Central America

Turning 31 – Reflections on Confidence and Relationships

Posted on / by Alex Berger
Turning 31 - Alex Berger

Over the past few years a tradition of sorts has arisen. To celebrate my birthday, I sit down, put on my thinking cap, and ramble a bit about some of the things I’ve learned over the previous year. Sometimes these are musings still being digested, other times topics I’m more thoroughly confident about. Regardless, today I celebrate turning 31 and in honor of the occasion have focused on two topics. In some ways the two are complimentary. In others ways they’re worlds apart. I hope you’ll enjoy the musings and take them for what they are – just reflections and an attempt to share the world as I see it and how I relate to it. You can see my more detailed 30th birthday post here, my musings on turning 29 here, or 28 here. This year I also stumbled upon a long-forgotten blog post written on my 23 birthday (yeah, I’ve been blogging that long) which you can view here.

Flower Patch

Social Discomfort

A couple of years ago I had a realization. As I sat with several friends, on multiple occasions, we’d arrive in a situation where they were uncomfortable. Before long, they’d get antsy and comments would start to flow. Often it was about the people present, or aspects of the venue. Perhaps the people were too young, or too naive, or acting too embarrassingly American (in several instances it was young college students on their first exchange). In other situations the beer was too warm, or the venue had failed in some utterly trivial and minor but nevertheless comment worthy way.  Visualize the hipster that ends up in a trendy club and is utterly out of place, or the posh southern socialite who ends up in a grungy dive bar. Picture the polished model who regularly is at ease and comfortable in fancy cocktail bars ending up in a grungy little bodega that only serves beer and bitters.

In these instances their comments were often somewhat embarrassing, in no small part because they’re typically made fairly loudly or at the expense of those nearby. That sense of surprise though also got me to monitor my own behavior and, sure enough, I started to discover I had the same coping mechanism. I also suspect it’s a mechanism that is particularly prevalent within academics as it’s often the easiest and safest defense mechanism for discomfort. Ultimately though, it’s also something all of us do and on a fairly regular basis. Those that are best at conquering the impulse, are those that also seem to be exceptional at integrating into foreign cultures such as the photographer who magically befriends locals or the social butterfly that drifts effortlessly from group to group.

As I reflected on the impulse, I became even more aware of when friends engaged it and when I started to reach for it. In many ways it’s an extension of our fight or flight response. We differentiate ourselves from those around, based on our discomfort, as a social justification for leaving or for engaging in some mild conflict which in turn allows for our departure. In a complex social society where simply departing or casually integrating is rarely a purely unencumbered and simple action, it is an unfortunately resilient tool we are apt to fall back on.

Which is not to say that sometimes these complaints are less-from discomfort and more genuinely from dislike or casual observation. If I were to somehow end up at a party, only to realize that it was in actuality largely populated by racist neo-nazis, disdainful commentary and a desire to re-locate as promptly as possible would be completely justified.  And yet, even there, such commentary might lead to missed opportunities to learn – though only through brief and limited conversation.

One of the life lessons travel has taught me is the value and power of accepting people in whatever context they exist, and then working to converse and engage with them at that level. It may not be at a level I find overly intellectually stimulating. They may not be people I otherwise respect.  But, in even these most disparate of situations, there are often unusual gems which you can learn from and walk away with. Opportunities to accept the context of the situation and to learn about what is important to that person.  Or alternately, to let your sense of discomfort float, swallow your pride, and then engage in whatever the activity or venue is that has left you uncomfortable. Are you grossly out of place at a wine tasting? Stick it out, perhaps confess your ignorance, and seek to connect with the people around you instead of building walls and sending signals that create barriers. The same upon arrival in a dingy dive bar. Trade in your fancy cocktail for the low-quality beer on special, squeeze into a crowded booth, and embrace the chaos, grunge, and simple charm of the moment. Ultimately you are the factor that decides if its a positive or negative experience and if you enjoy yourself or make yourself miserable. You, and only you.

