Good Grief: Finding Identity through Travel

You know, I never really thought of how much of my identity was wrapped up in my relationships. Strange that it never really occurred to me. Pushing myself through the past 13 months of the grief of losing my life and business partner, I have been trying to figure out who I am as an individual. It’s a very different world when my joint identity doesn’t exist any longer after 23 years (which is more than half of my life)—both personally and professionally. As I am further along in this international sabbatical, I am gaining a better sense of how I am finding identity through travel. 

Back home when simple everyday routines constantly remind me of the absence of my other half, I decided I could go one of two ways…hold on to those for dear life (which in my head seemed incredibly painful) or start to unravel some of those routines to keep the parts that are essential and then begin to release some of the others. It’s a tricky balance because I didn’t want to lose memories but I also couldn’t cling to them in the places where they just don’t count. I started to ask myself why I do things. Is it just because I’ve/we’ve done it that way? After a period of time, I started asking myself a lot more questions like what is it that I want to do right now? Then it was what do I want to do today? Eventually, these led to moving beyond the immediate moment, needs, and wants to making plans for the weekend and then even looking ahead to what do I want to do next year. 

When I started to evaluate my likes and dislikes, I subconsciously put things into categories:

  1. Am I’m holding on to this solely because it represents my life with Jeff and was something we shared? If so, does it bring me nostalgic happiness or is it a painful reminder of a life I no longer have?
  2. Is this something that we shared but I still genuinely enjoy doing, regardless of who it is with? Again, does it bring me joy or pain?
  3. Is it something that I genuinely enjoy and maybe didn’t make time to do for myself?
  4. Does it help define me as an individual? Can I rely on it to lift my spirits on a rough day?

Categorizing things helped me get to the larger, more vague questions as I moved on from the activities I already knew to looking outside that box. What things do I like to do? What makes me happy? Who am I as an individual person, standing on my own two feet and not relying on anyone else to carry me from day to day. Now, don’t get me wrong—I do love to be taken care of and have a sense of partnership! But I’ve started to view it very differently because of the absence. We’ll come back to that another time in another blog post…

Fortunately, I unpacked a lot of this over the past year in therapy with the incredible guidance of my counselor, Sylvia. She helped me start to build my own daily routines based on what I wanted to do and not what I should do. That was a gigantic shift in thinking. I’ve definitely lived in a world of rules and an overwhelming sense of what I should do or am expected to do. I cared a lot more than I felt I should about what other people may think from the outside. Then my edit function just died within the raw emotions of losing Jeff. I gave zero fucks about what other people thought about anything. I became transparent with so many people and I was too vulnerable and exposed to really think much about others’ opinions about me and how I was handling my loss. And trust me, plenty of people have opinions and love to share them…

I started to see the change in my routines and activities before I left on this trip, but once I arrived in Europe and really shifted into a totally different lifestyle and environment, away from my daily surroundings and routines, I truly started to put this mindset into overdrive. I don’t make myself do things I don’t want to do. Fortunately, I am a motivated individual and love my work, so that’s not a problem. LOL. But I don’t participate in things I don’t want to and I listen to my gut a lot more so that I’m doing what I want to do and help bring joy and excitement to my day. Split second decisions where I am choosing to do things based on where I am mentally at and what feels right at that time has been so refreshing. What I have found is that I actually have the headspace for my brain to work this way now and in this setting. I can feel my mental process working differently and it is changing the way I go out and see the world and photograph as well as helping form Betsy v2.0 organically.

On this international journey I’m on, I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone and daily routines that I’ve had no choice but to get up each day and make decisions about how I want to spend my day. I don’t have as many of those conversations that go, “What do you feel like eating??” “No, what do you feel like eating?” You know what I’m talking about. For awhile over the past year many of those decisions about meals resulted in me not eating at all because I would rather crawl in a hole than recognize that my other human wasn’t there to share that ridiculous back and forth with. Fuck it. I’ll have some tzatiki dip, crackers, and a glass of wine. And I’d probably eat said crackers and dip standing up in the kitchen, eating over the sink like a 25 year old bachelor. #embarassingwidowshit. In Berlin, that basically meant that I ate Döner four days in a row with almost zero remorse.

There are many days where I feel like I may have reverted to my 23-year-old-self. The individual I knew before I was a part of a whole that involved another person. Also known as Jetsy 😉

Getting back in touch with myself and learning to love myself for all the good and all the bad is definitely something I’m learning to do. I’m learning to not define myself by how much someone else loves me. That was something my therapist delivered to me about six months in and it was a bit of a gut punch. GULP. But I am now starting to see how important that is. It’s something I’m learning to do every day.

Traveling as a digital nomad has been an incredible experience in getting to know myself. As I am building my days and experiences making these micro-decisions, it’s helping redefine me and my sense of self. I spend full days by myself wandering around taking photos and exploring. I’m trying new things all the time. I wander down a path just to see what’s there. I’m immersed in the culture of a city and am exploring new things all the time without over-researching them beforehand. I’m reading the energy of my surroundings and finding ways to communicate that through images. I can jump into a lot of these things solo, even if I don’t have a familiar face next to me. I used to have a complex about being the girl sitting at the table by herself. I am slowly, but surely, losing that chip on my shoulder.

I have developed an unfamiliar sense of independence as I am finding identity through travel. I am learning something about myself each day, no matter what it is that I’m doing. Everything is new. And because of that, I am open to so many things. I have a real sense of spontaneity that keeps me living in the moment, being present, and going with what feels good. It is a very interesting place to exist. I think I had started this format of living over the past year, but this trip has definitely solidified it.

And I’m facing fears. Sylvia mentioned at one point over the past year, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? It already did.” Love her. It’s true. And when I use that as my guidepost, everything else seems doable and worth a try.

Last week, I got up in a hot air ballon, despite my fear of heights (Shout out to Joel for encouraging me on that one and to Diana for going along with me and sharing a celebratory bier afterwards!). I was able to get up there and capture some of these amazing views over Berlin that I could not have found in any other venue in the city. The payoff was great in that way and of course, knowing that I did it despite being terrified is priceless. There was a series of unexpected things I stretched myself on in Berlin that made me fall in love with that city. The free spirit of Berliners inspired me. It’s these small victories in this journey of finding identity through travel that cumulatively build on one another and make the next adventure seem that more achievable and worth a try. Because, hey, what’s the worst thing that could happen?   

finding identity in travel facing fear of heights

Thanks for reading and following my journey! Here’s a link to my previous post in learning joy from Syrian refugees. 

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