A Socially Awkward Introvert Prepares to Travel

I can’t think of anything less suited to being an introvert than embarking on an extended journey in a foreign place without a single familiar soul for thousands-upon-thousands of miles. Where one is forced out of necessity to not only talk to, but instigate conversation with absolute strangers who may not even communicate in the same language. Where the road is ripe, as far as the eye can see, with full dorm rooms and endlessly revolving company. Where small talk reigns supreme. Cue the menacing music.

Are you an introvert? Are you sweating yet? 

I’ve only recently started to embrace my introversion and, as a result, try to weed out those bouts of paralyzing social anxiety. For the first twenty-plus years of my life I rued the fact that I was susceptible to such awkwardness. I blamed being so shy and so quiet — words I was so ashamed to be associated with — on a childhood of moving around, swapping schools, and always being the new kid toward which the bullies seemed to target their advances. I felt guilty about spending time alone and about how long it would take me to formulate a response to even the most basic conversational questions. What is wrong with me? I’d wonder.

Then I started to understand exactly what it means to be introverted. Words like timid and withdrawn don’t define it; not even close. Versus extroversion, which is so widely and correctly understood as the inclination to connect with others and project thoughts and emotions out into the stratosphere, introverts have a propensity to cast those same energies inwardly. It’s not that we’re shy or lack confidence — though many of us are effected by such feelings, guilty as charged — but that we’re energized by introspection, downtime, and deeper conversation. Though while those are the fundamental characteristics of introversion, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the scale between shelled and spreadeagled.

I happen to be an introvert that, despite my social anxiety, loves connecting with people. I’m just not good at it. I admit that it’s an odd paradox to be both apprehensive of and delighted by social interaction, but here I am and there you have it.

So, what does this mean for travel? As a first-timer to the adventure, I’ve become very familiar with the list of things to worry about. Will I run out of money? Will I be safe? Will I even enjoy the lifestyle? The more you think about it, the more daunting the list becomes and the closer you get to total neurosis. One of the most common “Will I” concerns I see expressed is Will I meet people? For an impending solo traveler, that’s a pretty valid concern. For an introverted solo backpacker, it’s perhaps the most worrisome. Spending time alone is great — we excel at it — but the prospect of spending a year or more flying solo? The only thing more daunting is the thought of having to continually instigate new acquaintances.

scared35

I’ve learned to compromise all of my many fears and uncertainties by asking myself one simple question. What are you more afraid of: doing the action you’re uncomfortable with doing, or walking away with the regret and defeat of not doing it? It’s a fierce inner battle each and every time, but it hasn’t failed me yet. Every time I begin to feel uncertain about this bonkers decision to trade in everything I’m familiar with for absolutely unadulterated unpredictability, I ask that one question and, wouldn’t you know it, every time I come to the same, progressive conclusion. There was a reason I decided to make this leap in the first place. A reason why I wanted to uproot and dig out. That reason is a heck of a lot bigger than my nerves, and if you find yourself in a similar position, I’d be willing to bet that the same is true for you.

That’s how confident I am. I would put my own hard-earned money on your ambitions, stranger.

Puntarenas, Costa RicaWhy are we traveling anyway? To see neat sights, do neat things, and meet neat people? Yes, of course. But just like the Intrepids of the 60s and 70s, grandparents of the modern backpacker, in their tie-dyed t-shirts and fried-out Kombis, the journey itself is very much the destination. Isn’t it? We travel to understand ourselves just as much as, if not sometimes more than we travel to understand our world. By that standard, you have to rationalize doing each and every one of the things that scare you.

If you ask me — which you haven’t, but this I believe the name at the top is mine and not yours — it’s all about priority. When you prioritize something, that hurdle you once viewed as a mountain blocking your path is no more than a trail you’re already on and climbing. It’s less daunting because it’s simply another step toward whatever goal you set. Once you start, everything else automatically follows and it’s a lot nicer (and frequently easier) to actually do things than worry about having to do them. But it’s what follows that concerns me, I hear you say. In my limited experience, the dice are loaded in your favor. It didn’t take more than a smile of hello to fire up conversation with a lanky snowboarder from Colorado while floating in the Pacific, or arrange to split a cab with a couple I met on the flight into YYZ, or be invited to share in an herbal refreshment with some dreadlocked football fans on the beach in Costa Rica… and if can find myself thousands of miles from home striking up conversations with strangers, surely anybody is more than capable.

Update 27/11/2014: This subject has been quite the hot topic lately. I recommend this article published on VICE for some wise words on the subject: Are You an Introvert, an Extrovert, or Just a Rude Prick?

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