How to Belong

Something wasn’t working. We tried to ignore it. It was the elephant in the room – a now gigantic beast wearing a tiny bowler hat and a monocle. The well-dressed Nellie was waving, pulling faces and doing parlour tricks. No one wanted to look him in that enlarged eye so we carried on regardless.

Personally, I did what I’ve always done where performing room-elephants are involved. I tried to clean up the mess, attempted to assemble some sense of order and hoped I could nudge us all in a positive direction. Did it work?

Hell, no. The elephant just brought in a unicycle.

And then a hula hoop.

And then a flaming sword. Was he really going to swallow that?

I couldn’t hang around to watch. I’d seen enough. This time I trusted my gut. And I called it. I left a troupe.

It was a small sad thing. Something that needed doing but I still felt it pretty hard. Part of me didn’t really want to leave but a bigger part of me knew I couldn’t stay without betraying myself so there was no other option. Not anymore.

The fortress of being on the inside of a group can be so comforting but this situation required of me to walk into the wilderness. And sure, we can ignore the call of the wild but it’ll keep on calling. You can bet your gym membership on that.

“I won’t sugarcoat this: standing on the precipice of the wilderness is bone-chilling. Because belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness our whole lives. Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable. I’m convinced discomfort is the great deterrent of our generation. Protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness. But choosing the wily outpost over the security of the city gates takes a true act of courage. That first step will take your breath away.”

Jen Hatmaker

I’ve never been great at leaving things. At eight I agonized over resigning from Recorder Club. Did I enjoy it? I couldn’t tell you but I do remember the tortured decision-making process of leaving and how it took a long time to pluck up the courage to tell my music teacher. When I finally did the deed, she didn’t seem fussed, which I found confusing. Didn’t she know what I’d been through?

Leaving requires putting my need to leave above other people’s expectations of me to stay. It requires facing boredom or silence or the next space. It requires valuing my time. And these are things I’m still learning how to do.

I could hear myself saying I needed to leave the troupe and I knew that meant I could either talk about it forever, hoping it would magically improve, when I knew deep down it would not, or I could leave before the performing elephant brought out his glockenspiel.

This time I chose the latter.

It can be great to be in a troupe but it can also be hard work: group dynamics; commitment; loyalty; navigating all the different needs, goals and expectations people bring; differing attitudes towards performing, feedback and rehearsals; varying priorities, judgements, criticisms and excuses. Being in some troupes might help you feel like you fit in for a while but there’s a big difference between fitting in and really belonging.

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Maya Angelou, Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973

Brené Brown discovered these words spoken by Maya Angelou and they unsettled her. She was confused. She didn’t know what they meant. To her, the feeling of fitting into a group was so desirable she couldn’t accept what it might mean not to. Belonging was the mountaintop she’d been striving for all her life. How could someone she admired so very much give advice that made so little sense to her?

This is the starting place for Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. It’s a book that has left a lasting impression on me. Her previous books Daring Greatly, Rising Strong and The Gifts of Imperfection get a lot of attention and they should; they’re brilliant. But there is something about Braving the Wilderness that still haunts me. I think about it often. I think about it when I’m feeling lonely. I think about it when I’m reading angry comments on Facebook. I think about it when I catch myself self-sacrificing.

Why do I think about it so much? Because at the heart of the book is a message, an exploration, a concept that I can’t shake off. It is a book that engages with the differences between fitting in and belonging. In our desperation to fit in we change our tastes, we change our opinions, we change our image, we change our masks.

But to belong… now that’s different. That’s surely the golden ticket. That’s what we were striving for all along.

I know about fitting in. Over the years, I got more adept in its requirements. It started for me in the same base training camp it does for many of us: my family of origin. A place, in which, I was constantly baffled and confused by proceedings. My mother would often smooth out my forehead telling me I would get frown lines. Of course, I was frowning; nothing made sense.

“Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth. It broke all three in me. And when those things break, there are only three outcomes, something I’ve borne witness to in my life and in my work:

1. You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing and/or inflicting it on others;

2. You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or

3. You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I know I will not be alone in this alienating feeling and the drive it can cause to fit in. For many, like me, the festive holidays are a reminder of how much we have had to sacrifice ourselves.

Recognising now that I am not alone is better but it can still feel lonely. Despite who else is also sacrificing themselves to fit in, the process of ‘fitting in’ is one you go through alone, with no real company but your true authentic self prodding away, from under a blanket, trying to get your attention: “Ahem, I’m still here you know. I CAN hear you.”

This means you may succeed in fitting into a particular group but there’s still that nagging feeling that things are not right with the world.

A great many books have been written on, and songs sung for, and films made about, this feeling. And for a really good reason. It is human to want to belong and we know when we get caught up in chasing that need, we can sacrifice near everything, including the people who do see our true selves and accept us as we ourselves do not.

“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, Braving the Wilderness

Belonging is a primal instinct. One that historically we needed in order to evolve. As hunter-gatherer folk, we survived better in groups so being part of a band of fellows was the difference between life and death. Abraham Maslow put the need for belonging just above needs that secure safety concerning resources. It’s now generally acknowledged that a sense of belonging is linked to good physical health. It is therefore not a surprise that shame surrounding not belonging can be some of the most damaging and also most keenly hidden.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to belong by hiding under a blanket of lies, or even by screaming: “Include me!” It doesn’t work either of those ways.

