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Solo adventures: the delicate balance between social overwhelm and isolation

Updated: Sep 16, 2023


Some of my most memorable experiences have been solo adventures. Taking a bus to the Drakensberg and staying in a backpackers for a week where I hiked and journaled every day. Flying to Argentina and spending a month learning Spanish and experiencing a different country. Doing a road trip along Cederberg dirt roads and driving my Hyundai Getz like a rally car.

Just me and my car, amongst the mountains

But what all the best solo adventures have ironically had in common, was some kind of interaction with other people. The journey might have started alone, but I ended up making new friends, joining up with fellow travellers and adventuring together, or just engaging with a local and experiencing a friendly interaction (like chatting to a petrol attendant in a tiny rural town).


On the trips where I didn’t interact with other humans at all, I was at my loneliest. Recently I booked 2 nights for myself in a little Cederberg cottage, thinking it would be the most relaxing time. It turned out to be quite traumatic. I stayed up all night imagining a pack of drooling hyenas slowly circling the tiny house, and - even during the light of day - it just felt wrong. No one in sight, no one to affirm my existence.

The reality of a solo adventure trip - not sleeping and listening to the noises of the night

The difference between alone time and isolation


This experience (and so many like these) got me thinking about the difference between "alone time" and "isolation". The above adventure was character-building but very stressful, and I wanted to find a way to be alone that could also be relaxing. It seems that isolation is when solo time starts ticking over into something problematic, and starts messing with what makes us human: connection and social structures. Time to bring in the dictionary:


Alone

Having no one else present.

- Synonyms: solo, solitary, unchaperoned.


Isolated

Far away from other places, buildings or people; remote.

- Synonyms: lonely, godforsaken, unreachable.



The words “alone” and “isolated” can be used in other ways too. You can feel isolated even though you are sitting next to someone. For the sake of this argument, I’ll stick with “alone” being the word to describe physical solitude with a small radius (eg. alone in your bedroom reading, even though your spouse is in the kitchen cooking), and “isolated” referring to a much bigger social and physical distance (think of that tiny cottage in the mountains, or not speaking to anyone for days on end).



Finding and staying in that sweet spot between social overwhelm and isolation


It was during a solo trip to Ceres that I contemplated (not for the first time) how I could find a sweet spot between these extreme states that I often found myself in. After some doodles I came up with a graph that could serve as a reference point for where I was, and where I needed to focus my energies on going to next.





On the X-axis, you can find yourself in various states of alone-ness, from completely alone (left) to completely surrounded by others (right). The Y-axis plots how great these experiences are, from very positive (top), to very negative (bottom). You can find yourself anywhere on this graph at any given moment, and it can change quite quickly. For example, you can be enjoying alone time ("content aloneness"), but after an extended amount of time away from others, you might find yourself starting to dip into the "isolated" state - a more negative experience.


It would be great to stay in the nice yellow and green areas, moving between happy me-time and fun social time, but often I end up jumping between the negative extremes. Here are some valuable lessons I've learned on how to manage these states and get better at knowing where I need to be.


1. Take incremental steps towards equilibrium


The lesson I’ve had to painfully learn: take incremental steps in whichever direction you need to go to find equilibrium again. When you’re feeling isolated, perhaps all you need is a meaningful phone call with a close friend, and that nudges you up into a more “content aloneness” space. Not a full-blown social event that is bound to shellshock you back to “overstimulated”. Similarly, if I'm feeling a bit tired socially, I can go for a 1 hour hike by myself, or a solo coffee, not an off-the-grid, week-long solo camping session.


2. Pick your battles


The key is also to understand that you won’t be able to hang around in the perfect space forever. That would mean being able to control your surroundings! Rather get to know how and when it’s time to nudge yourself closer to what you need and what is healthy for you at that moment. Sometimes you just need to wait out the storm and learn from the experience (character-building has to happen at some point, right?).



3. Reflect and gain knowledge


"Content aloneness" does not work without it’s opposing force: social interaction. Too much happy alone time will inevitably become isolated time, and too much social time can become overwhelming, even for the most charming extroverts. You will inevitably swing between states, this is human nature and the nature of life. But being able to reflect and identify where you are now helps to know in which direction to go next.



Practical tips to get the most out of solo adventuring


From spending many years in the “content aloneness” and “isolated” realms, and from a lot of trial and error, I’ve learnt a few “How to’s” regarding the maintenance of social connections, finding alone time that isn’t isolating, and dealing with isolation when it becomes overwhelming. Here are some of my favourite alone-time activities, with some tips to make each most useful.



1. The solo coffee


Ah, the joy of being surrounded by a bustle, but being in your own bubble. Not all coffeeshops are created equally, and for the purpose of alone time, a few specifics need to be in place to create the best atmosphere.


