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Episode 161: The Need To Belong

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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. Nextdoor.com 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.

Episode List

Episode 138: Keeping Up With The Joneses
Episode 137: The Likeable You
Episode 136: Why It's OK To Be A Loser
Episode 135: The Psychology Of Extremism
Episode 134: Are You A Lobster?
Episode 133: Critical Thinking
Episode 132: There Is Nothing Either Good Or Bad
Episode 131: The For And Against Of Imagination
Episode 130: Loneliness & Social Networks
Episode 129: Letting Go Of The Past
Episode 128: What Is Love?
Episode 127: Procrastination
Ep. 126: Who Were You Before The World Changed You?
Episode 125: Stop Saying "Sorry"
Episode 124: Emotional Contagion
Episode 123: Patience
Episode 122: Building On Your Foundations
Episode 121: Dealing With The Critics
Episode 120: Being Assertive. Just Say No!
Episode 119: Inactivity
Episode 118: Social Functioning & Evolution
Episode 117: Unleash Your Inner Superhero
Episode 116: Goals, Values and Priorities
Episode 115: 10 Tips To A Happier Life
Episode 114: Lies And Confabulation
Episode 113: Confirmation Bias
Episode 112: Are You An Imposter?
Episode 111: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger
Episode 110: Are New Years Resolutions a good idea?
Episode 109: The African Violet Queen Of Milwaukee
Episode 108: Reframing
Episode 107: Spiders And Behaviourism
Episode 106: Practise Makes Perfect
Episode 105: Fear Of Flying
Episode 100 - 104: Happiness
Episode 99: Body Image And The Media
Episode 98: Evolution and Adaptation
Episode 97: Reflections And Regrets.
Episode 96: Dealing With Fear
Episode 95: Confidence
Episode 94: Enthusiasm
Episode 93: Tips To Relieve Christmas Stress
Episode 92: Dealing With Change
Episode 87 - 91: Self Esteem
Episode 86: Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
Episode 85: The Importance Of Being Lazy
Episode 84: Elephant Chains
Episode 83: Eating Bananas And Setting Goals
Episode 82: Ignoring The Media And Listening To Music
Episode 81: Awakening The Instincts
Episode 80: The Fine Line Between Love And Hate
Episode 79: The Best Medicine
Episode 78: A New Start
Episode 77: Time Distortion
Episode 76: Making Decisions
Episode 75: What's In A Name?
Episode 74: Pushing Ourselves Further
Episode 73: Conformity
Episode 72: Purpose
Episode 71: Perspective
Episode 70: Expectation
Episode 69: The Mind / Body Link
Episode 68: Overcoming Shyness
Episode 67: Mood Boosting
Episode 66: Sabotaging your goals
Episode 65: Self Talk
Episode 64: Money Makes The World Go Round
Episode 63: First Impressions Count
Episode 62: False Belief
Episode 61: Absolutes
Episode 60: The Psychology of feeling calm
Episode 59: Belief
Episode 58: Anchoring Emotions
Episode 57: Negativity and Perspective
Episode 56: Health And Happiness
Episode 55: Imagination vs Reality
Episode 54: Change