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Episode 161: The Need To Belong

Many people feel a need to be unique, to be different from everyone else but that shouldn’t be at the expense of our sense of belonging. If we’re missing belongingness in our life then we can often feel as if we’re insignificant, unimportant and may as well crawl under a rock to die. Sure, be different, you’re life is your own, and any self esteem boost you get from your uniqueness can be used to help you recognise that actually, we’re all different, we’re all unique.
Social psychology is based on the premise that our sense of self consists of three fundamental self representations: the individual self, the relational self and the collective self. Our individual self is our unique traits and characteristics. Is our sense of humour light or dark, is it Last Of The Summer Wine or Trainspotting, do you prefer the Beatles or the Stones, that sort of thing. Then there’s our relational self. Which is about the attachments we form with significant others, the things we share with people that are important to us. How we fit in with them. Who’s the parent and who’s the child. And then there’s the collective self which relies on how we fit in with a wider group, with society. How significant we are in that group is just as important, I think, as the role we play with our close friends and family. Especially if how we see ourself and how we fit in with our family might be unhealthy. We might have dreadful self esteem and think of everyone else as more important and if so we really need a strong sense of our collective self to help create that sense of belonging.
When we’re born we are probably the most vulnerable animal on the planet and we know it. We can’t feed ourselves, we can’t stand up, we can’t sit up we’re just a screaming rag doll that needs protecting. At some point in our prehistoric past natural selection favoured a species that had a shorter gestation period, maybe something to do with the size of the birth canal compared to the size of our head, who knows, but our species was ok with it. Other versions of us probably weren’t, there would have been some less sociable or less nurturing species that needed its young to be able to look after themselves. We didn’t, because we were becoming more social, we were becoming a tribal species.
That diversion had some enormous benefits when it came to sourcing food and water, so we became the dominant species and the others died out. But being human comes with a set of instincts that means that if we sense we’re alone we become hyper aware of possible threats and act as if we’re fighting for our life because our brain is telling us that we actually are. That’s the point of emotions, we either feel safe or vulnerable. We label the emotion whatever we want depending on our circumstances, so our brain says we’re vulnerable and we label it as feeling as if we don’t fit in, as if we don’t belong. If this becomes habitual, part of our personality, then we can lose the ability to trust, we lose the ability to connect with others which further reinforces a feeling of not belonging because when you feel that you don’t belong it’s hard to know who the enemy is so everyone gets pushed away.
I mention this because you might not even recognise that you’re missing this sense of belonging, you don’t miss what you’ve never had and so without the emotional intelligence to see that it’s missing, the issue might just get labelled as anxiety, or shyness or anger. So it’s worth looking to see if something is missing from your life, it’s the reason why children who are put through a series of different foster homes or repeated family locations might have difficulty forming deeper attachments with people later in life, because they’ve never really learnt how to feel as if they belong somewhere. We know that ostracism, the pain of being shut out, is a real pain, it actually hurts. When ostracised there’s an increased activity in the same brain areas that it uses for pain recognition like the anterior cingulate cortex. But if you burn you hand, you simply pull it away if it hurts, you can’t do that with life, you can’t just walk away from isolation and into a sense of belonging. But it doesn’t stop people trying. It’s the reason why gangs exist and at the far end of that you have religious extremism. It’s how terrorist organisations recruit youngsters, they find someone who has no sense of belonging, someone who for racist reasons or mental health reasons has been ignored by the people around them, shunned, ostracised and they say “We’ll be your friend, we’ll give you a sense of belonging.” And then they slowly brainwash them.
So we know that feeling that you belong somewhere is important, but how do we create it?
In this modern world we can connect with people from anywhere if we want to. Facebook isn’t just about desperately trying to keep up with the Joneses, it can also be used for positives. I’m a member of a few mental health and counselling resources groups on Facebook, and it’s great to see complete strangers exchanging ideas and advice. This little virtual family gives us a great sense of belonging even though it’s with people that have never met and probably never will.
My local town is Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, and a someone set up a group called Nuneaton Memories where people submit old photos of the town and people share stories about their friends and family. It’s really popular, and there’s a wonderful sense of belonging that comes with it. is another site, and is a brilliant way of getting to know your neighbours without actually going and banging on their door.
But, I think the easiest, or certainly the less anxiety provoking, way is to look at the existing people in your life first before jumping into anything new. Yes you can join an Amateur Dramatics group if that’s your thing, that helped me definitely. But maybe you just need to feel better connected with your family, your work colleagues or your neighbours. One way to make this easier is to deliberately look at ways in which you are similar to each other. Rather than concentrating on your differences, focus on your similarities. After all it’s much easier to connect with people you already know than to try and make new friends. When trying to make new friends you still take you with you. Probably still taking that lonely feeling with you too, even in a big group of like minded people.
So start with existing people, even if you might think that they have nothing to offer you. Just because someone’s half your age, or twice your age, it doesn’t mean that they’re not worth listening to and talking to. You might have different political, spiritual, existential theories or beliefs but you might share the same goal of wanting a sense of purpose in life, or a pull to make the world a better place.
Embrace the similarities and in doing so accept the differences you have too. The thing is if we treat others as if they’re an outsider then it reinforces our own sense of loneliness because you sense that they feel the same way about you, that’s just what the brain does.
But by accepting others and seeing their differences as a valid part of who they are, it creates a feeling that even if you are different, you still belong. It just takes a bit of time, effort and patience for the process to become second nature.

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