Think of a time, place, or situation where you felt a profound sense of comfort with a group of people. That sense emerges from deep within but can be challenging to identify. We become acutely aware when this feeling is absent, but we rarely notice its presence unless we consciously think about it. Most of us recognize this feeling as a sense of belonging. But what is a sense of belonging? Well, first, let’s define the term belonging.
What Is Belonging?
Belonging is the ability for a person to feel accepted within a social group. It is one of the fundamental emotional needs we have as humans because it dramatically affects our physical and mental health, including our will to survive. What’s curious about the definition of belonging is that it is not only a feeling that comes from within, such as having an affinity for a group or place, but a social construct. We can (and do) gain access to specific groups of people by engaging in certain behaviors or making the “right” decisions in our quest to belong.
What Do We Mean by a Sense of Belonging?
A sense of belonging is the feeling that we have satisfied our emotional need to belong because we feel seen and accepted by a group. We form our earliest connections with our immediate family, which is critical for our development. It’s one reason infants deprived of physical and emotional attention are prone to problems later. Infants starved of human contact at such a young and helpless age feel insecure and stressed. These feelings linger in your body and affect your brain. Even as toddlers, we mimic behaviors and language to fit in.
As we grow older and our social ecosystem expands, we become interconnected with the world around us. In grade school, high school, and beyond, we adhere to the norms of our surroundings and develop close friends that we rely upon for social support. As we enter each social system, we pick up cues from others: rules around what is and is not acceptable. These rules allow the social structure to exist, and they create a feedback loop that influences how we see ourselves – our identity as a human being and our ability to feel a sense of belonging.
When we abide by the norms of the social systems around us, we become part of a group, and fellow group members reward us with social safety. So, ideally, when we perceive a sense of belonging, we feel accepted and at ease with being ourselves, which causes us to feel accepting of others within the group.
Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize what belonging is until it is absent. When we start to lack a sense of belonging, we become uncomfortable because we no longer feel the physiological and emotional sense of safety that comes with being one of the members of a group. Depending on the context, the discomfort can be relatively minor (like not connecting with anyone at a friend’s social gathering) or traumatic (like being suddenly rejected by your family).
How a Sense of Belonging Influences Our Well-Being
Since belonging is a significant emotional need, it serves as a driver for our decisions and how we view the world. For example, when college students leave their immediate family and community, they may decide to connect with other students who remind them of home at first – finding comfort in a common hobby, religion, or political affiliation. But, as they become exposed to a broader range of values, experiences, and behaviors, they may find themselves questioning the belief system of their upbringing, which can be uncomfortable.
Feelings of belonging also provide us with a sense of safety and identity. So we will go to great lengths to form and maintain social relationships even when those connections no longer serve us. For instance, within any cultural system, there is a dominant culture. As we work to integrate with that culture, we internalize its norms and add them to our identity.
The Role of the Dominant Culture
When people feel excluded from the dominant culture, it can create such tension that they feel compelled to spend a lot of energy finding ways to feel a greater sense of belonging. I hear it from my clients, who often start off thinking that belonging is a linear process. They rationalize their behavior by saying, “If I do this, I will belong.”
Unfortunately, this linear way of thinking can come at a high cost to their identity. What inevitably happens is either they find themselves discarding the qualities that made them unique and beautiful, or despite their best efforts at conforming, they still find themselves excluded. Both outcomes can become a source of frustration.
Ironically, those who enjoy inclusion in the dominant culture also experience tension because they feel pressure to maintain their social standing in the group. This pressure can occur when a group has expectations around behavior or suppresses opinions that run contrary to the messaging of the group. When this happens, people often censor themselves to avoid jeopardizing their status.
Even those who believe they have a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence can fall prey to this line of thinking. The desire to belong is powerful. But, we don’t always realize that while the system can influence us, we also have the power to affect the system. The presence of its members can alter any social system, but since we want to belong, most of us simply conform.
How to Create a Sense of Belonging
Our identity is multifaceted, and we feel a deep need to be understood and celebrated. Our quest for belonging is a reflection of that. Yet one thing most of us rarely do is examine our identity to see which norms and beliefs are a positive contribution and which ones weigh us down. That includes exploring what belonging means to us, understanding how we behave to fit into specific groups, and how we can create a sense of belonging for others.
So, there are three actions you can take to create a sense of belonging. These things may sound easy, but they require commitment and ongoing work.
First, know yourself.
Knowing yourself begins with understanding your own cultural identity, the groups you belong to, and the thoughts and behaviors you exhibit to maintain your status among those groups. Put some thought into it and write it down, so you can reflect on what you have learned.
Some people realize that the groups they affiliated with earlier in life no longer reflect who they are today, and it’s important to know that there is nothing wrong with this. Yet, it is vital to recognize that your identity has evolved and to recalibrate your understanding of who you are so it will be easier to identify the people and groups that suit you.
Second, seek out people and spaces that can help you belong.
Once you have a firm grasp of your identity, look for people, places, or organizations who will be open to your perspectives without judgment and who can see the contributions you have to offer. Typically, these are people who will challenge you in a positive and meaningful way and with whom you feel psychologically safe. These might be people in your life today, or you may need to find new people or groups where you can form these connections.
Finally, help others find belonging as well.
As you seek out people who can help you belong, take the opportunity to help others find belonging. One of the most significant blind spots we have as humans is that we often focus on our comfort without considering how we impact others. When we model belonging by accepting others for the beautiful, imperfect people they are, we form better relationships and create a culture where everyone feels connected.
Achieving a sense of belonging is crucial to our existence, but it isn’t always easy to come by. By understanding that belonging is not only a feeling that comes from within but also involves a series of actions, you can find the connection you crave.
Take the time to understand yourself. I welcome you to explore my resources to aid in this process. Then find people who allow you to be the brilliant person you are and work to help others find belonging as well. These small actions can create a better, safer world where belonging is readily given rather than earned by selling out who you are.