“When I get to be myself I belong, if I have to be like you I fit in”.

Belonging and connection are themes that are often appear in counselling. It sometimes feels that most often at heart of what clients bring to counselling are feelings of not belonging and not connecting. This can be with themselves, with their families or with the world at large. This is a common feeling for many people, not just clients in counselling. Disconnection is almost the defining feature of our time. The more I work with themes of belonging and disconnection, the more I feel it is an underlying force in self-esteem and self-acceptance and overall satisfaction in life.

We are a social species, with a hard wired need to form groups and be included by others. But we are also hardwired to need deep feelings of belonging and acceptance for who we are. Sometimes those two things can be in opposition to each other.

I read something recently about belonging in Brené Brown’s new book Atlas of the Heart which really blew my mind and has made me rethink the whole concept of belonging.

Brown discusses how belonging and fitting in are not the same thing. In one section some primary school aged children are asked to describe the difference between belonging and fitting in. The answers are the kind of honest, simple insights that can only come from kids. This one really stood out…

“When I get to be myself I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in”.

Brown goes on to say that experiencing deep feelings of belonging contributes to feeling healthy, happy and satisfied and can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. But here’s the rub; we can only experience deep feelings of belonging when we are free to be ourselves. If we are changing or editing our behaviour, acting in ways that are not true to our selves and our values in order to fit in, then we cannot experience deep feelings of belonging. Changing ourselves to fit in is a blocker to true belonging.

I just think about how much we can fall into the trap of editing ourselves, in small or big ways, because what we want is to belong. This is something we learn in school, be like everyone else, don’t stick out. To be socially excluded in our primary and secondary school years is the worst thing that can happen to us. So we learn that to be our individual selves is dangerous and might leave us vulnerable to exclusion and isolation. And I think this carries over into our adult lives.

And this is what I am taking away from Atlas of the Heart: That we have a want and need to feel like we belong. But sometimes in an effort to feel like we belong (to a group of people, a club, our families) we will change our behaviour, so that what we are actually doing is fitting in. And we cannot experience deep feelings of belonging while simultaneously changing ourselves to fit in.

This is why I feel it is so important to find your tribe. Find those people, or that one person with which you feel most comfortable to be yourself. Where you know you can let it all hang out and you will be celebrated for who you are. Work out who those people are, and where they hang out. It is also about trusting that you can bring your whole, unedited, messy self to the table and that it will be ok. It can take time for this trust to build and that’s ok too.

We all deserve to belong, and not just fit in.

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