I didn’t fit in at my high school. I yearned for the admiration and embrace of my classmates, but always felt different and distant from them. Among my desperate attempts to fit in was the time I showed up to prom in a dress I hoped would bring me my Cinderella moment, when I would finally feel that I could hang with the cool kids. The reality? The same old me in a monstrosity of wispy mint that left me embarrassed and more alienated than ever. Would I ever belong?
Belonging is complicated. There are many places we can find belonging, that feeling of identifying with and being part of a group that’s bigger than we are: families, clubs, ethnicities, secret societies, political parties, and football teams, to name a few. Feeling that we are part of a wider group can give purpose and meaning to our lives, and research suggests that belonging to a community correlates to better mental and physical health. But even if your sense of belonging is strong in some arenas (say, your book club), what happens when you wind up in a place where you don’t feel you belong (such as, say, your job)?
Today, many of us venture beyond our places of birth and away from our families, carving out lives on our own terms. As a result, we lose access to some of the ready-made forms of belonging that we might have had if we stayed closer to the nest. At the same time, ironically, life appears even more connected thanks to our constant digital companion, the smartphone, with its real-time updates from the diaspora we tap into through social media.
Maintaining real, deeply personal connections over time and space, however, is hard, and reaching out to make future friends out of strangers isn’t easy for all of us. In our ever-more globalized, mobile world, we risk winding up lonely and disconnected in new and challenging ways.
Retaining a deeper sense of belonging, no matter where we are, starts with feeling at home within ourselves.
Retaining a deeper sense of belonging, no matter where we are, starts with feeling at home within ourselves. When we know and accept ourselves, we rely less on others to affirm our identity, which in turn allows us to shed some of the insecurities and fears (What if I get rejected? Or say something stupid? Or don’t fit in?) that hold us back from connecting with others. From there we can plant small seeds of belonging, like saying hello to a stranger who looks like they could use a little acknowledgment, or sending a kind note to a colleague. Friendliness helps everyone feel they belong. You never know how those seeds might sprout, grow, and bloom.
Decades after my prom disaster, I was one of a dozen fortunate guests invited to an exclusive retreat at a summer cottage. Most of the women were shy and unknown to one another, and our host graciously arranged activities to help ignite connection and belonging within the group. As the week went on, I didn’t always want to participate. I didn’t want to do yoga. Or dance. Or cook. Or go into town with the gang. Yet I still felt like I belonged.
Eventually it struck me that, thanks to my mindfulness practice, I belonged in my own skin. This allowed me to feel a sense of belonging with others, in the silences, the laughter, the one-on-one conversations. I belonged to a larger feeling of safety and connection.
When we are not quite sure if we belong, we might think that we have to dress a certain way, do particular things, or share the right views so we can be part of the water-cooler conversation. But with awareness, we can know that we belong to our own life—exactly as we find it. And our life is woven into the entire fabric of humanity. From there, it might be easier to reach out and say hello.
A Practice to Stop, Be, and Connect
When you find yourself feeling out of sync in your surroundings, or even in your own being, try this practice to bring you back to yourself:
- Stop and take note of your emotions.
- Be in the moment, noticing the space around you and whatever is unfolding in your presence. You don’t have to fix or change anything. Simply noticing can accomplish so much.
- Connect with your body. Take a few deep breaths and feel what physical sensations arise. Then, use your senses as tentacles to connect with your surroundings. You might see cars passing by, or hear birds chirping—things that link you to the world outside yourself. In this subtle way, you have found belonging