It’s a sobering statement but the only down-in-the-dirt way to belong is to accept yourself. I always hoped hard if I could belong, I could learn to love myself through others’ accepting eyes. But that’s not the way around it happens. Instead, we struggle to see those accepting eyes because we can’t see what they see. We can think they are deluded or mistaken or fools.

If we strive to belong without self-acceptance that is what leads to inauthentic and sometimes even destructive behaviour. It can also keep us clinging to a group that doesn’t suit our authentic selves. As you accept yourself more and more you are inclined to show more and more of your true self. And in doing this it makes it more obvious when a group is not sitting right with you.

Self-acceptance can prompt us to leave the table when love and respect are not being served.

“Be easy on yourself. Have fun. Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good, kick them to the curb. And the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non-included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.”

Amy Poehler

By increasing my levels of self-acceptance I’m finding it so much easier to make the calls about the rooms I want to be in, the people I want to be around and the groups I want to leave. I know if the chips were down, and no one seemed to want me, I will still want me. I will always be on my own team. I’ll be my own squad. I’ll be my own personal cheerleader shaking my pom-poms to form the letters of my name and doing a back-flip into a flying splits.

Well, why not? It’s my metaphor.

“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”

Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Last night I watched Hidden Figures. A brilliant film about the extraordinary African-American women who worked as mathematicians at Nasa during the space race. The film focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Three incredible human-beings who displayed such courage in the face of extreme predjudice. I’d love to ask them how they kept walking into those predominantly white and also segregated spaces at Nasa. I want to know what drove them, what kept them going, what gave them that determination. Did they know they belonged there, or anywhere or to themselves?

I acknowledge that there are lots of ways I can walk into a room and be accepted as others cannot. This will affect how I connect with the issue of belonging. My experiences shape my reflections. There are many things I have not had to experience.

I used to believe in order to belong I had to pay a toll. When I joined an improv community a few years ago I had some uncomfortable moments. I wanted to keep showing up even when I felt challenging feelings. What I realise looking back now was that I actually didn’t need to prove myself deserving of the right to belong in the eyes of others. What I really needed to do was feel deserving to my own eyes and to do that I needed to accept myself. I did that by walking into those hard moments. Putting in that work wasn’t a requirement placed there by others but it enabled me to say “I belong here.” And it was accepting myself through saying that which led to the increasing sense of belonging.

My journey to feeling accepted had to start with me. I started to feel proud of myself for the courage it took me. I decided I deserved to belong and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from me anymore, especially not me.

That was how I started to belong to myself.

I included me in the equation. The more I included me, the more I showed up as my authentic self, the more I seemed to be included. I also have less of an issue with scarcity. I see there is enough space to go around. And everyone gets to choose which space feels right for them and where they want to position themselves.

Hard moments do involve turning up. Sometimes they also involve walking away. I’ve often known I wanted out, way before I leave a situation. My gut has said “time to move on” but I’ve ignored it to keep on flogging. I’ve waited it out until a blow-up or a conflagration just so I can be completely sure.

Cheryl Strayed instead tells us to leave because we want to leave.

“Wanting to leave is enough.”

Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough

It seems counter-intuitive that the more I practice not fitting in, the more I seem to have done so. But that isn’t really about fitting in. It’s about letting go of the need to fit in. Its about self-acceptance. It’s about belonging. And whenever my sense of belonging starts to wane, instead of worrying about whether others are accepting me, I try to remember to ask: am I accepting me – imperfections, perceived imperfections and all?

Brené Brown did come around to understand her idol’s words. She went through the emotional rumble as Brown often does. She got there. And she wrote about it in her fascinating book Braving the Wilderness.

Maya Angelou was an incredibly courageous inspirational writer and activist. She also performed too. In the interview in 1973 with Bill Moyers, Maya Angelou’s final remarks went as follows:

Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?

Angelou: I haven’t yet.

Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?

Angelou: More and more. I mean, I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much. I like the humour and courage very much. And when I find myself acting in a way that isn’t… that doesn’t please me – then I have to deal with that.

Interview between Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, 1973

2 thoughts on “How to Belong

  1. I read this having just myself begun rereading Braving the Wilderness this morning. I’ve read it a half-dozen times, vaguely grasping parts of it and wishing I had a more in-bone undeerstanding. That, fortunately, I am finally achieving. I know my experience will be a journey, more than a destination; reading words like yours, I am grateful to feel the beauty in all this hard-won wisdom. It’s so worth it, to achieve this belonging to self.


    1. Thank you so much, Deborah. I so appreciate you sharing. It’s so great to hear about your journey. Yes, I have to remind myself often of the living being in the steps on the path. It’s where we learn how to belong to ourselves I believe. I hope you enjoy Braving the Wilderness this time around. I do feel I need to keep returning to Brene’s writing; I always discover something ‘new’ that I’m now ready to see.

      Liked by 1 person

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