The very nature of travel is demanding and those demands exert an emotional toll. When living out our daily lives, we are desensitized to the burden of our unhealthy emotions. Travel breaks us out of our normalized experiences to create an accelerated opportunity for us to acknowledge and confront those difficult emotions. We see them easier outside of the context of daily life.
I personally began to explore travel’s capacities for transformation on my 35th birthday. It was a particularly challenging and confusing time in my life, riddled with uncertainty and instability. I had important and life-altering decisions to make and needed to find the strength within myself to implement new behaviors. I knew that I needed to see, feel, and hear an unfamiliar world to shift my perspective enough to begin to create something different.
My journey began in Prague and after a few days, I traveled into Poland. While in Krakow one day as I rested at a cafe, I suddenly experienced deep and almost overwhelming feelings of grief and isolation, two expressions of sadness. Nothing immediate had triggered it. The emotions had been accumulating as patterns in my experience, which back in Sacramento where I was living at the time, was simply my LIFE. While in Krakow, I had to observe them and acknowledge them as they sat with me in the rain at a cafe, sipping coffee. Removed from my routine of friends, career, and lifestyle, and in an unfamiliar place, alone, surrounded by strangers who spoke different languages, I felt for a moment like the sadness was all that I was. It was then that I made friends with the emotions, just me and my grief and isolation, and I listened as they taught me about acceptance and self-validation.
This journey was short but meaningful. Along the way, I recalled a past life as a 13th century builder of the King Charles Bridge; I met a guide who warned me against one of my future options; I was reminded of the importance of being a global ambassador for peace through learning to speak a few key phrases of the local language; and I gained knowledge of the current struggle against encroaching authoritarian regimes. Although I only had 12 days including three en route between San Francisco and Berlin, my experiences empowered me with enough insight to redesign certain situations and relationships in my life.
Whatever negative emotion we guard most protectively in our shadow is the one that will linger the longest in times of stress. Before my experience in Krakow, I couldn’t face the sadness and I hid my grief and isolation. Although those emotions were present, I had enough routine to distract me from fully realizing and examining them.
Try this out. On your next journey, be aware of any negative emotions you feel. Is it like shame, fear, anger, disgust, or sadness? You will likely find that this is your most natural expression of negative emotion. We feel these negative emotions when we are threatened on a deep level; it is our way of navigating what we can’t control. Once you notice your most preferred negative emotions, name them exactly. Use a Feeling Wheel to help identify exactly what you are experiencing. Then reflect back on your daily life and ask yourself when else you have felt this way. Chances are high that this emotion creeps into your experience regularly but your brain simply absorbs it as noise, as part of the routine. This emotion is the blind side of our self expression, what Carl Jung calls our shadow. Travel, which removes our self from its routine, breaks the pattern of our invisible emotion and creates opportunities for us to move our shadow into light.
Some people may claim they don’t experience negative emotions. That isn’t true. Everyone experiences them and that is okay. What is important is to develop an awareness of the patterns within yourself to limit the amount of time they impact your ability to create a positive experience. The first step is to recognize them as they occur. Travel and its unfamiliar territory makes it easier to identify them. Then name them so that we control them instead of allowing them to control us. Finally, forgive them. They will probably continue to exist within your experience, but they are no longer in the shadows.