When I was young, I was always the kid waiting by the side of the pool while the rest of the swim class jumped in. Only after I had confirmed that nobody had drowned would I actually venture in myself.
Social situations are similar for me. I have to energize myself mentally for interactions by first observing other people’s interactions.
In fact, a huge first step in managing my social anxieties was to accept the fact that I am an introvert. Contrary to common misconceptions, this does not necessarily mean that I am anti-social, lonely, sad, or shy; rather that I need solo, contemplative time in order to feel ready to tackle the world.
For some, “tackling the world” is intended to be a social or shared experience. But when I got on a plane to the UK, I knew I wanted something different.
I am currently attending a study abroad program at the University of Leeds, and have made a habit of venturing out on my own every weekend to hike, relax, or simply explore a new European destination.
I wanted to immerse myself in new cultures and experiences independent of other people’s preferences and biases. I also craved a well-rounded, self-reflective education beyond the classroom.
Don’t get me wrong — traveling is stressful. Yet going to a new place on your own can actually be more empowering than overwhelming. Stress can be managed when accomplishing concrete goals without the pressure of dealing with other people’s travel itineraries.
There is nothing more satisfying than figuring out how to buy train tickets in a different language, and getting lost but being able to find your way back to safety.
When first embarking on my trip, I was particularly interested in the empowerment that accompanies being in a new place, where nobody owes anyone anything. I am one to ruminate obsessively over social interactions, questioning whether I had said the wrong things, laughed too loud at a moderately funny joke, hijacked a conversation unintentionally, and, of course, whether everyone I had spoken to now hated me. The fact that I would have to encounter the same people with whom I had interacted on a daily basis just fueled the rumination.
There is no need to feel guilty about taking time to discover a method to make you feel like you’re at your best.
When traveling, the effects of “social mistakes” do not hold the same weight. I feel freer to open up to people, and as I’ve done so, they’ve learned more about me. I have also learned a tremendous amount from them, and even though some of the connections I’ve made may be short-lived, they have been more genuine and meaningful than I would have thought possible.
For U of T students, the approaching winter break brings about a craving for distractions from the stress of exams and coursework. Keep in mind that you can use this time to discover the best way to refresh yourself for a second semester. This might mean spending time with family and friends, plowing through extracurricular reading lists, or finding a space to be alone.
There is no need to feel guilty about taking time to discover a method to make you feel like you’re at your best. Not only will this bring your goals closer within reach, but it will also make you more open, enabling you to connect with and help others.
If you are inclined to start planning a study abroad experience, know that it is absolutely acceptable to fly solo. While loud nightclubs and parties energize some travellers, others, like me, feel the most alive on long, quiet train rides through the Alps. This discovery alone has made my trip truly worth taking.
Rebecca Ostroff is a fourth-year student at University College studying drama and psychology.