Find Your Tribe and You Find Your Health and Success - Higher Education
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Find Your Tribe and You Find Your Health and Success

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When I decided to change careers, a psychiatrist friend told me that I would be most successful if I “found my tribe.” At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Eight years later, after making the transition to my new career, I know exactly what she meant.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I believe health and success are inextricably tied. Your success, however you define it, requires your best intellectually, emotionally and physically. We cannot be at our best and thrive without good health. It is a widely accepted notion that we enjoy our best health when we are supported socially. That’s where our tribe comes in.

The first definition of tribe in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “a social group comprising numerous families, clans or generations…” This is a very narrow and traditional view of tribe. The second, more expansive, definition is “a group of persons having common character, occupation or interest.” If, as journalist Edna Buchanan said, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves,” the tribe of the second definition is the family we choose based on what we have in common.

The tribe that ultimately supports our success, however, is even more than that. This is important for everyone to understand, including students, faculty and administrators in higher education who are trying to successfully navigate the academic environment.

While it is natural for us to be attracted to those with whom we have much in common, not all of them belong in our tribe. Commonalities, however deep, can be present even in unhealthy relationships.

Unhealthy relationships are toxic to our physical health and usually are characterized by and based on feelings of fear, obligation or guilt – or FOG, an acronym coined by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their book Emotional Blackmail. They deplete, depress and create unnecessary stress and anxiety for us.

Toxic relationships have no place in a tribe that is supposed to support our success. The health of the relationships matter because of their impact on our physical and mental health and, ultimately, our success.

Whether a small group of professional colleagues who enjoy playing pick-up sports or classmates who enjoy productive study sessions at a coffee shop, healthy relationships energize us. They encourage, motivate, inspire and fill us with a sense of purpose. In short, they make us feel happier and more fulfilled, reduce our stress and, in so doing, make us healthier. This is how a tribe contributes to both our health and our success.

When I first embarked on my career change, I did not know many people who shared my interests, passions and aspirations. Most of my family and friends at the time thought I was crazy, giving up a six-figure income and what they perceived as job security for something so new at a late stage.

But when I finally began discovering, talking to and interacting with those who did share my interests, passions and aspirations, I immediately began to understand the concept of my tribe. I realized my tribe included not only those with whom I had a lot in common, but also those who challenged me in new, exciting ways, actively supported me in my career goals and truly lifted me up. I felt really good around my tribe!

The tribe we choose that most supports our success makes us feel a sense of belonging, validation and self-worth. These feelings come first from shared values, beliefs, activities, aspirations and interests. These feelings can be based on any number of diverse characteristics that are different or similar, from race, gender or nationality to academic degree program, occupation or research specialty.

The secondary basis for the positive feelings engendered is the way we interact with members of our tribe and how those interactions affect us, i.e. the health of the relationship and our mental and physical health. Well-curated tribes are tribes that we choose because they provide not only deep commonalities, but also deep feelings of fulfillment and radiant health.

And the feeling of radiant health is more than just in our heads. There is hard evidence that it actually does benefit our bodies and physical health. Studies have shown that adults with “strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems” and, in the case of older adults, live longer, more fulfilled lives than their less social peers.

For women, specifically, a “tend-and-befriend” behavioral response to stress is common, according to a study by UCLA researchers. The research found that in times of stress, women are more likely than men to create and use relationships to manage stress and support self-care.

The people we surround ourselves with are not only potential allies, accountability partners and buddies for various aspects of our lives, but also are important guides for our norms and expectations of ourselves. The norms and expectations of our tribe implicitly help us set goals that we perceive as possible, desirable and healthy for ourselves.

It is said that those we keep closest to us are a reflection of us – and that we, in some ways, become like them. Choose to spend the most time with those who both mirror the best in you and inspire and encourage you to be better, to succeed. They are your tribe. Find your tribe, and you will find the keys to personal health and success.

Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness presenter and book author based in Atlanta.

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