“You seem more confident now. You don’t care about what others think.” Lingering words. One of my two beloved German professors earnestly leaned toward me in the crowded and noisy bar, a show likely happening in the background. Amid the clamor, my brain questioned whether my ears really heard what they so wanted to. But my ears were right. He was right. I had just studied abroad in two different countries, I had traveled through central Europe by myself, couchsurfing for the first time. I felt different: a little larger, a little sharper.

Young, and navigating my way through my early college years with the constant self-questioning, “am I cool enough? Do I look good enough?” I know I’m an odd duck, but odd can be cool, so am I, am I? Staring at my bangs in the mirror, hand on the scissors. They must be perfect or I’ll look stupid. An hour passes. I did my bangs alright, but I don’t feel any different, any better.

Recently, two weeks camping in Siberia. Bucket showers at most. Mud, no make-up, no shaving. Still: on goes the bathing suit and into the freezing waters I go, screaming, laughing. And if I want, in excitement or contentment or both, I raise my arms above my head.

In Lake Baikal

Last month, for the local wacky solstice festival, a friend and I, inspired, grew out and, gasp, dyed our armpit hair. I had not an ounce of negative self-consciousness, nay, I even felt a bold pride. If someone were to say something I would have laughed, uncaring, because now I do what I want, what’s comfortable for me. Because, I know I’m cool and that cool is a nebulous shifting piece of crap anyway, but whatever, I’m cool if I feel I am.

Young, and in my dorm room because my friends are busy and I don’t want to go to the cafeteria by myself. How mortifying! Instead, I scrape peanut butter and jelly onto some bread and turn back into my dim little room cave.

Recently, checking into a hostel in Klaipėda. I’m alone and I want to go biking along the Curonian Spit. A girl checks in behind me. I turn to her and start to chat right away. We wander around town together. The next morning, we cycle.

This month, I have time to kill alone in Denver after a cancelled flight. I could sit around in my hotel room, but that wouldn’t do. So I grab an Uber to a microbrewery downtown, to see what’s going on, I read there were food trucks there. Immediately after stepping inside, two women ask about the book I have tucked under my arm. I join their group out on the patio and eventually we head back to one of their houses, where we end up reciting poetry in English, Russian, and Spanish. My boyfriend, arriving in town after rerouting his journey to meet me, picks me up at their place. I’m glowing.

Throwing yourself out there, tumbling around—it builds an additional layer of skin, a barrier for sloughing the silly fears off, a coating of eh I don’t care about the superficial things, but about the meaningful connections, the adventure.

And travel, especially solo travel, especially wing it and it’ll be fine travel, is throwing yourself out there, to be sure. Do it enough and you’ll become tough in all the right places. Maybe not completely free from social anxiety or body image blues, but you can get much, much better.

My professor, six years ago, was right. Now, he is six years righter.

Pssst! Don’t forget to vote for me, Leah, to be the next Women in Travel Summit Global Ambassador! Voting closes tomorrow.