What is belonging?
Wanting to belong and being accepted by others can be seen as a basic human need. From an evolutionary perspective, being part of a tribe significantly increased our chances of survival. And that wanting to feel a part of a community or social group and to be seen and accepted by others still persists. Belongingness remains fundamental after physiological (food/water) and safety needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s fulfilled through having meaningful relationships which we appreciate and invest in, and these may arise in a variety of circumstances.
A sense of belonging can be described as feeling comfortable to be yourself when you’re with others. There is a sense of connection, acceptance and trust, so even if you say or do something you regret, its redeemable. Compassion is part of the belonging equation.
Why you might feel like an outsider
There are many reasons as to why you may feel like an outsider. Often it stems from childhood experiences eg your family came from a different cultural or religious background, or your family struggled financially, or you looked different to your peers in some way, or there may have been family disruptions, trauma, emotional neglect or unhealthy relationships.
What can then happen is that you feel “different” to others, or like an outsider and so you don’t have a deeply felt sense of belonging from a young age. Consequently, your fear of rejection (and the associated feelings of shame) can affect your self-esteem, impede your willingness to engage with others and to form meaningful relationships. This can ultimately affect your mental health and your ability to enjoy life.
How to stop feeling like an outsider and start feeling like you belong?
Distinguish between belonging and fitting in
It’s important to distinguish between ‘belonging’ and ‘fitting in’. Fitting in connotes adjusting aspects of oneself to fit into a particular group or social context. We all may have to do this at times. True belonging however is about being able to be who you are, without having to change. And we all need contexts in which we can do this.
Put yourself out there
Creating a sense of belonging is not a passive activity. It inevitably involves putting oneself out there in some way, which may feel challenging. Having a curious approach to people and life and being open to try new experiences is really helpful. It can be done gradually, taking small steps eg smiling at people you encounter, or engaging in small talk as part of your routine daily interactions – in your local coffee shop or gym. If this all feels too challenging at the outset, consider getting some counselling or psychological support.
Engage in grounding and self-compassion practices
Engaging in grounding and self-compassion practices on a daily basis, can also be helpful when and if, anxiety comes up as you take any of these steps.
Identify gaps in your relationships
Look at the relationships you currently have and identify what needs they fulfill and see where there may be gaps. With the ones that you do have that are important to you, see how you can nurture them in a proactive way. Don’t simply wait for them to contact you, but contact them, check in on them occasionally, without worrying too much as to whether or not you get an immediate response. Where there are gaps, consider what steps you can take to engage with people in those areas, perhaps by joining a group where you have a shared interest.
Cultivate a growth mindset
Develop your emotional intelligence and self-awareness and cultivate a growth mindset, such that any setbacks or unexpected outcomes aren’t viewed as rejection, but more of a learning opportunity.
Finally, the cornerstone of belongingness is being able to be vulnerable – so letting go of perfectionism and being willing to try new things, and fail occasionally and openly, is part of the journey. So perhaps try learning a new hobby or skill with other people.
It’s important to have some sense of belonging in a variety of contexts, and through different relationships -they don’t all need to be of the same depth. And remember to practise acceptance for example, by looking at similarities, rather than the differences, that connect us to others and to be patient with yourself also, others as you take these steps.