When we do this, all along the spectrum, we not only avoid doing unnecessary harm to those who are around us – often those who are either happily going about their own business, or who have opened elements of their lives up to us – but we push ourselves to push our boundaries in a positive way. When I do this, time and time again, I learn amazing new skills, meet new people with fascinating stories, gain insights otherwise impossible to reach, and often, once I step off my high horse, have a damn good time realizing how badly I my defensive attempts at compensation led me to misjudge the situation.  So what if I find myself in a college bar surrounded by freshly arrived, utterly naive, and somewhat obnoxious drunken international students? I’ll work to remind myself that perhaps that was me back in 2004 when I first came abroad. I’ll work to smile, to engage, not to grandpa them, or to make snide comments. Instead, I’ll work to re-capture some of that naivete, to embrace the moment and to re-kindle some of it in myself.

In life it’s so, so, fundamentally easy for us to ruin moment after moment in our lives. We are constantly in control of how we experience life, of how we shape how events transpire and if we enjoy ourselves or not. So, instead of choosing to be uncomfortable or aloof, often with little-to-no actual foundation, choose to embrace and immerse yourself in the moment. Accept that the trivial annoyances you’ve likely fallen back on as your defense mechanism are just that, and ultimately likely to reflect far more poorly on you than on whatever has you feeling uncertain.

Of course, this only works if you set boundaries and you know where yours are.  There are times where disdain, dislike, or aloofness are justified. These, in particular, are when the situation brushes up against our boundaries or our ethics and while some boundaries are fantastic to push and expand, others are more fundamental to who we are and tied to our ethics – something that should always be uncompromising and have the final say.  But, to properly be able to use these as a litmus test, it’s important to clear away the coping mechanisms that otherwise obscure and limit us.

So – now that a few years have passed, that I’m aware of this challenge, and have actively worked to overcome it, how am I doing? Better. I wish I could say I’d abolished the behavior completely. The reality is, it’s still there and in instances where I’m far outside my comfort zone or mirroring the rest of the group I’m attached to, I will, at times, revert. It’s only human nature, and yet, I know that when it happens I’m acutely annoyed by it. Not only because of my own personal failing to overcome it, but because I know that I’m very likely doing unnecessary harm to those around me while also shortchanging myself and missing out on rich experiences.

All of which eventually boils down to that age old wisdom – be in the moment.

Koh Lanta Tango - Alex Berger


It’s not an annual update if I don’t, at least in part, weigh in on relationships.  As I’ve now stomped past 30 and still find myself quite comfortably single, but ever so slightly increasingly inclined to look for a more serious partner, I find myself discussing love, relationships and expectations regularly with friends. These musings come hand in hand with watching many friends engage in key parts of the cycle. Some are already transitioning into their second marriage. Others are having their long-term relationships implode either resulting in break-ups or divorce, while yet others are engaged in deeply happy relationships and starting to raise their families.  Oh – of course, then there are the other misfits like myself – still searching and enjoying the process. I delve into this in much more depth in my previous posts, but a few items have clarified over this past year.

Often the topic of finding the right fit comes up and my high expectations, somewhat difficult nature, and selective approach to compromise is often a point of disagreement with friends. Ultimately, I’ve narrowed in on two basic questions that help clarify my needs, while also better understanding how these differ (or align) with others. I think far too often we approach relationships with the assumption that they’re all somewhat standardized and that our needs are marginally different but structurally the same. Something that I find to be fundamentally inaccurate and misleading.

Do I need a companion or do I need a partner?

This is a subtle difference. It’s also a critical one. As I increasingly talk to more people, I’ve come to realize that while we might often speak about seeking a partner what many people are looking for and most comfortable with is a companion. The companion is someone who seeks information from you, who relies on you in fundamental ways, and who offers nurturing and validation in a more pronounced way. The power dynamic varies widely, but ultimately, it is usually fairly disproportionate.  These are also the more traditional relationships we often see and, in no small part, what makes it so difficult for highly driven and successful women to find men willing to date them. Past texts have described this as the student and the teacher or the provider and the nurturer.

