Have you ever felt like you just don’t belong? Like you’re a pink chicken in a field of graceful giraffes, or that perhaps you came to the wrong planet? Certainly many people seem to feel this way, either about their families, or their community, their sexuality and culture. We yearn to belong, to fit in, to have a tribe and yet this most basic and profound desire is so often thwarted.
World-renowned researcher Brené Brown has spent years studying and interviewing people about the things that really matter: vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. So much of these characteristics are tied up in the concept of belonging. When she asked what people are worried about and trying to achieve, it was the idea of belonging that was most important, with many yearning to “be part of something–to experience real connection with others–but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom or power.”
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. – Brené Brown
Peculiarly enough our need to belong is also tied in with our need to be different and unique. Our sense of community clashes with our fear of difference. We want to belong to our tribe or our family and to feel loved and cherished. Our desire for connection and love runs deep, so much so that we may compromise who we are, in order to belong. Brené Brown says that when we ‘fit in’ instead of actually ‘belong,’ we mould ourselves to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self. This doesn’t create real connection and we can end up feeling lonelier with people than we would have if we had stayed true to ourselves.
Belonging to Ourselves
In reality, the only true belonging that exists, and the connection that underscores everything else and all other relationships in life, is that powerful sense of belonging to ourselves. We are so often trying to belong elsewhere that we turn our backs on this most important and key aspect of belonging anywhere and everywhere in life. If we do not accept and love ourselves; if we don’t belong to ourselves, how can we truly belong anywhere else? Brené Brown describes this deep belonging to ourselves as akin to being in the wilderness, the place that we have the courage to experience and ultimately become our true selves.
Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness–an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand. – Brené Brown
Today the world appears to be becoming more and more disconnected, with the cracks between people, races, genders, ethnicities, political beliefs, religions and philosophies widening at an alarming rate. But, when we look deeper, this disconnection and the political and economic machines that are moving people apart, are ironically spawning movements bringing people closer together than ever. People are uniting in their humanity, joined by their hearts, by their desire for a better world and the sincere wish to help others who are less fortunate. It takes great strength and courage to remain open-hearted and vulnerable in the world we live in today. And yet, in order to survive we must lead from the heart. And we must belong to ourselves. There is no other way.
Be Who You Are
Life can feel like a wild jungle of emotions, people, challenges, and intense craziness. I know for myself sometimes I feel deeply connected and part of something–a community, a movement, a family–and then in the next moment I feel alone and different, apart from everyone. Belonging I think remains a paradox until we find that infinite and eternal place of belonging deeply to ourselves.
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. – Brené Brown
The Four Keys to Real Connection
True belonging is a calling. It asks us to get messy, to walk into the fray, to soften into the hard edges of life instead of shying away. It asks us to dig into our own psyche and to discover our deepest fears and to meet our most vulnerable selves. We only really enter into life when we cast off the anchor, leave what is comfortable and familiar behind and sail into the unknown. Brené Brown discovered in her extensive research that there are four powerful elements of true belonging:
- People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
- Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
- Hold hands. With strangers.
- Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.
There is intense power in these words. And these four elements, she says, are a daily practice even while at the same time feeling like a paradox. Yet, imagine the world we could create if we all practiced true belonging and lived from these four elements?
We all belong to the human race. Once we can truly and deeply understand the words of the Indigenous elders when they say “the Earth is our mother and we are all brothers and sisters,” then we will belong in a way that we each yearn for, to ourselves, and to each other.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. She has spent 16 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is also the author of three #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong.