Belonging arises from the decision to show up and allow yourself to be seen. If you’re holding back, thinking you’re not good enough or trying to avoid ridicule, it won’t matter what anyone else does. You won’t feel like you belong because you’re not actually present.
We all want community. Our culture revolves around being included. We want to belong. Yet, many of us rarely feel a sense of true belonging.
In one of my favorite podcasts, The Unmistakable Creative, the host asks guests about their role in high school and how it influenced their lives. It’s fascinating because 1) it explores the potential importance of our early identities, and 2) many guests describe themselves as not fitting in, as floaters who interacted with everyone. They share how their experience helped them succeed in their various endeavors, but the question and answers both intrigue me.
I was a floater. Popular enough to fit in, smart enough to get As, and athletic enough to hold my own, except for softball. (I always sucked at softball.) I was friends with everyone but never felt an essential part of any group.
Hearing so many ‘floaters’ makes me wonder: Does anyone ever feel truly “in” the group? Ever feel fully accepted?
Our community includes those with whom we share space: a school, neighborhood, or workplace. Physical proximity to others creates a sense of community from the outside in. These structures help us define ourselves. There’s also community in terms of the internal feeling of belonging. The sense that people get you. While most of us desire this second kind of community, we often settle for the first. Rarely do they coincide effortlessly.
When we go to a particular school, join a club, or plant ourselves in groups, it demands little effort on our part aside from paying membership dues or adjusting to rules. We get new labels to add to our sense of identity and possibly our resume, and others assume we share similar values and interests. If the structure and beliefs are a good fit for your existing identity, you may have a sense of belonging, or the labels may not fit as well as you’d like. Your membership may never feel official. Like someone who joins a running group, but never considers themselves a ‘real’ runner.
In my own experience, joining groups hasn’t been enough to create a sense of belonging. Whether my personality, giftedness, or another mechanism, existing structures have always felt lacking. I’ve concluded two reasons for that, which I hope resonate.
First, I’ve always felt different than the average bear, that my values and interests didn’t match the norm. My assumption had always been that when you’re different it’s harder to find people who understand you. I see this in my children when their interests don’t match with other kids their age. Sometimes you have to create a community yourself.
A few years ago, I started a local writing group. There are lots of groups I could have joined, but I took the chance that other writers might enjoy the type of community I envisioned. I had no idea if people would come, but I’m happy to say they did! Creating my own group allowed me to set the tone, which attracted intelligent, interesting, and many introverted individuals. They inspire me to try new things and go deeper into writing. Are they gifted too? Perhaps, but that’s not what really matters. What matters is that we connect. Being different doesn’t mean you’re alone. There’s a community waiting for you, but sometimes you have to take the first step to create it.
Second, I’ve learned that the key to belonging has little to do with others. My group grew from my own values and interests, but guess what? I still felt like I didn’t belong. Belonging arises from the decision to show up and allow yourself to be seen. If you’re holding back, thinking you’re not good enough or trying to avoid ridicule, it won’t matter what anyone else does. You won’t feel like you belong because you’re not actually present.
As Glennon Doyle writes in her book, Untamed, your Representative shows up for you, a version of yourself that fits in with how things are supposed to be. Once you can show up as your full self, you can belong anywhere. Even though I love the phrase, “It’s not about you!” belonging is in fact about you! It’s about your unwavering belief in your own self-worth and not looking to others to assign your place. It’s about showing up for yourself and being interested in others without judgement or fear of rejection. If you allow your humanity—imperfections and all—to shine, then you have the opportunity to connect with anyone else in their messy humanity as well.
I had to show up as myself AND be more interested in others than I was in my own insecurities.
It seems like few people feel they truly belong, but it’s something you create for yourself. Being a floater enables trying on different perspectives, which also helps to understand different perspectives. The more you learn about yourself and others, the more commonalities arise. If external social structures dominate the identity story, the inner belonging may never develop. Identities and labels from external structures can exclude and divide. Internal belonging connects you to humanity.
Everyone is in a messy human body navigating life the best they can.