Where do I belong?

Updated: Sep 13, 2019

It is easy to underestimate the importance of belonging. For instance, the experience of rejection powerfully underlines our need to belong. Adolescence, for example, includes developmental tasks that emphasize the human yearning to belong. This reinforces the importance of schools creating communities, where students feel they belong. (cf. Dr Kelly-Ann Allen's research on school belonging). It also gives an insight into the destructive power of bullying, where individuals are cruelly excluded. In fact, research has shown that pain caused by ostracism can create a response in our neural processing, like that caused by physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman & Williams, 2003). In this light then, belonging is a vital human need.

What does it mean to belong? In 1951, the renowned American psychologist Carl Rogers considered belonging to be a unique and subjective human experience, which related to a yearning for connection with others. This included “the need for positive regard and the desire for interpersonal connection”. Like loneliness, a sense of belonging comes partly from a perception of quality connections with others or groups. In 1957, Abraham Maslow, another renowned American psychologist, regarded belonging as part of a hierarchy of needs. As such, in Maslow’s terms, belonging shapes an important way our relationships with others, groups, and even whole communities function. Nevertheless, belonging is a complex and highly personal psychological process. So, let’s put it in perspective.

The need to belong takes us back to our tribal roots, where we needed others in order to survive. This was about meeting our primal needs, like finding food and warding-off predators. In fact, our survival as a species meant we needed each other. In other words, the need to belong is linked to our need to survive. It is not surprising then that the feeling of not belonging is psychologically very painful, bordering on physical pain. This remains so in modern times. So, in spite of economic wealth and social sophistication, we long for community. Dr Kelly-Ann Allen

The need to belong has anthropological roots, but it is also linked to our family of origin. This is evident with children who have experienced poor, or traumatic, relationships with parents or siblings. Our family, particularly siblings, can form a view of us as individuals that remains frozen in time, undermining our sense of belonging. You know the power of family gossip, like “James was always difficult” and this may be despite evidence to the contrary. Yes, families can refuse to acknowledge that we have grown up and moved on. Thus, the pain of rejection from the family group can have long-lasting negative affect that can be difficult to overcome. Ultimately this gets back to which ‘tribe’ we choose to belong to.

We have all known friends who have held on to a relationship, which is destructive, but they ‘cannot let go’. Our families of origin, for example, may not be the right people to meet our authentic need to belong. It is important then to learn how to choose the right individuals or groups to make genuine connections with. If our families don’t want to relate to us, or have toxic views of our character, then the healthiest thing we can do is move on, and find relationships that are nurturing, providing us with an authentic sense of belonging. It is not easy, as the myth of the perfect family hangs on, even in abusive families. Sometimes, however, we have to move on, or at least change the ground rules.

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