The Self Abroad: How Solo Travel Shapes Our Sense of Identity

Sam Woolfe
7 min readMay 27, 2024

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I have previously written about the Stoic perspective on travel (see here and here), which includes the idea that our strong impulse to travel often comes from a desire to escape the self (which is doomed to fail). Our discontent about who we are can be refashioned, unconsciously, as discontent about where we are. We avoid confronting and overcoming the internal roots of our distress when we locate the causes of our distress in the world — in external factors. To effectively develop virtue and achieve eudaimonia (fulfilment or well-being), the Stoics argue, it is better to stay at home.

However, the Stoics did not believe that external factors had no bearing on our well-being; they stressed the importance of accepting things in the world outside of our control and working to change what is in our control, the latter of which might include political problems. Seneca also recognised that it can be wise to move from chaotic surroundings to a more peaceful location, for the sake of our mental well-being.

Yet a crucial teaching that does emerge from Seneca and Epictetus is that travel is no cure for our discontent, and much of our discontent comes from the personal character we have developed. Since the Stoics link virtuous character to well-being, it makes sense that they wouldn’t view travel as an essential aspect of virtue-building (since we can just as easily develop important virtues — courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice — at home). Indeed, we may more easily develop these Stoic virtues when firmly rooted in one spot, especially at home, since this makes it easier to create and maintain habits and routines, and it is where we have established relationships, which open up opportunities for virtuous action. Wanderlust, then, can be thought of as a vice, not a virtue — a position also held by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

However, in my earlier blog posts on Stoicism and travel, I point to how travelling can alter our sense of self (in positive ways), rather than act as an attempt to escape the self. Contrary to the Stoic view, travelling can benefit the development of certain virtues. Solo travel, in particular, can feel like an expression of courage at times. It involves stepping into the unknown, taking risks, and dealing with various challenges. One may also develop some wisdom from the new experiences and lessons learned. Travelling on a shoestring budget can be an effective way to learn the skill and benefits of frugality (moderation in action). And a sense of justice may be heightened through exposure to countries, lifestyles, and situations markedly different from one’s own. Hence, one’s attitudes, character, and identity can shift while abroad, upon one’s return, and when re-adjusting to one’s home life.

My earlier posts on this topic also touched on the idea of becoming a more confident and carefree person when travelling alone, and how this newfound sense of self can, sadly, be lost (or mostly lost) when coming back home. I have also compared this altered self to the changes to self that can occur during a psychedelic experience, and how keeping that new self alive depends on ‘integration’. This means taking steps to make the new model of self a reality, rather than let it be a slice of time to fondly look back on (or a brief period of happiness to feel bittersweet about). Without this integration, we may even feel despondent about losing a way of being — a way of thinking, feeling, viewing the world, and interacting with others — that felt harmonious, healthy, and authentic at the time.

Furthermore, without actively integrating a revised model of self — whether gained through solo travel or altered states — one might experience a sense of existential conflict, confusion, and depression. This is because one will be left with two models of self: a new one momentarily realised and the familiar, habitual one that reappears when back home. But integration is difficult. And it is not clear what, precisely, this should involve in the context of travel (there has been much more discussion on integration as it relates to psychedelic experiences, although even then, there is still uncertainty, ambiguity, and differing views). If integration does not occur, whatever the reason may be, one can be left feeling disappointed about the return of old habitual thought patterns, brought into focus by how differently one thought and felt when abroad.

Is this just philosophising about something banal and not worth complaining about? People feel better going somewhere new and not having to work, and then feel a bit sad coming back to the familiar and dealing with the stresses of life again. That’s obvious. However, it is not just novelty and being free of responsibility that is enjoyable about travel. What can leave a lasting impression is not just feeling happier abroad but how different one feels as a person. The reason I am focusing on solo travel in this post is because this latter feeling seems especially heightened when abroad on one’s own.

During solo travel, we are free from all kinds of expectations. The self is relational, so it is formed by our relations with others. Who we are is not only who we decide we are but how others formulate that conception, and the sense of self emerges from the alignment between our self-concept and others’ conception of us. Because of the relational nature of self, our sense of identity changes, evolves, and expands (or shrinks) over time. The interplay between our self-concept and others’ perspectives on us is ever-changing. And just as individuals, family members, and friends (and their expectations about what we are like) can affect how we perceive ourselves, so too can culture. The values and norms of a country, city, religion, and political ideology can also contribute to our sense of self.

Solo travel can shape our sense of identity because it temporarily lifts the effects of these influences, to some extent. When we are abroad alone, we can involuntarily find ourselves acting differently from how we act back home. This is because we are no longer around those who know us well (or, I should say, who know a particular kind of self that has become familiar to others). This isn’t to say that we necessarily feel inauthentic around those who know us well; rather, solitude can lead us to re-evaluate our sense of self, in a way that enhances our authenticity and improves our existing relationships.

But why shouldn’t this new sense of self just as easily emerge when alone in one’s home city, or when around new people? I think this may also happen, to some degree. However, when you are travelling alone, you may also find yourself in a culture distinct from your own, so that you are additionally free of certain cultural expectations you have built up (e.g. being closed off to strangers). In addition, travel can involve a high degree of novelty. Some psychologists frame novelty as a basic psychological need. This means they view new experiences in the context of self-determination theory, which is the idea that fulfilling basic psycholoigcal needs is essential to personal growth. Solo travel can be particularly conducive to novelty’s effects on personal growth because we have more time to pay attention to immediate experiences and reflect on them.

Solo travel gives us opportunities for flânerie (aimless wandering) in a new city, allowing us to gain new perspectives on city life, people, and culture. While Solo travel can be a highly social experience, involving meeting other travellers and locals, it can still offer long stretches of introspection and reflection that are often absent when travelling with others. Solitude and self-reflection can occur back home too, of course, but solo travel may involve more of it since we are free from many responsibilities and duties, and our exposure to novelty can also change the way we think during these periods of reflection.

Nevertheless, one is still left with the problem of how to bring a preferred sense of self back home. Constant solo travel can feel like a way to keep that self alive, but this may not be viable or ultimately best for one’s well-being. It may amount to escapism (i.e. avoiding working on oneself back home). And it can lose its magic over time. I don’t really have any clear answers about how to integrate the self abroad back into the self at home. I think it happened naturally to some extent for me or during certain periods, and I’m still trying to work on it.

At the same time, we can put on rose-tinted glasses when we look back on our past. We might have been happier when travelling alone, but we may not have been the ideal version of ourselves during those times. Moreover, trying to replicate who we were in the past in the present can become a source of suffering. In this way, it is not the dissonance between who we were (temporarily) and who we are now that is the problem but the clinging to the past. Wishing we were a certain way, based on travel memories, might not help us better realise that version of self in the present; instead, it can act as a distraction from more productive activity.

Nonetheless, it is legitimate and realistic to aspire to qualities felt abroad, such as self-confidence, social confidence, present-mindedness, friendliness, and openness. It’s true that feeling carefree is easier when you’re travelling alone in your 20s with few worries and responsibilities. One can’t expect to be completely unworried when dealing with the stresses of work, housing, and relationships back home. But perhaps experiences abroad — approaching situations more confidently and with one’s own inner resources — can inform challenges back home. Travelling abroad also doesn’t have to be the only source of novelty, nature contact, awe, wandering, and self-reflection (all of which can alter our sense of self). These experiences exist on our doorstep too. And by seeking them out, we may start to regain healthy aspects of identity that emerged when abroad.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on May 27, 2024.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com