basic physical needs, and continue my work on better understanding, meeting and communicating these needs, and meeting my strong emotions with curiosity not judgement or repression. I really believe that being out of our comfort zone (whether through travel or exposure to unfamiliar situations or people) shows us what causes us discomfort and creates an opportunity to bring from unconscious to consciousness the beliefs or patterns behind this.

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Travel helps us answer: ‘Who is this person I call me?’ 

My travels revealed me to myself as fascinated by nature and culture – the handmade, sky-scapes, built form, plants, art making, fashion, printmaking, architecture. It showed me that my life is enriched when my senses are all being stimulated and when I am connected to and actively involved with music, art making, cooking, writing and observing beauty. It showed me that I am flexible and easy to get along with, but also could better value and communicate my own needs. It reminded me that I am sometimes triggered by issues of survival and that I become vulnerable to strong emotions when I’m hungry, tired or physically uncomfortable, and that anxiety and self doubt are states that come in waves for me, triggered by certain situations, and need my awareness so that I don’t get lost in them. This isn’t all of who I am of course, but the mirror of travel highlights certain features that it is interesting to reconnect with; what a gift!

In art therapy we approach the idea of identity with some flexibility. That is to say, we recognise the varied elements that make up a self, and informed by ideas of neuroplasticity as well as humanistic psychology, we are open to the idea of change over time. We have various processes to help clients come to greater awareness and acceptance of the facets of themselves. In Barbara Sher coaching on the other hand, we encourage people to identify what lights them up, what they are drawn to and what they love, as an important first step in helping them create lives they will love. Doing this self reflective work myself in an ongoing way is a critically important part of what I offer my clients – I have lived the discomfort and the joy of this work, and never suggest processes I haven’t engaged with myself and found useful.

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Do you need some company and support on your inner journey?

If you would like support to reflect on what makes you you – what makes you tick and what you most love, to move towards better acceptance of some part of yourself or to build more of what you love into your life, feel free to contact me for a free 30 minute phone consultation. I would love to hear more about your needs, and can explain more about my face to face or Skype sessions, as well as answer any questions you may have. Send me an email through my contact page to arrange a time.

Alternately you might be interested to jump into a fun workshop setting, and enjoy the ideas and inspiration that comes from a room full of interesting people –  if so I’d welcome you to my upcoming 6 week Women’s Wellbeing evening group or the  Saturday workshop ‘Visualising your life’ planned for November.

But what if I can’t travel? 

By travel I mean loosely anything which takes us away from home physically and out of our comfort zone. However I absolutely acknowledge that travel is a luxury that not everyone has. I recognise the physical, emotional and financial barriers that many face that might prevent them from a trip overseas, and even the ethical issues about non-essential air travel in the face of climate change that stop some people choosing to do this kind of travel (and if I’m honest gives me pangs of conscience and fears of being a sustainability hypocrite myself – I’m still working on this one). Nonetheless despite these challenges even a long weekend staying with family in another city, or a few days by the seaside in our own town, or a camping trip, or housesitting, or a low cost house swap with friends in another part of the state/county for a few days, or if we are housebound even a day trip in the company of others, can similarly shake us up and reveal much about ourselves if we approach it with awareness.

Note: and no these aren’t my travel pics! I decided to keep my own travel photos as a personal record of my trip this time and chose other images to illustrate these words.

6 thoughts on “What travelling shows us about ourselves

  1. This is a wonderful post. – I enjoyed every sentence of it! Thank you so much for taking us with you on your trip – inside and outside. This is an inspiration to also check what I miss in daily life when I don’t feel really good and energized. Maybe I was just eating dull food for too long? Or simply miss my weekly bunch of flowers for my desk? Maybe I forgot to schedule time for physical movement? Or creativity? Or the last discussions about how the world works is too long ago? 🙂 All this does not require huge changes in life to lead to more well-being. It’s about awareness and taking these needs seriously enough to consciously schedule time for them. Otherwise they might easily bee forgotten or buried by being too busy just organizing life.

    • Thank you so much Colourful for kind words! I agree, these are useful prompts for ‘everyday’ life as well, not just when we travel. Thanks for that thought.

  2. Jade,
    this is amazing! You know: when I hear people talking about travels as if everything were cool I sometimes feel kind of lonely. And now you have put words to that feeling so that I can start understanding it. It is just not only cool, right? But there is not much talk about “the dark side”. You not only express this other side beautifully but flip it around again and show me how it helps me to find myself. In my case, invariably after 3 weeks at most I miss my sofa, which is probably also a symbol for other things. I will observe more carefully next time: I am sure this will make travel easier and more interesting, and life too.

    Again, I find myself thinking that we grown-ups are much more like kids than we want to accept. I have had glimpses of what you say reviewing my travels with my kid. I realized that I have to take care of his buttons more carefully when we are away from our routines, but now I see that I am not so much different. It is just that for children there is maybe much more need for security and safety, and they are saturated by input much faster, because so much is new to them which is routine for us.

    Thank you for your post! I see that it will have me reflecting for a while. In the end you seem to be a cook too, like your husband: you cook food for thought. 😉

    • Thank you Maria – yes I think it is discussed as if it is wholly glamorous/ exciting/ fun, when like most things in life, it can bring mixed feelings, and has its own challenges. I like that – ‘cooking food for thought!’. Great phrase, and one I’ll happily wear 🙂

  3. Great post! Very visual and detailed. I, too, realize what truly matters to me when I am away from my daily, mind-numbing routines. We love and need so many of the same things; perhaps, we are meant to be travel companions 🙂

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