BIRTHDAY TRAVEL

I am on holiday – yippee!

I am also alone on holiday and it’s my birthday.

I am sat in a cafe that my boyfriend told me about when he visited this city, this was before we met. He has just text to ask how my morning has been and I have checked in with a few friends, family, my emails and I have turned to writing.

The cafe itself however is gorgeous, a small colonial style house with moulding exterior yellow walls that has been converted into a three floor eatery, with tiled floors and peeling paintwork. A mish-mash array of wooden furniture with a large bookshelf made of bamboo and Chinese lanterns provide the only internal light. Equally, with the heavy leaden clouds outside, you could be mistaken for thinking it is the nighttime.

So why have I chosen to spend my birthday on holiday and alone?

I have moments of pondering that very question. And this is certainly one of them.

The last time I did this, that is solo travel, was around eight years ago and I took myself off to the south of France for one week, specifically Nice, Monaco and Cannes. I was in the midst of a difficult period with a boyfriend (we hadn’t actually broken up but it was evidently on the cards) and my response to the difficulties we faced was to leave the country, naturally. My soon-to-be ex-boyfriend at the time hated the idea of me off on what he believed to be a jolly holiday whilst he wallowed in frustration and angst, but there had always been something niggling away at me throughout our relationship, certainly in the last few months. It wasn’t working and I felt trapped.

There were periods whilst I was away where I almost felt trapped again, but in a very different way. Trapped with myself and with only my thoughts for company.

We as humans are naturally (and evolutionary) for the most part social creatures. A degree of solitude may be good for the soul, but for me I find myself craving some social interaction after a while, which you could argue is equally good for the soul.

If I had stayed in a youth hostel I perhaps would have made some connections which may have led to some evenings out, but my shyness and introverted nature (which at the time I had not realised or certainly appreciated) resulted in me spending my evenings alone, usually at the hotel with a glass of wine.

In amongst the trips to Monaco, Cannes and wandering the narrow streets of Nice I had moments of utter contentment; why had I not done this sooner? I fell in love with the south of France and for the freedom it gave me for those seven days. But likewise there were periods of darkness where my inner voice criticised me and made me question what the hell I was doing.

When I was waiting for my return flight to the UK, I had one of those epiphanies that can arise from periods of quiet, something so vivid and clear. Despite spending the week alone, I had never felt lonelier than when I was with my boyfriend at the time.

The irony of the situation was that my boyfriend and I actually stayed together for a little longer, another year in fact! To him, it was as though I had never been away and whenever I tried to talk about some of our issues or even the trip he would shut me down. This of course led me to shut down even further and which led inevitably to another contributing factor of our break-up. 

This time, I am a little older and hopefully a little wiser in more ways than one. Firstly, my trip is more adventurous in nature involving some time in a big city, moving onto a hiking tour and then a few days excursion on a boat. Secondly, emotionally I am in a far better place.  In the past I was made to feel guilty if I wanted some time alone – even if I wanted to visit friends. Now I feel quite the opposite. My boyfriend and I are supportive of our mutual desire for space and time alone and if that includes a holiday then it includes a holiday.

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FRIEND REJECTED

Early on this year I began socialising with a relatively new colleague from work. Hayley* and I had always got on in a ‘brief encounters in and around the office kind of way’ with jokes and silly stories, regularly suggesting to one another about going out for that drink but like with most things in life, other things had gotten in the way.

After a holiday, I decided to bite the bullet and suggested dinner and drinks one night after work. The evening went so well that we decided to extend it and we ended up sharing more wine until fairly late. For the next few months, once or twice a week we would grab a drink or meet up for lunch sometimes with a group of others. Being someone who leans over on the side of being an introvert side of life and at times finds certain aspects of socializing a challenge, particularly first introductions, I was happy that I had found someone that I connected with.

So it was strange when I noticed that things had begun to change.

Whenever I made a suggestion about going out somewhere, her responses were vague, non-committal and always in the negative. She was busy, she was tired, she had work to catch up… all totally fair and legitimate reasons. But my suspicions were raised that things were definitely off between us when it turned out I had been replaced on the lunch dates by a newer colleague. 

So what did I do? I turned inward and attempted to analyse the situation as best I could. What had I done wrong? Had I offended her somehow? Made an inappropriate remark? Insulted her mother?

Perhaps I was reading too much into it, another friend said. She’s had a lot going on, I was reminded. This I knew and understood, I had offered support, an ear and no judgement to best of my knowledge, but why still the blackout?

You can do a quick Google search, or pick up a copy of a glossy magazine and find various articles about what to do or how you are meant to feel after the breakdown of a relationship between romantic partners, but what about with friends? As unlike a breakup with a partner, where at least usually you have the opportunity to put your cards on the table as to the state of how things are going, with a friend the lines are often blurred and you may never get to the bottom of the question, ‘Why did you dump me?’

