Travel Used to Be My Identity. How Do I Move Forward?

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Every traveler knows the feeling of desperately needing someone to turn to. In our Women Who Travel advice column, we’ll be answering questions from our Facebook group members, readers, podcast listeners, newsletter subscribers, and travelers. Have a question? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

Dear Women Who Travel,

Everyone is talking about how much it sucks not being able to travel. I’ve heard people around me say they feel trapped, or they’ve been down about canceling vacations they were really excited for.

But for me, not being able to travel feels like something bigger than that. Travel is the thing I’m most passionate about. When I describe myself to people, the first thing I say is that I’m a traveler. I feel like I’ve been cut off from the thing I cared most about, from something that defines me. I’ve even struggled to answer the question, What do you like to do? recently, because normally I’d just say: travel. It’s also something I really good at. My friends know to come to me for travel advice, or even for help scoring a cheap last-minute flight. That’s my role. 

I feel like I’m having a bit of an identity crisis, and I have no idea how to handle it, especially since it seems like it’ll be a while before we can travel like we used to. And as much as I try to embrace it, “virtual travel” or trying to be tourist in my own city is just not the same. Please help!

—A lost traveler (and not in the fun lost-in-a-new-place kinda way)

Dear Lost Traveler,

There’s so much to discuss here. Where do we even begin?

Like you, I’ve noticed that many travelers feel they’ve lost a piece of who they are. Travel for many people represents more than just a vacation, so not being able to move isn’t like losing one hobby, or one relationship—it’s like having an entire means of interpreting and relating to the world taken away from you. 

Going through this process in such isolation, makes it even harder to understand if this is just you, or a shared experience, so I asked the Women Who Travel community if they were feeling this too. Amanda Villarosa, a travel photographer who has shot some of our Women Who Travel trips, described her experience in a way that really struck me: “Traveling is how I celebrate, it’s how I mourn, it’s how I fulfill my curiosities about the world,” she says. “It’s how I meet people. It’s also how I get to know people I’ve already met. And it’s how I get to know myself. Having to pause the one act that allows me to be my true self, and give up this therapy, was a challenge I hadn’t faced before.”

For others who work in travel, there’s also this realization that travel had, until recently, eclipsed most others parts of themselves. “I’ve definitely been having an existential crisis,” says travel writer and Travel Is Better In Color co-founder Sarah Khan. “I’ve always been very appreciative of the fact that I’m fortunate enough to have what many consider a dream job, and my personal and professional lives have blurred in recent years. Until I went into this period of stasis I didn’t realize how much I’ve tended to lean on my work and my travels to define my identity. So I’ve really had to grapple a lot with who I am when I’m not on the move, and rediscover other interests and aspects of [myself].” 

Simply put, this is a hard thing to go through, but you’re not alone. And there are steps you can take to begin working through this. The first one? Just sitting with how you feel and letting it be what it is. There’s no pretty bow to put on this thing. 

“It’s important to name this reality upfront, that there is a loss here,” says Liz Graham, a therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. “There’s a loss of sense of self, there’s the loss of a coping skill.” Travel, she notes, is often something we use to deal with the feelings many of us are experiencing right now. “[Travel] makes life pleasurable when things feel hard or painful or sad or monotonous, yet this is a moment where your primary defense mechanism has been ripped away from you, unannounced, all at once.” 

Being realistic that this feeling might not go away anytime soon can be surprisingly helpful, too. “What’s been really hard about COVID is this ambiguous timeline,” Graham says. “We’ve kicked the can down the road on grief—what if summer [is when we can travel again], what if fall, what if—and there has to be this kind of reckoning with yourself, at least for now, that you’ve lost something.” Let yourself feel sad about the fact that travel as you knew it is off the table for the time being, while resisting the urge to replace that sadness with a false sense of hope pegged to an end-date in the future—especially because, when those dates come and go, the pain only compounds. 

By accepting the state of things, it’ll be easier to start working through these feelings, and figure out what you can do in the meantime. And spoiler alert, taking a virtual tour of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower probably isn’t going to cut it. “Ask, How does travel serve me?” suggests Graham. “Not only, What are the actions that make up the travel experience? But what does it allow me to do? What does it allow me to feel?” Maybe it’s that travel represents an area of life in which you’re spontaneous, outgoing, or maybe more playful than otherwise. 

Simply trying to transport yourself to a new place isn’t going to deliver those same benefits. Sure, you can learn how to make crepes or practice your Japanese, but that might not work for everyone, because they’re not the same thing—and it isn’t helpful when everyone tries to convince us that they are. 

“[At the start of the pandemic] I realized that I needed to identify what I loved most about traveling and see how I could recreate those aspects while hunkering down,” says Katalina Mayorga, the founder of group travel company El Camino Travel (with whom we operate our Women Who Travel trips) and Casa Violeta in Nicaragua. “I feel completely in my groove working and immersing myself across various cultures, learning from them, and adapting. The joys and challenges that come with that make me feel most alive.” 

A business pivot offered a way to continue to make these cross-cultural connections, says Mayorga. She launched the El Camino Travel Clubhouse, a private member’s club with weekly conversations led by people around the world. “I became very intentional about making space for deeper connections across cultures, not only for myself but also for others in our community who told us they were feeling the same way,” she adds. The recurring injection of art and new perspectives from around the world has combatted the monotony of lockdown. 

For Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe and contributing editor to Condé Nast Traveler, travel has long been a means of escaping, and feeling free. “Travel is my largest representation of freedom,” she says. “Not being able to freely commune and engage has been the roughest part [of the pandemic].” 

When I asked how she has tried to replace this means of escape, Robinson said by doing something simple: “I started running,” she says. “It was the only sense of freedom I had. It’s the only thing I felt like I could truly control.” Nearly one year in, running remains an outlet for her in the way travel once was. 

Khan says that filling the gap travel has left in her life is still a work in progress—but one useful exercise has been writing about things that aren’t travel, and exploring interests that had been put on the back-burner during a travel-heavy phase of life pre-pandemic (until lockdown, she’d spent the past four years been moving every three to six months). Ask yourself what consumed you and brought you joy before travel. When you’ve been on trips, what are the activities that most draw your interests? Now can be a time to explore those passions. 

And when it all feels too much, just take it day by day. “The psychological experience of things stretching out into eternity is unbearable,” says Graham. “There is a lot of peace in just tackling it one step at a time.”

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