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How Travel Helped Me Conquer My Social Anxiety -- and How It Didn't

by Bethany Marcel Jul 17, 2017

THE BOY looked at me as though he might find something in my eyes. “Why don’t you ever talk?” he said.

I slumped down in my seat. My face reddened. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say — that I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but I’d been born with this broken shy part. That my mother said when I was a toddler and an adult spoke to me, I’d either hide behind my mom or pretend to fall asleep.

“I do talk,” I said, and immediately felt sleepy.

“You really don’t,” he said.

“I do,” I whispered. I wanted to say, “I may not talk, but I do write poetry about how brown your eyes are…” I was thirteen, at the beginning of years of not saying what I really wanted to say. His eyes were so brown. Like a muddy river, my soul…

“Whatever,” I said.

The next week he was dating someone else. One of those normal, talking girls.

Traveling for change

College wasn’t much better. I had a boyfriend, but it was an unhealthy relationship. I made a handful of friends, but I rarely went out — and I never went to parties. Instead, my boyfriend and I adopted two cats. I was nineteen. On weekends I stayed home, playing peek-a-boo with two kittens. I was safe.

When my boyfriend and I broke up, I looked out into the world and saw — no one. I had my family and a handful of friends I rarely saw, but I craved being part of a social circle. I was socially anxious, but I was not a full-fledged introvert happy to be alone. I craved a social life. But I also feared what it might take to get one.

I knew I needed to do something drastic. So, after college, I decided to travel. I would go alone. I would force myself to talk to strangers. I would learn how to be the version of myself I’d always wanted to be: outgoing and free-spirited instead of anxious and shy.

I traveled as a way to see the world, and as a way to overcome my fears. If there was one positive thing I could say about myself, it was this: If I set a goal, I would reach it. I was resilient and headstrong. I was determined to become one of those normal women who conversed easily.

I went to Iceland.

Coming out of my shell — a bit

I’d been at the hostel in Reykjavik for two weeks, drinking, flirting, dancing, and meeting the locals, when the hostel owner said, “You’re like the wallpaper. I hardly notice you.” I’d never felt more outside of myself—more outgoing and alive, so when the hostel owner compared me to the wallpaper I was surprised. In my mind I’d danced my way into the center of the party for the first time in my life. But I could see that my version of talkative was still someone else’s quiet.

I met a new friend, Susan at the hostel. That night we went out to a bar and talked for hours. My ease with Susan was immediate, like she was an old and trusted friend. A few days after we met, we went to the Blue Lagoon together.

The water was warm and—as promised—blue. The smell of eggs was thick in the air, the sulfur feeling suffocating. Susan waded in first and before I knew it she was talking to a couple of strangers. I held back—my shyness kicking in. Susan waded back toward me. “They were so nice,” she said. “You could’ve come too, you know.”

“Yeah, I’m just shy,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever said it aloud to someone who didn’t know me well.

“What? I never would’ve guessed that. You seem so outgoing!”

It would be years before I would understand that both of these things could be true. That I could be both quiet as the wallpaper and also so outgoing no one would ever guess at the shy creature hiding beneath the surface.

This was the first thing travel taught me. In the right environment, with the right people, I would blossom. If I took the risk to socialize, it might or might not not pay off. But I needed to take the risk.

Jumping in the deep end

When I moved overseas to the small country of Georgia, I underestimated how difficult it would be. I’d hoped to be placed in a small village—somewhere remote and idyllic (and quiet). But instead I was placed in the heart of the city of Tbilisi.

There were parties and events, and so many people to meet. Not only was I socializing with other foreigners through my program, I was also living with a host family, teaching at a local school, and tutoring at the police academy. I met someone new almost every day. This was a benefit. I became excellent at talking to strangers. “What do you do? How do you like living here?”

The language barrier was a burden, but also a relief. I could wander the streets with little fear that a stranger might ask me too many questions. If someone did, I could claim I didn’t speak Georgian and that would be it.

Some of my favorite moments were with Nata, my twelve-year old host sister. Nata was shy but persistent, like me. After school, we’d sit together on the balcony and try our best to communicate. She spoke little English and I spoke even less Georgian, but we tried. Hand gestures and laughter were our currency.

Other times, we’d sit silently together. Neither of us ever questioned this. Sometimes Nata would pick a pomegranate from the tree in her yard and we’d pass it back and forth, bonding over the delicate fruit, our silence between us like a beloved friend.

Travel didn’t fix me

When I came home from my travels, I briefly believed I’d overcome my problems. While traveling, I’d practiced talking to strangers so often I imagined I must have reached some sort of social nirvana.

And yet, within a week, I found myself afraid again. Afraid of talking to the cashier at the local grocery store. Afraid of calling the dentist to schedule an appointment. It was as though I’d never traveled anywhere at all.

Now, years later, I understand I may never lose that lump in my throat; I may always feel nervous before meeting new people. But I also know this: I’m brave enough to socialize in spite of my anxiety. Sometimes I go to parties. Other times, I’m too overwhelmed to go. Either way, I care about myself. Over time, I’ve developed the friends and social life I’d always dreamed of having as a child. I’m still sometimes awkward and anxious, but my friends love me for who I am — a work-in-progress.

Now I think maybe the broken, shy part wasn’t ever really broken, but instead just a part of me -— mostly benign and occasionally annoying, but mine. Travel didn’t really fix me, as I’d hoped it would. It just taught me I didn’t need to be fixed.

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