To help analyse my situation a little more, I turned to some of the theory that I teach students looking specifically at relationship breakdowns. British social psychologist, Steve Duck proposed a four stage process to a romantic relationship breakdown:

At first, an individual mulls over the state of a relationship, this is known as the intrapsychic phase. This is generally an internal process where a person considers if they are satisfied or not. They may voice their dissatisfaction to other people but it is not until the second phase, dyadic phase where the partner hears their concerns. Here, a discussion may be constructive and useful in terms of enlightening one or both partners about any difficulties, compromises may be made and new boundaries drawn. 

However, it may also move the breakdown into the third stage or the social phase, this is where more people from the immediate social circle become involved regarding the relationship; family, friends and colleagues. At this point, advice is sought from these groups to help the person determine whether the relationship can be saved or not. If not, the breakdown leads to the final stage. 

Finally, the grave-dressing phase is where, individuals having looked introspectively at the part they played in the relationship reassess their own values, and importantly consider how the outside world may perceive them. This can involve the retelling of the relationship in a favourable way. In effect at this stage you are mourning the loss of the relationship and attempting to present yourself in the best light to potential future partners. For example, if the relationship ended due to infidelity, the person who had the affair may argue that they were unhappy and the relationship had run its course to ‘justify’ their actions. 

Although this model is applicable to romantic relationships, there are certainly overlaps with other types of relationship, particularly friendships. You initially connect due to shared interests, desires and dreams, much like a romantic relationship, but without the added potency of hormones and brain chemistry. Also unlike romantic relationships, with friendships our levels of investment are usually vastly different. We may not see them as regularly as our partners for instance and so we may tend to wave off or suppress certain discussions to prevent any potential fall out. 

The idea that we become introspective and may try to establish a pattern of behaviour for ourselves and others is not only natural but also what makes us human. We may discuss the friendship with mutual friends trying to establish if they know anything about how the dumper is feeling in an attempt to explain their actions. Some people probably less sensitive than me may not even reach the ‘grave-dressing stage’, and see the ebbs and flows of a relationship as a fact of life. You win some, you lose some.

It could be an option at this point to ask the dumper themselves what exactly happened, what changed so dramatically to cause the breakup? This is mostly dependent on whether you truly want to know the answer or whether it is worth admitting your own insecurities.

In my case, part of my personality and desire to form strong attachments to others makes me sometimes susceptible and sensitive to the loss of an attachment, resulting in a degree of anxiety. Perhaps the reason why Hayley moved on and made close friends with some newer colleagues is because our friendship was one more of convenience rather than any deep connection or dislike towards me. As bleak and flippant as that sounds, it does remind me that I do have some incredibly strong friendships with lasting connections and I am reminded to spend some more time fostering these.

* The name has been changed to protect their identity.

References:

BE KIND, UNWIND

Last night I met up with some girlfriends and colleagues for evening drinks and we ended up heading to a club. Nothing unusual there for a Saturday night for most people I would assume. Except this is me, and an evening out ‘out’ on the tiles is a rarity.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy socialising, in fact I am able to hold myself rather well, but there comes a point where I feel utterly drained by the experience if it is prolonged. In situations like this I tend to exhibit the following behaviours; I drink and talk more to conceal the fact that I feel like I have to talk for talking’s sake. I then become even more anxious about my behaviour and the cycle continues until I am either stinking drunk or make the smart move and leave.

On this particular evening fortunately I did the latter.

It’s taken some years for me to feel comfortable in saying no to social activities, or having my fill and leaving when I feel full so to speak. During my teens and 20s, I largely felt like I had to be someone else; someone who was gregarious and a people pleaser.

I can’t solely blame my upbringing, but many memories of my mother involve her unbridled duty to ‘help’ everyone else (and she still does) often to the detriment of herself. I feel in some way that this was instilled into me also. Likewise, I felt like I needed to be ‘loud’ to be heard at school, home and amongst friends.

Otherwise, what was I?

A nobody – well that was certainly how I felt.

This ‘loudness’ followed me throughout university and into my career as a teacher and lecturer, until I stopped caring as much.

I couldn’t safely say what specifically caused this change in perspective but leaving an emotionally restrictive relationship during my mid-20s certainly helped, resulting in a period of time single. I wasn’t out partying every night to get over the breakup, it was actually quite the opposite as I felt relieved, as though a weight had been lifting off my shoulders. At the same time, I think a multitude of factors caused me to reassess my own life but the breakup was the catalyst.

I have come to accept my need for downtime, my desire to unwind in a space of my own after a day at work or have time off after socialising, though I still find it conflicts with a basic human need for interaction at some level. So it was interesting the other night over a text that Daniel wrote that he was ‘holding the introvert inside’, whilst out with friends. I could totally relate!

I find it easier to remember that keeping yourself grounded (and comfortable) is like a balancing act. Sometimes the balancing part is more challenging and at other times everything seems to make perfect sense, things seem easy! But I refuse to let the anxieties run my life like they used to.