  • Not too busy, i.e. there needs to be a bunch of open tables, so you feel you’re allowed to relax and take your time pondering a book or writing in your journal

  • Not too noisy – this is a tough one. The best is to “shop around” and find your favourite. Mine is Bootleggers in Camps Bay. There are some amazing coffeeshops that hit this recipe in the bullseye.

  • Preferably grab a small table in a corner with your back against the wall – it feels more snug and safe.

  • To get the most out of this alone time, refrain from just checking emails and instagram - instead try journaling about future goals, doodling, or reading a favourite book as a more reflective option.



2. The solo getaway


Going away for a day or two can be very rejuvenating, especially if you live around other people and never experience a tranquil atmosphere at home. But going away alone can quickly feel lonely and isolating. I’ve found that these tricks help find that sweet spot between solitude and human connection.


  • If your goal is to relax, then don’t go stay in a cottage in the woods or mountains by yourself! This is poep spooky, and you’ll end up staying awake listening for animals. If however, you’re in the mood for a challenge, then by all means!

  • Feeling safe is paramount when you’re alone. Pick places that are adjacent to other humans. Guesthouses work well, boutique hotels, campsites that are busy, and Airbnbs that are secure (eg. in a complex or great neighborhood).

  • Being in close vicinity to some kind of bustle is a great option to have when you’re traveling alone. In your room you can be alone, do work, charge your social batteries, but when you feel the need, you can “walk into town” for a coffee and conversation with a local.

  • Speak to people. Engage in conversation about their business, travels, whatever. Remind yourself that human connection is important. You don’t have to become friends, but acknowledging others’ presence is the literal antidote to feelings of isolation.

  • Engage in physical activities! Do not spend too much time thinking. This will only lead you in circles. Go for a run, walk, tour, drive, swim, whatever. Balance your travels between calm reflection, and active participation. The mind tends to sort itself out when the body is active. This can make the quiet times more special.

  • Work. Combining work and getaway is an almost foolproof way to get the “me-time” effect, without the isolation. That is if you work with people some of the time, or at least are able to check in with someone with regards to your tasks for the day, like a status meeting.



3. The solo hike (aka "Pocahantas-ing")


One of my favourite things in this world, is to be completely alone in nature. Not having the distraction of socialising means I can go full Pocahontas or Tomb Raider and connect with the animals, the weather, the elements around me. But situations do go south sometimes, and when you're going into the wild, a few things can ensure it stays a peaceful, or at the very least, safe experience.


  • Pick a trail you know well, in an area you know well. The goal of hiking alone is not to have a near-death or semi-traumatic experience, but to switch your mind off and enjoy the comfort of nature - therefore make it as comfortable and secure as you can.

  • If you're new to hiking alone, try doing it on a really busy day first (weekends), so that you'll be surrounded by other hikers some of the time. Even though there will be people, you might get stretches of trail to yourself.

  • On the other hand, if you really want that "me and the mountains" feeling, go during the week, but pick a safe area that you know well. My personal favourites are Silvermine Nature Reserve, anything on the Twelve Apostles, Lion's Head alternate route, and Newlands Forest.

  • If at any point you have a bad feeling, turn around and go home. We have animal instincts that we can't really explain - but we can trust them.




4. The solo CEO


I spent almost 10 years working on my own creative projects, mostly music-related. (At one point I spent a full year composing, recording and mixing my own album in a 30sqm bachelor flat, without input from others or any kind of collaboration). I was highly focused, independent, super creative and full of ideas. But I also burned out motivationally at least on the weekly. And those were lonely times. It taught me how to be alone, which I’m grateful for, but looking back I do not miss it for a second.


I’m super new to the “real” work world (ie working on other people’s projects, being part of a team, and collaborating creatively), so I only have a few pointers on the topic:


  • Freelancing seems like the perfect combo of alone-time and social interactions, especially if you have a few solid clients that you can check in on, but who also trust you with the project enough to leave you alone for a few days.

  • Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. By teaming up and opening yourself up to another person’s skillset, viewpoint, and feedback, you genuinely learn faster, do more, and potentially build amazing, life-long relationships.



In the end, we are social beings


There’s a well-known saying in Afrikaans: “Die mens is nie ‘n eiland nie” (Man is not an island). In these words lies the inescapable truth that explains why our modern society (being digitally connected but physically more disconnected) suffers from depression and feelings of isolation. But it also hints at our very real biological history, and the way we are wired for connection and community living.


However, life shapes us to have different personalities and preferences when it comes to how much connection we can handle before we need a rest. Knowing your limits, understanding your social needs, and having the ability to tune your environment to match these needs, will ensure that you have more energy to make positive change, and feel less alone when you're taking necessary me-time.


I hope that some of these words have helped you in a small way, and good luck with the never-ending journey of understanding yourself! :)

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