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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

B is for Belonging

“The roots of all living things are tied together. Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace. If we look deeply, we find that we do not have a separate self-identity, a self that does not include sun and wind, earth and water, creatures and plants, and one another.” Joan Halifax

What is belonging?

A sense of belonging is one of humanity's most basic needs. American psychologist, Abraham Maslow felt it was of such importance that he placed this sense of belonging just above physiological and safety needs, in his hierarchy of needs.

We feel we belong when we feel comfortable and have a good connection with others and when we feel seen, accepted and valued for who we are ‘warts and all’. Belonging gives a feeling of security and support, inclusion and identity and a sense of purpose.

Today we have the technology which enables us to be more connected than ever possible before, however, despite this, a lot of people are feeling more lonely and isolated than ever and this lack of true of connection and community is affecting people’s health and well-being.

There is a theory linked with belonging called sense of belonging theory. It is theorized that the need to belong involves the psychological experience of social connectedness obtained through emotion sharing. According to Lee and Robbins (1995), a sense of belongingness evolves from infancy to maturity through companionship, affiliation and connectedness

Why is belonging important?

“People will typically be more enthusiastic where they feel a sense of belonging and see themselves as part of a community than they will in a workplace in which each person is left to his own devices.” Alfie Kohn

Humans have an inbuilt instinctive need to belong. Evolutionarily, cooperation and group relationships improved one’s chance of survival. Being part of something bigger than just yourself provides a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose. The give and take that comes with being part of a group also fosters a feeling of acceptance and support that can help fend off loneliness and ensure that you feel more connected to those around you.

“No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” John Donne.

This thought fascinate me; the idea that everything and everyone is interconnected, interdependent and interrelated. For me, the phrase 'no man is an island' expresses the idea that human beings don’t flourish when isolated from others and we need to be part of a community in order to thrive.

A sense of belonging is crucial to our life satisfaction, happiness, mental and physical health and even longevity. When we don’t feel that we belong anywhere, as well as feeling lost and alone, research has shown that this loss of a sense of belonging has been associated with stress, illness and decreased well being and depression.

Despite realising how important human connection and a sense of belonging is for us to flourish, we often do little to cultivate positive relationships. Even in the way we greet each other, “Hi, how are you?” is often nothing more than a routine formality without any real meaning, interest or connection. Our expectation is to get a similarly standard response and both parties understand implicitly that everyone is too busy for any meaningful interaction. When someone does ‘go off script’ then things can often become uncomfortable because you don’t feel you have the time in your schedule/plans to listen properly, or the patience, skills or interest to engage in, any meaningful manner and the person who has ‘overshared’ feels a disappointment because their need to be heard has not been met.

This is very different to parts of South Africa, where members of the northern Natal tribes, look at each other in the eyes and greet each other with the Zulu word ‘Sawubona/Sawa bona’ which means “All my attention is with you. I see you and I allow myself to discover your needs, to see your fears, to identify your mistakes and accept them. I accept you for what you are and you are part of me”. It is a way of putting the other person forward and accepting them as they are with all their qualities and faults. Sawubona is more than just a polite, passing phrase it carries the importance of recognizing the worth and dignity of each person. One common response to this greeting is, "Yebo, sawubona" translating to, “I see you seeing me” or the response “Sikhona” which means: “I am here” or "Shikoba"; “I’m relieved to know that I exist for you”

When we don’t feel we belong

“Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you were wearing someone else’s shoes.” Phoebe Stone

We can all experience moments of doubt and ask ourselves whether we are really accepted or belong when we don’t feel recognised, heard or supported. Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen coined the term “belonging uncertainty” to describe this state of mind in which one suffers from doubts about whether one is fully accepted and belongs in a particular environment or ever could be.

Belonging uncertainty can be experienced in all sorts of circumstances – with people you know well or complete strangers. It can happen anywhere; at school, in the workplace, in a ‘up-market’ restaurant or other venue ( i.e. anywhere where you feel out of your depth) it can happen when you perceive that friends or family have not been there for you at crucial times e.g. in times of grief, or have changed or moved on. Equally belonging uncertainty can take place in brief social encounters with a stranger.

Belonging uncertainty brings with it adverse effects. When we perceive threats to our sense of belonging, our horizon of possibility shrinks. We tend to interpret ourselves, other people, and the situation in a defensive and self-protective way, thereby limiting our responses and the choices we have.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”

Mother Teresa

How do we generate a sense of belonging?

“Each person with his or her history of being accepted or rejected, with his or her past history of inner pain and difficulties in relationships, is different. But in each one there is a yearning for communion and belonging, but at the same time a fear of it. Love is what we most want, yet it is what we fear the most.” Jean Vanier

Belonging involves us having the courage to be our perfectly imperfect selves, embrace our vulnerability and remove the social masks we put on to hide the things we think others will reject in us. Belonging is about pushing past doubt and fear and allowing ourselves to be open and understanding. When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, it leads to better communication, connections with others and we develop a sense of belonging and community.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” Brené Brown

We can only engage and connect authentically with others and recognise where we belong when we have spent time reflecting upon our values and getting to know ourselves honestly.

“When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.” Benjamin Hoff

Reading can help our sense of belonging. When we read, as well as opening up different perspectives and worlds to ourselves, we discover that others too, experience similar thoughts and emotions as ourselves, thereby reaffirming our place in the world to which we belong.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

A sense of belonging doesn’t just happen, it is a choice and it takes work and time. Belonging is about what we put in and is not reliant on others– we get out what we put in to our friendships, our groups, our communities.

“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.” Patricia Churchland

We develop a connection, a sense of belonging when we give to others

“Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver, and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” Deepak Chopra

Belonging doesn’t mean that we are all the same, we are all unique but when we work to make what we have in common a basis for making new friendships etc that is what brings us together.

Acknowledging and celebrating diversity means understanding that each individual is unique and recognizing that our unique individual differences play an essential role in a flourishing society. Diversity means more than just acknowledging and/or tolerating differences, rather it recognises that each of our individual differences share a purpose not only in our individual friendships but in society as a whole and it is proactive in encompassing acceptance and respect.

“The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.” Thomas Berry

Belonging happens when we really take the time to see others and allow others to see the real us. When we stop and truly see others, it is a basic form of respect. The Latin root of the word respect is respicere which means ‘to see clearly.’ When we really see another, we see their humanity - our common humanity—and we recognise our mutual vulnerability. When we can really see people as an extension of ourselves and the interconnectedness of all humanity, compassion, not hate, comes to the fore and it becomes more difficult for people to act indifferently or inhumanely.

“All creation is one. What we do to one,. “All creation is one. What we do to one, we do to the entire web of life.” Chief Seattle.

Diversity requires us to learn how to relate to those qualities and conditions that are different from our own and outside our own particular groups to which we belong, yet are present in other individuals and groups. In embracing diversity and seeking to understand we have the opportunity to not only be aware of different perspectives and widen our world view but our differences become a means in which we can grow for the better and for the benefit of everyone. It’s about adapting to others and recognising our ‘oneness’ whilst simultaneously not forgetting who you are as individuals.

“Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone; who lend the best of ourselves to it, and with joy.” Audre Lorde

Think how different the world could be if those that govern us were educated to understand that their identity, true happiness and well-being was inextricably linked to how they treat ‘the common man’ and the planet. Would they then act with insight, honesty and integrity?

“World belongs to humanity, not this leader, that leader or that king or prince or religious leader. World belongs to humanity.” Dalai Lama

For further reading:

Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides. Geoffrey L. Cohen is a professor of psychology and the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford University

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