Ask any of my high school friends to describe me and you'll probably get something along the lines of "tells terrible stories, unsuccessful with women, loves a poor pun, and is all right at football'. Basically sums up my childhood in a nutshell.
The fact is, our peers label us from a very young age, mostly based on what we did when we were young. The downside to this? Much like the labeling theory that I learned in my psychology undergraduate classes, getting labeled by your peers makes it incredibly difficult to move away from everyone else's preconceived notion of your personality.
The vast majority of us tend to keep the same group of friends we made growing up through middle school and high school. These friends have seen you at your worst, your best, and know pretty much everything about you. They're able to remind you of events that happened five, 10 or even 15 years ago (no matter how much you wish everyone would forget that time you farted in the middle of an exam).
It's very difficult to change and improve yourself, to create a "new you," when you have people reminding you of who you used to be.
For those of you that went onto higher education, the chances of moving onto a new set of friends is highly probable. However, at the relatively young age of 18-21, it's difficult to truly recreate yourself because, well, who do you want to be? It's easy to fall back into your previously poor choices of selecting friends because, after all, you're still securely in your comfort zone. Though you may have attended university thousands of miles away from where you grew up, the majority of people there come from a similar background. In fact, the university I attended placed you in housing based on interests and similarities to your peers.
Once you surround yourself with familiar and similar people, it becomes incredibly difficult to break out of this comfort zone. It's a zone that you've placed yourself in for protection and familiarity, rather than for personal growth. For myself, I barely realized that there was another Matt, one where I could be a better version of myself. Though it may not have been deliberate, I effectively held myself back by hanging around with the same types of people for most of my life in education.
This is why I believe that traveling, working and living abroad has played such a fundamental part in my life. It allowed me to finally break the cycle of hanging around my old friends, and immerse myself into a world that allowed me to finally discover my true passions in life and become the person who I never knew I could become.
Personally, I believe there to be two factors that lead to the huge personal change, growth, and improvement that I experienced after moving internationally.
Firstly, the wide variety of people that you encounter. On the road, you force yourself to meet people whom you would have otherwise never met. You meet people from different countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities, everything! You learn about how they view the world, what they want out of life, and what motivates them to do more (or do less!). The perspectives of these people will challenge your own perspectives on life and help you to re-think the way in which you live, and what you want out of life in the future. Simply put, the more you expose yourself to new people, ideas, and ways of life, the more you can shift your own understanding of the world.
Meeting all these new faces from different walks of life gives you the greatest chance possible to escape that pre-defined niche. The couple you met from Brazil have no idea who were two hours ago, let alone two years. It's a chance to let yourself go and find a personal space that resonates with you and gives you the freedom of who you want to be.
Want to go salsa dancing or learn Tai Chi? There's no one stopping you. Want to become a poet or learn a musical instrument? There's no one to tell you they don't think you would like it. Living abroad and being on your own gives you the opportunity to explore things that you have always been interested in, but never had the opportunity to do out of fear of what people would think. You can escape the social and cultural norms that have held you back for so long and find what truly resonates with you, yourself, as an individual.
Secondly, having to constantly adapt to new circumstances and situations forces you to get out of your comfort zone and grow. Whether it's bartering with shop women in Thailand or arguing with a rickshaw driver in India, how would the "old you" be able to cope? Did you get anxious or angry? Did you buckle under the pressure? These are powerful experiences to reflect on how we reacted, learn from our past behaviors, and change to become a better version of ourselves.
Exposure to new situations and circumstances forces a new type of confidence into you, one that you can avoid much of your life if you're not exposed to something outside of your comfort zone. For myself, even the simplest of tasks used to require me to build up as much courage as possible before making the leap; something as easy as calling my bank used to give me some mild anxiety. Now? I'm a bank calling boss, mate.
Rather than move through life in that comfortable zone where you can hide in your social circle, why not make that leap outside of your comfort zone? From my experience, staying in your home country will only get you so far. Whether you're traveling or working abroad, it's an incredible chance to grow, to be less afraid, and to become the person you've always dreamed of being.