Thought Catalog
May 19, 2017

How Traveling Can Help You Discover Yourself

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Kalen Emsley

I grew up in a small Connecticut town and dreamed of moving to New York City where I would live the “big city life,” complete with days spent trawling worldly museums and nights at trendy restaurants after seeing the Opera. At least, that was my impression of the City—it was where smart, cultured, sophisticated people lived smart, cultured, sophisticated lives. That’s what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.

So when I moved to New York City at age 22, I spent the next decade cultivating the life and the identity I had always imagined for myself. I made reservations at restaurants with tasting menus, spent money I didn’t have on Opera tickets, and spent many Saturdays at the latest Guggenheim exhibit when I should have been working on my dissertation for graduate school. But as most 20-somethings in New York City do, I engaged in my fair share of low-brow activities too, so hours after the Opera ended, you might find me nearly puking in a cab after too many 2-for-1s at some dive bar in the East Village. As highbrow as I wanted to be, I definitely did not escape the wonderful debauchery reserved for the urban young.

Still, I persevered toward embodying Sophisticated City Woman, and that often meant rejecting things that in my judgment were the converse of what a Sophisticated City Woman might do with her time (almost puking in cabs to be excepted). I turned up my nose at weekends in the Catskills and refused to have anything to do with activities with the word “nature” in them. A “sporty” woman I was not: while some of my girlfriends joined the guys to toss a Frisbee in Central Park, I preferred to sit on a blanket sipping rose as I tried not to get hit in the face. Getting my manicured-weekly-fingernails dirty or sweating off my makeup were things I fervently avoided. In fact, I became known among my friends as the “prissy” one who might attend our friend’s wedding held on campground only to leave once the wedding was over to return to my air-conditioned room in the nearest city.

I’d cringe for me too, if I were you, reader. I know I sound like a privileged, close-minded snob who should get her nose out of the air and her head out of her arse. I see that about myself now, but I didn’t then, and I think some of us live too much of our lives within the limits of self-defined identities. The thing is, we all construct narratives of ourselves that influence what we do and how we behave. Mine happened to be Sophisticated City Woman, but there are others, too, that are limiting in their own ways—Chilled Out Nature Lover, for example, might spend oodles of time outdoors or camping in tents, but never attend a play or see a concert in the city. The identities we create become problematic when they prevent us from realizing our full selves and deny us the freedom to explore the pieces that we have yet to discover.

This is something I learned on a 6-month around-the-world trip I just completed with my husband. I did things on this trip I never thought I’d do, like camp in the desert (thrice!) without any electricity and a hole in the ground that functioned as the toilet. I rode camels, helped bathe elephants, and slathered myself with mud in the Dead Sea. We went to a lot of museums, just like I did in New York, but I found that I had a better time cruising around a jungle trying to spot cheetahs than I did visiting old ruins. I enjoyed hiking up Table Mountain in South Africa more than I did browsing artifacts at the National Museum in Egypt. It turns out, visiting museums and touring ancient sites were not as enjoyable to me as I once thought, or rather, told myself they were. What I discovered is that I actually preferred to do some of the things I would have considered too sporty or outdoorsy previously—activities that did not coincide with Sophisticated City Woman and in fact very much challenged that identity.

Now, I am leaning in to these newly found parts of me that appreciate and enjoy nature and activities that can only be done outside of a city. Sophisticated City Woman is still a part of me, but she is not all of me. Just being able to recognize that she was a creation of my own making was enough for me to shed the parts of her that prevented me from doing things that I really enjoy.

The discovery of previously unknown parts of yourself is one of life’s greatest gifts, if we are so fortunate to untie the ribbons. And sometimes this discovery leads you to old parts of yourself, parts that may have been hidden or buried long ago. When I told my mom I had gone stand-up paddle boarding for the first time and was quite good at it, she told me she wasn’t all that surprised because I was pretty athletic when I was a kid. She’s right—in fact, I played on my school’s field hockey team all throughout high school and loved it. I was, in fact, quite sporty. Traveling and trying new things helped me return to this part of myself that likes to challenge my body through physical activity. This doesn’t mean I’m signing up for the NYC marathon this year, but it does mean I’m going to check out my neighborhood’s field hockey club this summer.

While traveling is an excellent conduit to self-discovery because the chances of being pushed outside of your comfort zone are greater, you don’t have to go to another continent to do this. You only have to say yes to new experiences and once in a while take chances to shake up your life as you currently know it. You can create opportunities for personal discovery and growth that will not so much diminish who you think you are now, but create space and room for other parts of yourself to rear their little heads into the world.

I still like to go to restaurants with tasting menus and see the Opera from time to time. But I also like to go hiking on weekends and might even be willing to forego the air conditioned hotel and sleep in a tent when my friend gets married in the Catskills this summer. Most importantly, I am open and willing to keep discovering myself and becoming who I am, whoever she may be. TC mark

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