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Can Travel Help Us Stop Hating Ourselves?

Two characters talk to each other while traveling

s. rufus

Seeing the world can help you see yourself in a new light.

Traveling shows us stupas and offers us fried milk and toasted crickets. Less discussed is its power to raise our self-esteem.

I just returned from Europe, where mine catapulted from a pre-trip Nearing Bottom to Moderate-Low. This is miraculous.

Dislodging us from those familiar points in space which we call home, which are encrusted with our own personal history and memory, travel transforms us into fresh-eyed infants, virtually reborn.

Self-hatred often festers in familiarity at home, where we feel forced to re-enact the same routines in the same shame-suffused scenarios that we associate with our self-perceived failures and unworthiness, watched always by those same eyes we perceive as mocking and/or mean.

We feel incapable of change.

Such abject hopelessness — I am and always will be awful — is a classic symptom of self-hatred and the childhood trauma that so often spurs it. When we were too young to fight back or know otherwise, tormentors told us we were ugly, lazy, stupid, bad. Our growing brains, yearning to learn, seized this as fact.

But see: Travel is change. It forces us to discover, adapt, engage, communicate, create.

Being a foreigner or even local-looking stranger, being seen — near and far, boarding boats and lighting incense — by new eyes magically lets us see ourselves with new eyes too.

We need this chance.

In that sweet flash of chaos triggered by changes of climate, time, and scenery, we fixate so fiercely on new necessities — following maps, computing foreign currency, experiencing everything — that self-hatred flutters away like snippets of superfluous luxury.

We get too busy dodging lightning bolts and watching pandas to remember how much our skin, hair, and hesitancy bothers us.

And in those instants we discover and remember our abandoned selves: talents and passions lost, denied, even detested — yet often untested until now. But suddenly, this grace: I have a great sense of direction. Sailing does not scare me. Whooo, I love monsoons.

Simple truths for those whose confidence outflanks ours. To us, bright signposts from Beyond.

Ski lifts and sandy paths and hotel elevators become highways back to revelation, resolution, self-respect.

So we think:

Henceforth I will dance (or study languages, or climb) whenever possible. If I wore what I loved, it would be THIS.

Maybe, after this trip, I will.

Traveling gives us yet more gifts:

Some of us hate ourselves for spatial reasons: because we feel disliked, unwanted, excluded in those nations, cities, districts, even houses we call home. In those places where we should feel welcomed and safe, we feel instead like prisoners or party crashers or zoo animals or strangers, always lost. This soul-corroding dislocatedness deepens as hostile-seeming memorized horizons meet our eyes at every turn.

And for this pain we blame ourselves, because we blame ourselves for nearly everything.

Sometimes this dislocatedness is fictional: just us thumbtacking triggers onto every local landmark, thinking In that office, I was fired. This shop's mirrors made me look fat.

But sometimes it is not imaginary. Places spark between themselves and individuals kinetic chemistries, unique for each. Just as we do not get along with certain people, we and certain places also do not get along. We have relationships with places, too. Our "homes" might not be home. Dwelling long-term in them depresses us — for which, sunk in some blindingly bad chemistry, we ... guess what? Blame ourselves, misdiagnosing natural not-get-alonginess as our flaws and our fault.

It's like a polar bear who lives in Tucson thinking: I am such a jerk for starving and sweating plus having burnt paw-pads and zero friends.

Unleashing us from our un-homish homes, traveling lets us meet and greet our real true selves on wild-for-us frontiers where our strangeness perversely makes us safe. How funny that this happens in locations where we are technically interlopers, outsiders, aliens. Bon voyage.

S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.

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