The other approach is individuals seeking a partner. For me, this is essential and a fundamental requirement for me to consider a more serious relationship. While I’ll casually date in a companion-style, I can almost always tell from the get-go that there is a disparity there – often tied to the spheres of curiosity dynamic which I’ll discuss in a moment. This fundamentally dooms any chance of it transitioning or being a more serious and committed relationship for me. The partner, versus the companion, is an individual that may have somewhat different interests and areas of focus or expertise, but who comes to the table in a more equal power-distribution. This is an individual that offers some nurturing and validation, but who also brings a very heavy intellectual component to the relationship in the form of sourcing new knowledge, holding opposing opinions, and harboring a strong internal drive that revolves around a heavy give and take dynamic.

Interests and spheres of curiosity

As a thought exercise think of your friends. Then make a mental list of their core interests. Tally them up. Then do the same for yourself. For many people there will be 3-4 core interests; work, a passion project, friends, perhaps relationships or their family if they have one.  It’s normal. They’ve also likely got 1-2 other key interests that may not be actively nurtured but which are somewhat present. When I make my list I end up with more than 13. These are areas of passion and interest that I engage with at least once a week in some capacity or another. When I look at friends, many of my closest friends similarly have numerous spheres of curiosity – often double or triple the 3-4 that I find is most common.

This isn’t relevant because one is superior to the other. It’s not a question of intelligence, or of accomplishment. It’s simply a way of better understanding where we place our priorities and choose to spend our time. It’s a look at what we value as individuals and how we relate to the world around us.

When it comes to dating, this has suddenly helped me better understand and convey why I’m often relatively uncompromising in my search for a long-term partner. I’ve learned that where I’m mismatched interest and curiosity wise, the relationship will almost without fail be more companion than partner in nature. In the past this has created false positives for me when I found women who were incredibly intelligent, gifted, and driven, but whose realm of specialization covered 3 or 5 spheres of curiosity. As I seek a partner, what I’m simultaneously seeking is a woman that is similarly scattered and eclectic in her interests.  A woman that similarly harbors 10, 12, or perhaps even more core spheres of influence and while some of these need to overlap with my own, the plurality of interests and diversity that come with them provide the latticework upon which I can build a partnership where I feel can learn and be challenged as much as I can teach and challenge.

This is not to say that you can’t have partnerships that share a more typical number of spheres of curiosity – I think they’re quite common, especially with fields and people that are highly specialized.  Similarly, while perhaps less common, it is absolutely also possible to have fantastic relationships where both individuals have a large spectrum of spheres of curiosity but still value and thrive in a companion-based relational dynamic.

And that, at the heart of it, is the key. I don’t think one is any better than another, though I most assuredly have my own personal preference and know what it is that I need. At the end of the day, I also have accepted that finding a woman that I have a strong physical and social chemistry with, who also shares a desire for a partner dynamic and harbors a wealth of interests and spheres of curiosity – at least a reasonable number of which overlap with my own – is no simple task. Often, I’ve been told by friends – male and female alike – that it is unrealistic.  But, I have time, and though other factors stood as obstacles, I’ve met women that met many of my criteria, so I remain confident, optimistic, and comfortable as I continue my search.

Thank You

As I celebrate this birthday, I want to take a moment to thank you all for this past year. As you read this you may be a close friend, a family member, a loyal reader of the blog, or someone who landed here by chance.  Regardless, the support, feedback, and interest you have shown me is something that means the world to me. It is such an incredible privilege to be able to share my thoughts, my musings, and my reflections with you and to have you engage with them. I know how profoundly busy you are and the wealth of distractions begging for your attention.

To all those of you who have challenged me, who have shared feedback, and who have encouraged me with your kind words and positive messages – know that it is the fuel that keeps this car running. Your constant support and availability as a sounding board helps me better explore my musings, delve into my passions, and pushes me to re-visit past assumptions.

That you put up with my quirks, and that you are so often available when I call, is an incredible gift and the only birthday gift I could ask for.

So, thank you.

Want to keep reading? Remember you can see my more detailed 30th birthday post here, my musings on turning 29 here, or 28 here. This year I also stumbled upon a blog post written on my 23 birthday (yeah, I’ve been blogging that long) which you can view here

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

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