Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I enjoy being alone in the outdoors. Each year, I go on multiday hiking and camping trips on my own. I plan extensively for these trips and get excited for the meals I’ll make for myself, the trails I’ll explore, the other campers I might meet, and all the time I’ll have to decompress, meditate, read, and write. Going solo means I get to do all this without worrying about whether a companion is enjoying the trip or concerning myself with anyone else’s logistics.
My problem is the intense irritation I feel when, upon hearing that I’m going hiking or camping, the first question from friends and colleagues is, “Who are you going with?” This is almost always the first thing people ask—not what I’m hoping to get out of the experience or anything else I wish they would ask. I wouldn’t mind if those questions came later, but it often happens that the questions totally dry up after I cheerfully respond that I’m going solo. I get looks of confusion or bemusement, and sometimes people wonder why I would go on my own.
This conversational pattern bothers me for a few reasons. It makes me feel as though, in others’ eyes, my experiences have no worth unless they’re shared. And because I’ve had a rough couple of years in terms of friendships—cutting ties with two of my oldest friends and having trouble making deep new connections—this question makes me feel inadequate, like I don’t have enough friends, whatever that magic number might be.
The thing is that I believe solo experiences have value. I’ve read plenty of books about wonderful solo adventures—Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Silence in the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge, Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes—and I follow solo adventurers on social media. I’ve always admired people who are independent, but I’m not antisocial—as much as I enjoy being on my own, I also enjoy spending time with interesting people and good friends. One of the biggest and best adventures of my life was cycling across North America with 68 teammates!
I’ve been in therapy for eight months now, both to work through my grief at losing my two oldest friendships and to become a more well-adjusted person. I’ve made lots of progress in other ways, but every time I have to reply to someone about who I’m going on a trip with, I still feel this strange combination of rage and dejection well up inside me. It seems silly to get so worked up about what is, at the end of the day, a simple question.
Can you offer some perspective or thoughts on how I might do a better job of dealing with this?
When people ask who you’re going to be traveling with, they’re not implying that solo journeys don’t have value—far from it. People assume that you’re traveling with someone else because that’s how they might imagine themselves doing the trip or because that’s what they’re most familiar with. I suspect that if they clam up afterward and don’t ask anything else, it’s because they’re sensing your strong emotions, no matter how cheerfully you try to answer. Why would you keep asking questions to someone who seems to be suppressing rage?
Strong emotions like this come from a deep place, so it’s important that you’re processing your pain with a professional. Loss of friendship, grief, shame—these are all big things, and I’m glad to hear that you’re doing the hard work of taking care of yourself.
But what do you do in the meantime, as you continue to work with your therapist, to handle this sort of conversation?
The most important thing to remember is that when someone asks you who you’re traveling with, they’re not suggesting that solo trips aren’t valid or that you don’t have friends. In fact, they are trying to be friends. They’re trying to start a conversation about something you care about, but it just so happens that they stumble onto an insecurity with their first question. Your best response, if you want to talk about your trip—and it sounds like you do—is to help point the conversation in a direction you’re more excited about. It might look like this:
Them: “Who are you traveling with?”
You: “I’ll be backpacking alone, actually! I’ll be checking out a new trail that circles the base of Katahdin. I’m still figuring out what to pack for my lunches.”
Just like that, the hard part (explaining that you’ll be alone) is over, and you’re moving the conversation forward by offering multiple cues about things you’d like to talk about. Your colleague might have their own story about Katahdin, or they might ask what appeals to you about the new trail or start discussing options for camping food. You can keep the conversation as light as you’d like, but you’re still taking the opportunity to connect with someone, rather than pushing them away.
If things are going well, and if you’re talking to someone you care about, you could also use the conversation as a chance to be vulnerable. Everyone has different values for their friendships, of course, but I’m usually drawn to people who work to understand their own fears and shames and motivations, who keep learning about themselves and the world, and then share this honesty with their loved ones. It can be uncomfortable work, but it sounds like the kind of work you’re doing, and if you risk sharing that vulnerability, you might be surprised by the tenderness you get in return. If you’re feeling a connection when you talk about other parts of your trip, you might try consciously circling back to that first question. “It’s interesting that you asked who I was traveling with,” you could say, “because that’s actually something I’m grappling with right now. I love traveling alone, but it seems to put people off, so sometimes I feel self-conscious. But I’ve been going through a lot lately, and I love having that time to reflect.” Maybe they’ll want to talk about it; maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll sense your courage in speaking honestly—and you’ll be taking steps to build the kind of deeper relationships that can help you through this tough time.