People who haven’t travelled alone before tend to think of it as a stressful experience. They worry about how they’ll manage alone and whether they’ll be able to cope.
The fact is, solo travel actually removes a huge source of stress: obligation. A close neighbour of expectation, we carry the weight of obligation around with us in our daily lives. Most of the time, we’re quite unaware of the burden. We simply accept that there are certain things we have to do, and ways we have to be, as a result of living life.
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But these exacting standards take their toll. And from the moment you step on the plane alone, the weight lifts a little. Almost immediately, you start un-tethering yourself from the myriad of commitments that hold you hostage in daily life.
The erosion of self
When we think of obligation, women – in particular – spring to mind. Historically, women have born the brunt of multiple expectations and roles. This has become all the more pronounced in an age where we’re a dominant force in the workplace; a liberation that (however welcome) ironically adds to our enormous plain of responsibilities.
“Women take on multiple roles in today’s society,” reads an article from Cleveland Clinic. “Some roles are by choice and other roles are chosen for women. Women’s roles often include family obligations, caretaking for children and/or elderly parent and work responsibilities as well as other roles.”
All too often, this roster of tasks leads to the erosion of our own desires; the self becomes stifled by obligations.
“As demands increase to fulfill these roles, women can feel overwhelmed with time pressures and unmet obligations,” the article continues. “They may feel a sense of failure in not being able to meet expectations for themselves and others. Often times women spend more time meeting the needs of others rather than nurturing their own needs. If functioning at high stress levels, women may not even recognize what their needs are.”
A drain on mental health
Obligation takes its toll on men, too.
“Looking back on things…when I was younger, many of my expectations were set by family, friends and the people within my community,” says US-based therapist and mental health advocate, Rwenshaun Miller. “From the type of car I should drive to where I should live, and definitely, what I should do for a living.”
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Rwenshaun eventually became wise to the fact that these expectations were taking a serious toll on his wellbeing.
“Attempting to live up to the expectations and plans of others left me overwhelmed with stress and therefore contributed to the decline of my mental wellness, which evolved into moods of depression,” he writes for the Good Men Project.
“It was too much to bear. As I began to focus more on my own interests, I began to drift away from thoughts built on the foundation of what others thought, and developed my own dream.”
Lifting the burden
When you travel with people you know, you access some degree of freedom. You’re physically distanced from your everyday obligations. But, crucially, you still have someone who reminds you of them. Even if it’s as innocuous as something like, “Oh, how did that job interview go?” or “What about your mum, what does she feel about it?”
Plus, there’s an added expectation that you will keep your travelling partner happy, whether that’s keeping the conversation flowing in a restaurant, or compromising over budget.
When you travel alone, you are entirely your own agent. No-one knows or cares about the obligations that have framed you throughout your adult life. You are free to do whatever you want to do, when you want to do it.
This also holds true if you decide to travel with a group of like-minded strangers, in the kind of scenario we facilitate here at Flash Pack. Since you won’t know anyone, there’s no-one to hold you to your life and responsibilities back home. You can be who you want to be.
Revel in the freedom
Obligation is the kind of stress that you only notice once it’s eased. And that realisation when travelling alone is a truly brilliant moment. Not only are there no obligations invading on you from back home, you also answer to no-one in the present moment.
“Being alone freed me up,” says Maggie Cawley, a 33-year-old who travelled solo from South Africa after she broke up with her boyfriend there. “People accepted me into their families, their homes, their friend groups. I wasn’t intimidating. I fit in easily into their lives, being a single woman.”
“Somebody said, ‘Have you ever heard of Mauritius?’ I said, ‘I’ll look it up. It is four hours from South Africa and looks beautiful. I’ll go there.’ So it was totally just on a whim,” she tells Forbes.
“The thing I like about traveling alone is the ultimate freedom you have. You can make the choice, what do you want to do that day,” she adds. “You can have a better sense of yourself, your own inner dialogue.”
An inner peace
Some people would say that shrugging off your responsibilities is selfish. That’s the accusation author Elizabeth Gilbert faced, as she embarked on a spiritual (and physical) journey in her bestselling novel, Eat, Pray, Love. Not everyone can afford to up sticks and escape their obligations when the going gets tough, after all.
But that’s the magic of an adventure by yourself. You’re not saying no to obligations and expectations forever more.You’re simply pausing the constant whirr of demands that have become so intrinsic to your everyday life. And that can only be a good thing.
“I get a lot of people who come to me,” says Emma Slade, a Cambridge graduate who traded in her life as a banker to become a Buddhist nun in Bhutan. “People who’ve done the right thing, they’ve had a career, they’ve gotten married, they’ve had kids, they’ve got a nice car, and they’ve got a nice house, and yet they feel that sort of slightly empty feeling of not being dissatisfied, but not really being fulfilled.”
To move forward, Emma says, these people need to find a calmness of mind. And this often comes from lifting the weight of obligations.
“It’s worth placing a little bit more priority on cultivating a peaceful mind,” she tells Time. “Amid all the priorities that we have – we think we want to do this, we want to go there, we want to achieve that, or buy that – you very rarely find somebody that says, no, ‘I really want to make sure that in this life I develop a peaceful mind.” So I think it’s worth making that a little higher among the priorities.”
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