It started with a pile of neglected online work that had been piling up during my two months holidaying around Switzerland, London and California. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I buckled down and did the work. It took a couple of weeks to clear up, and during that time, I got into a comfortable routine of staying home. That routine solidified into a mental barrier against exploring Buenos Aires. I didn’t know where to start, and I put it off. Then my lack of adventurous spirit became a source of guilt. I feel like I should be out there having fun, but I was not and it was entirely my own doing–or lack thereof. I had lost the momentum. To cover up the guilt, I invented more online busywork, but that just made things worse. Now I wasn’t just worrying about wasting my time but I also felt inadequate and weak-willed. Here I was, the self-proclaimed nomad, meant to travel the world and live an exciting life, holed up in his room, unable to enjoy Buenos Aires, one of the most easily enjoyable cities in the world!
I faced a mental monster, a twin-headed dragon of failed expectations and self-isolation.
Here be dragons
Did the previous section strike you as absurd, silly or overly dramatic? It does to me, now, reading it back. But that is the thing with mental monsters. They may look absurd from the outside, but from the twisted perspective of the individual dealing with them, they are real and serious. In my personal example above, I truly felt the pain of the disparity between my idealized nomadic lifestyle and my actual experiences, and it paralyzed me. It was all in my head, but that didn’t make it any less real or dangerous. After all, we are our minds.
Enough introduction. This article is not about my own dragon of despair; it is about mental monsters and pitfalls in general. Everyone has them, and the section on how to deal with them is of general interest. But first, I want to say why nomads should be extra vigilant of these beasts.
The edge of the map
When we live stable lives surrounded by friends and family, then our mental state is anchored to those routines and people. Imagine your mind as a ship, anchored outside an island populated by friendly people. Your mind ship doesn’t drift very far, for good and bad. It is safe, but your chances of exploring new sides of your psyche are limited.
When you break away from those anchors, i.e. leave the work, city and people that have been your life for many years or decades, then everything changes. You begin exploring uncharted territories of your life and push the horizon of your experiences, but such ventures are not risk free. Just like the uncharted edges of medieval maps, there are dragons, sea serpents and great whirlpools in those murky waters.
Nomads need to be aware of these risks. Consider for example how you’d react to these situations.
- Living far away from your friends and family.
- Living in a place where you don’t speak the language.
- Living without the financial security of a stable 9-6 job.
- Self-imposed expectations of what you should do with all your hard-earned freedom.
That last point is my personal dragon that has twice bitten me, once recently which prompted me to write this post and once in Mexico, where I underwent a crisis of purpose.
How to deal with dragons
I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from taking risks and explore themselves through travel. These mental monsters are more frequent as a nomad, but there are also wondrous islands of hidden skills, newfound confidence and resplendent self-realizations. The benefits of pushing yourself like this far outweighs the risks.
Besides, no matter how safely anchored your life is, those dragons can still come to you. No one is safe from their own mind. Nomadic or not, everyone should learn how to deal with their dragons.
I keep harping on about it, but the main goal of my nomadic life isn’t to explore the world but to explore myself. (The exploration of the world is a great bonus though!) So although these mental monsters aren’t pleasant, they are undeniably a part of me and therefore worth exploring. Knowing that I am prone to sadness, loneliness and self-doubt in certain situations doesn’t make me weaker; it makes me wiser.
This self-reflection is an essential prerequisite for the three tactics below. It is only once you’ve faced your dragon, looked it straight in the eye and acknowledged that it is there that you can avoid, fight or dispel it.
A word of warning though. There is a big difference between studying a monster and being eaten by it. Being depressed for a few weeks is quite different from wallowing in it for years. Don’t make a routine out of your pain! The goal is to know it so you can overcome it. Once understood, it should be dealt with.
Once we know that certain parts of our minds are breeding grounds for dragons, then we can stay clear of them. An alcoholic who knows that they are prone to self-destruction if they drink quite sensibly avoids alcohol. If the news or reality TV shows depress you, change the channel.
The key word here is acceptance. It is impossible to avoid a dragon whose existence you deny.
Some monsters simply can’t be avoided. They can be random, cyclical or triggered by something you don’t want to avoid.
In my case, I don’t want to avoid arriving in new places where I am forced to make new friends, form new hobbies, find new meaning and explore new experiences. It may scare and overwhelm me, but it is also the very reason why I chose to become a nomad. Therefore, I have to stand my ground and fight the dragon.
Since everyone’s monsters are different, I can’t offer much concrete advice for how to fight them. However, I can say that it does become easier over time as you learn what weapons and tactics work.
There is a neat trick that I want to share with you though, and it works in most cases where you have a mental block against performing some action. It is heavily used in Getting Things Done, and it works wonders. The trick is to separate the decision to do something from the act of doing it.
Here is an example. I knew that to fight my recent dragon, I needed to go explore Buenos Aires, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It all seemed overwhelming and my mind kept sliding off it. So I told myself that all I needed to do today was decide what I was going to do tomorrow. I avoided the mental block because the thing my mind was blocking me from doing wasn’t happening now, but tomorrow. When tomorrow arrived, then I had two powerful weapons to bring down on my monster. The first weapon was the promise to myself that I would do it today. It acted as a momentum to help push me over the edge. The second weapon was that the task at hand was clearly defined. There was no ambiguity about what I needed to do. It was all planned out, and all I had to do was follow the plan.
Many dragons are self-made. They spawn in our minds from the deep shadow cast by the word ‘should’. We take on some expectation that we cannot live up to and use it to beat ourselves bloody. It is a corrupt bastardization of having goals. A goal inspires you to reach further while the dragon of unattainable expectations poisons your mind and twists your dreams into nightmares.
There is no hiding from these dragons as they are our own thoughts on who or what we should be and neither can they be defeated as these ‘goals’ or ‘shoulds’ are unreachable. An anorectic can’t hide from her feelings of self-loathing and neither can she attain the zero-percent body fat that she thinks she should have. (It is usually a she, but the way objectification of men’s bodies is going, we can soon enjoy equality on this point too.)
Some of these dragons are easily defeated. All we have to do is realize that we are trying to live up to some impossible ideal and drop it. Sometimes, the dragon has sunk its claws so deep in the psyche and the poison spread so far that it takes years of therapy to overcome.
In my case, I realize now that my self-portrait as an exciting guy living a wild and adventurous nomadic life where every day is filled with new wondrous discoveries is an unreachable ideal. I will have times when I just don’t feel like sightseeing or rush around making friends. A day without adventure isn’t a failure but a valuable day of rest. I don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations, including yours, dear reader. I will explore my world, both internal and external, at a pace that makes me happy.