I have a list of topics I’d like to write about one day. I was flipping through the list when I came across one that I added to the list during my first year as a nomad, in Mexico. Here are the stray thoughts I had written down alongside the title.
Sitting alone, in a room, on a Friday night, no friends, drinking alone, feeling damn sorry for myself. There are dark dark sides to this life too. I sure hope the bright parts will outweigh the dark. Embrace it? Not kicking myself about it? Maybe I should learn some Spanish? Or go out? Or put the music on high and dance in my tiny little room? I really don’t know.
I need a protocol for these moments, as they will be quite frequent.
Nothing will happen while I am here. Better head out.
Almost four years later, these feelings still come from time to time, especially when I first arrive in a new city. People ask me if I don’t get lonely. Of course I do. But there are ways to handle it, a protocol as my younger self said. And as you get better at handling the tougher sides of the nomadic life, including loneliness, the bright parts will (hopefully) outshine the dark.
How to handle loneliness.
Loneliness is part of any life, but the nomadic life is particularly prone to it. The first thing to do when loneliness descent on you like a dark cloud is to not overreact. It is just an emotion. The more you wallow in it by feeling sorry for yourself, the less able you are to fix it. This is of course easier said than done. When you sit there in a room with not a soul in town that you can call a friend or even an acquaintance, it is damn hard to not sink further and further into those dark thoughts.
Dark thoughts have a tendency to breed more bad emotions. A feeling of loneliness can, if left unchecked, breed feelings of being a failure, inadequate, unwanted, etc. Remind yourself that you are feeling lonely because you have arrived in a brand new city where you don’t know anyone! Feeling lonely at those times is perfectly reasonable and human.
Having gone through it a few times, it gets easier. You can catch yourself entering the same mindspace as you have other times, and remember that it is a temporary thing. It will pass. You won’t feel like that forever. It is just a matter of how long, and you take action to shorten it.
How to beat loneliness.
Being able to handle loneliness is good, but it will never be a pleasant emotion and you will have to fix the root cause, preferably sooner than later. It won’t just fix itself. You have to do something about it.
The first tip is what you should not do. Do not stay in. Whatever place you’ve rented, get out of there. When loneliness weighs heavy on you, it can be really fucking hard to muster up the energy and oompphf to cross that threshold, but you must must must get out, even if it is just to go and have an ice cream at a park bench and watch the world go by. Staring at your own four (alien) walls will feed the loneliness. If you work from home, either get out as soon as you log off, or work from a coffee shop.
If you prompt must have a destination for going out, use sightseeing as your motivation. Make a list of things to see and do in your new city, and get out there and do the list. Whatever it takes to get you out.
Busying yourself with stuff outside your door helps, but it won’t fix the underlying problem, being that you don’t have any nearby friends. The solution to that problem is obvious; make some friends!
We have all made friends in the past, but for many, these are the kind of friendships that simply congeal out of the background crowd of work colleagues and football teams. It’s rare for people to actively make new friends, but nomads will have to do exactly that.
I’ve found the direct approach best. Just go up to people, say hi, explain that you are new in town and looking for people to hang out with. You can do this at bars, coffee shops or one of the many themes Meetups. Do whatever works for you. Just make sure that it is effective! You don’t have time to let these friendships form passively around you. You’ll need to work at it! Most likely, you’ll have to be the person taking that dreaded first step and initiate contact. Fortunately, it gets easier the more times you do it.
Do you need to make bigger changes?
If the loneliness comes back every time you make a move, and it last a long time and causes you a lot of grief no matter what you do, all despite your best efforts to fight it, then perhaps it is time to reconsider bigger parts of your life.
Should you perhaps pick other kind of destinations? For example, I have an easier time making friends and fighting loneliness if I go to an English speaking country. Or perhaps you should go to places ‘for a reason’, meaning you have some activity in mind that you want to do when you get there, such as learning tango or volunteer in some community project, something that will get you in touch with people.
You could try to stay longer in whatever place you go. If it takes you as long as a month to build up some friendships, it would be a shame to leave soon thereafter to start all over again? Maybe stay six months instead?
Perhaps you could favour destinations where you already have friends? It is OK to return to places where you’ve been before! This is your journey; you get to call the shots.
Finally, you could stop being a nomad. It isn’t something you have to do forever. It is not for everybody. Quitting is not admitting defeat; it is making active choices on how you want to live. More people should quit that which does not work for them.