In our culture that upholds the extrovert ideal as the pinnacle of a life fully lived, I often hear from clients who share that they often feel shame when they don’t fit the mold. I hear from clients in their 20s who feel like they “should” enjoy going to parties and drinking alcohol; clients in their 30s who feel like they “should” have unequivocal clarity about wanting to have a child; and clients of all ages who fall into the belief that they “should” enjoy traveling.
While traveling can be exciting and eye-opening, it can also be quite grueling, especially for the highly sensitive and introverted temperaments. One of the hallmarks of highly sensitive people is having difficulty with change, and there are few experiences more disruptive than leaving the comfort zone of home, the familiarity of your bed and routines, the place where your roots extend down into the earth, and by extension, your soul finds rest. Highly sensitive people thrive when they know what to expect and struggle in the face of uncertainty. Travel can put this challenge right in your face.
If you’re traveling across many time zones, you’ll also be dealing with the often-unnerving experience of jet lag. Your physical self will be disrupted in all ways, food, exercise, and sleep all turned on their heads. The typical person can easily roll with the punches and find her/his flow. But for the highly sensitive person, these disruptions can create such disequilibrium inside that a state of anxiety often follows.
Traveling can also stir up old abandonment trauma. When you travel, you pull yourself out of your comfort zone and plop yourself into completely unfamiliar territory. As such, it can trigger visceral, preverbal reminders of early birth trauma, sleep trauma, and separation anxiety. Who talks about this layer of travel? It’s certainly not discussed in the guidebooks.
Similarly, if you’re an introvert the common sightseeing model of “go go go” won’t work for you. You need time every day to turn inward, time to be alone (if possible), time to be, to lie by the pool or curl up with a good book in your hotel room. I’ve noticed that alongside the more commonly understood temperaments of extroverts and introverts, there are also “do-ers” and “be-ers”: people who enjoy being on the move and staying busy and those who prefer to sit in the grass and smell the flowers. Neither is worse or better than the other, but the challenges arise when you don’t honor your rhythm and/or when you’re partnered with someone with the opposite rhythm. And, as life is designed to help us grow our inferior functions, I’ve noticed that do-ers and be-ers often partner up. So the challenge with travel – and, at times, with a shared life – is to find that middle ground where your need to be is balanced by your partner’s need to do.
A significant portion of the healing process is undoing the beliefs you absorbed regarding what defines worthiness. Well-meaning teachers and parents, in their attempt to create a well-oiled machine of school or family life, are quick to overlook a particular child’s needs and rhythm because it causes an inconvenience to the whole. As a result, most kids are squished into a box that doesn’t meet their needs and transmits the belief that they’re not okay as they are. They’re pushed into activities, sleep patterns, or social situations, a subtle form of trauma can occur. It’s not the trauma of a car accident or an abusive parent, but it’s a slow-building, daily trauma that, over the eighteen years of dependency, create a pervasive running commentary that says, “I’m not right in some way and my needs don’t matter.”
The good news is that this belief can be reversed and healed when you learn to show up for yourself as the loving inner parent that you never had. A loving inner parent slows down long enough to listen closely to feelings, thoughts, and needs. A loving inner parent takes time each day to listen carefully and watch closely for symptoms and signs that something is awry in their child – or in your inner self. So if you are traveling, be sure to take time both before the trip and during it to ask yourself what you’ll need to feel safe on the trip. And keep in mind that travel isn’t necessarily something to be avoided. In fact, like all transitions, when approached consciously and with a great deal of self-compassion it can offer profound opportunities to heal.
Before you leave for a trip, ask yourself the following questions:
1. How can I prepare physically so that I feel safe inside? Do I need to make sure we have a kitchen? What food can I bring with me? Do I need to make sure the exercise is part of the experience? Is the quality of the mattress essential to a successful trip?
2. How can I attend emotionally so that I feel safe inside? Do I need to take time each day to find a quiet space and turn inward? How can I make sure that I allow myself to cry if that’s what emerges?
3. How can I attend spiritually so that I feel safe inside? What can I bring with me to create a “home away from home”? Candles? Prayer books? Music?
When you can meet your uncomfortable places with compassion, you may find that habitual negative experience of travel transforms into greater resiliency. Again, the path of self-acceptance doesn’t mean that you avoid uncomfortable situations and only live within your comfort zone. It means that you push yourself slightly beyond your comfort zone and meet whatever you find there with love.