Managing Expectations

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I have learned in traveling is the importance of managing expectations. With all the initial research, planning and anticipation, it can be easy to unknowingly set expectations so high that an experience cannot possibly live up to it all. Keeping an open mind and channeling excitement into curiosity can help avoid disappointment during a trip. Leaving some experiences to chance and spontaneity can be refreshing. An overfull itinerary can be stressful in itself and distract from the overall experience. As with life, travel rarely unfolds exactly as planned, so it helps to expect a little of the unexpected.

It has been said that home is where the heart is, but returning from a unique or extended travel experience can also sometimes present its own challenges. Managing those expectations can be just as important as initial trip planning. Any number of emotions may accompany a returning traveler – I suppose it could be considered part of the baggage. For me, the intensity of the re-entry process generally correlates with trip duration, relationships formed while traveling, level of emotion experienced and the core difference between my “home base” lifestyle and that of my travel experience (e,g., accommodations, food, transportation, cultural differences, economies, etc.). I will readily admit that I learned these lessons the hard way, and as my luck would have it, on the same trip. On my return home, I was so busy dealing with emotions from the mismanaged initial expectations that nothing prepared me for the shock I was about to have when I actually arrived. Two vivid memories still haunt me as if they were yesterday:

  • The morning after arriving home, I stepped into my walk-in closet to select something to wear. I stood there and my body just froze. I broke into tears. Not only had I not needed any of these items during all my time away, but I could not fathom how I could possibly need them at all, that day or in my lifetime. It was a reminder of how blessed I am, but it was difficult to process how uneasy I felt at that moment, as if none of these items were mine (after all, I had survived just fine wearing and re-wearing a few pair of shorts and tank tops during my entire trip). That was all that felt familiar to me anymore. I began to wonder how I could possibly need everything that I had, whether in my closet or my whole living space. My purchasing patterns changed on the spot that day, and soon after, I began purging even more “stuff” from my life. It has greatly reduced my level of stress and anxiety to have less in my life. My experiences have more than made up for it.
  • When I began reengaging with family, friends and colleagues, everyone kept innocently asking me if I had fun on my trip – a question which left me unexpectedly perplexed. The truth was that the trip had been complex. It was full of personal challenge and growth. It pushed me to and through my limits, physically and emotionally. I returned with more questions than answers and it left me longing to share it with someone who would “get it.” I struggled to express my feelings (ironic since I was overly emotional about everything else) until I realized that most people didn’t actually want the details – they just wanted to hear “Yes, it was fun, thanks!” So, that is what I began telling everyone. Only my closest confidantes heard the truth because they genuinely understood.

While seated next to each other on a plane, a marathon runner once told me “You know, the fastest way to lose all your friends is to start running. Few people will understand and even fewer will run with you.” One could argue that travel is similar. The reality is that not everyone is going to see life the way you do – not everyone will enjoy the photos, not everyone will want to hear the stories, not everyone will think you have an ounce of sanity left – but it doesn’t matter because you will carry the value of your experiences with you. So when you get back from traveling, go ahead and post your photos, smile and just say “Yes, it was fun, thanks!” until you find someone who is genuinely craving the details. Chance are, they will have some great stories to share with you, too.

A couple of additional tips for re-entry include assessing your level of emotion about the trip before talking about it with others. If it was an experience that was deeply personal or emotionally intense, consider politely refraining from sharing your experiences until you have time to process everything. Your friends will understand and this might spare you from¬†an unexpected outburst of tears. Also, if you are returning home from a long journey (e.g., a trip that requires multiple¬†flights over multiple days), consider a “bookend” day (or two) to yourself alone upon return. Even if you think you will not have jet lag, it can creep up without warning and you may find yourself sleeping for 24 hours straight. Yes, that actually happened to me once and it was miserable. Set reasonable expectations about what you will accomplish your first few days home and remember, laundry can actually wait.

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