When I was getting ready to leave home for the first time, I had some unexpected anxiety over the idea of leaving behind the friends I was so close to. I thought about my next big step in life a lot and the anxiety just seemed to build. I didn’t know what to do about it, and since it seemed to only grow with time, I decided to talk to my youth minister at church about it.
I think a lot of people would have told me that in order to overcome my anxiety I needed to focus on myself. You know, take a nice long relaxing bubble bath. Treat myself to my favorite ice cream. Take a vacation.
But my youth minister’s advice was different. “Why don’t you try doing some volunteer work?” she suggested.
Volunteer work? Was she even listening to me? I was concerned about leaving other people I knew and loved behind. Maybe some advice about having special time with each of them would make more sense. But volunteer work?
Because I knew her well, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. I liked volunteer work, anyway. She suggested that I try to participate in some local mission work our church was offering over the summer. The plans were different every day, but it was behind-the-scenes kind of work, like sorting materials that would be handed out to those in need and such. I was really busy at that time but carved out some space in my schedule to participate when I could. And…it worked. I didn’t think about or understand why, but spending time volunteering somehow eased my stress. I was happier and more at peace after spending time serving other people.
Research suggests that I’m not the only one to experience the benefits of giving back. Studies show that people who volunteer “have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.”
This has important implications for our romantic relationships. Can you imagine being in a relationship with someone who has trained him or herself to focus solely on self? If you train your mind this way, you’re not setting yourself up to live well in relationship with others, especially not in marriage. A healthy marriage requires you to set yourself and your desires aside at times in order to compromise with the other person.
In this way, volunteering not only helped me overcome my anxiety, it also prepared me for dating and marrying my husband. It taught me to focus less on myself, and more on others, a habit much needed in any relationship. Marriage is about two people working together, so if each person is primarily looking out for their own interests, the team isn’t very strong. I have learned it works best to spend my free time first making sure my husband’s needs are met. Does he have a lunch to take tomorrow? Are his clothes clean? Does he need me to listen while he vents? Or does he just need to share a funny YouTube video? None of those things are at the top of my “want” list, but it’s not about me…it’s about us.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have healthy self-esteem and confidence, to set high standards, and to love yourself and be content with who you are. Positive self-talk–statements like “I can do this!” or “Today, I’m going to grow in patience,” or “I am blessed”–can help us grow and become better people.
But I’ve also learned that true love is about making a gift of yourself to others. The less you think of yourself, the more gifts you have to offer. The added bonus is that it makes us feel good to live a selfless life because it is the path to true, authentic love.