Bigger Than Me

One of the hidden stress responses Kelly McGonigal talks about in her book The Upside of Stress is the “tend and befriend” response: Stress physiologically compels us to help others and strengthen relationships. We can tap into this stress response, she says, whenever we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed simply by answering one question:

What is my bigger-than-self goal?

Most goals, as I just finished telling my class, are self-centered: not in a negative way, but in a literal way–our goals focus on us. I’m going to exercise more. I’m finally going to start that Kickstarter I’ve been thinking about (and, well, I did). I’m going to do this or not do that or any number of others goals all about me.

In some way, this is how it should be; after all, our locus of control is centered first and foremost on us, so when we’re trying to make any change, starting with ourselves makes sense. We all might say “I want to change the world,” but that doesn’t mean we can snap our fingers and remake the world however we want it. We don’t have that kind of power.

However, in times of stress, when we can remind ourselves about the impact we want to make on the world, the contributions we want to make to our communities, and the life missions that most inspire us, we can access that “tend and befriend” stress response to empower us, motivate us, and help us take that next step forward.

No matter how difficult or stressful that next step may be.

As a child, I always said I wanted to change the world.

And as a child, I was always told nobody can change the world.

But the truth is I do want to change the world–but I want to change it in some specific ways, and it’s these ways I should focus on, because in those ways I can create change.

I want to inspire a generation of mathematicians and scientists, poets and teachers.

I want to influence public policy that directly affects those most in need–many of whom I work with daily–like immigrant families, undocumented children, HIV/AIDS patients, and LGBT and queer youth without supportive homes or access to services they need.

I want to make my friends feel loved and my family feel cherished.

I want to share genuine time with my peers and leave others smiling.

It seems a little small, a little selfish to look back at my goal and say I want to exercise more, just so I look better on dating apps. (I mean, that’s not my only reason, I promise.)

However, I spoke a bit yesterday about how achieving my personal goals can help me be more equipped to create the changes in the world around me I wish to see. And when I’m staring at a stack of exams waiting to be graded, when it’s 10pm and I still have to finish tomorrow’s lesson plans, and even when I get home and see my exercise equipment standing silent and stoic in the corner, I can think of these aspirations for motivation.

That’s a good word, aspiration. It shares the same root as inspire and aspire, the Latin word spirare, to breathe. Just like focusing on our breath brings our minds back to the present, our focus back to the body, bringing our attention to our aspirations brings our minds back to our motivations and our hearts closer to helping others.

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