The 4 Components of Belonging
“Everyone here looks down on me.” Over a Zoom coaching call, the executive assistant at a large global corporation hunched over and looked downward, hugging herself. “I’m not a city girl. I come from a very small rural town and I just know that when everyone here looks at me, they see a hick. A stereotype. They assume I’m uneducated and not as smart as they are. I just don’t feel like I belong.”
“How do you know they think that?” I asked.
“They’re city people! They’ve all lived in big cities their whole lives! They think they’re better. Smarter. Faster. Better.”
“Okay, what about your stereotypes?” I asked. “What do you think of ‘city people’?”
Her eyes grew huge. She’d never considered that perhaps her own preconceived notions and attempts to protect herself contributed to feeling like an outsider.
As I asked more questions and we dug deeper, she admitted that her coworkers treated her with respect and kindness and even frequently paid her compliments! Yet due to her fear of rejection, she presented herself in a way that did not invite or confirm connection. As is often the case, her negative perceptions created a downward spiral: You don’t feel like you belong, so you withdraw, so then others interact with you less, reinforcing the feeling that you don’t belong. It’s a vicious cycle.
After discussing all the positive feedback she’d dismissed and friendly interactions she’d overlooked, I asked, “When will you feel like you belong?”
A sense of “belonging” comes from four main ingredients, as outlined in this study paper. But if you’ve ever done any baking (or watched The Great British Baking Show), you know you can’t just dump ingredients in bowl and expect it to magically turn into a Victoria Sandwich Cake. It takes a little more effort than that. Similarly, you actually have to put in a little effort and practice into building a sense of belonging. It, frustratingly, doesn’t happen by magic.
Here are the four components of belonging:
You have to actually want to belong. Do you?
Sometimes the answer is an obvious “yes.” Other times, you have mixed feelings. You’d like the connection, but you’re not sure you have the time to invest. You’d like the social or political status, but you’re not sure you identify with the members of the group. You’d like to feel included, but you’re afraid of rejection.
If you don’t feel like you belong, take a moment to assess whether or not you want to. If the answer is YES, then you can look at the barriers and start to move forward. If the answer is NO, then great! At least now you’re clear. Not belonging is your conscious choice.
You can’t belong if you don’t have a group to belong to. This has been a true barrier for many over the past few years due to the pandemic; loneliness rates have been at an all-time high. However, for the sake of this article, I assume you are part of a group, but don’t feel you belong. (For more info on the availability of groups and its impact on belonging, check out the full study.)
Generally speaking, building interpersonal communication and social skills is 100% within your control. Like any skill, some people may have more natural ability than others, but skills, by their very nature, can be learned and practiced.
Unfortunately, due to the isolation many experienced during the covid pandemic, as a society we lost vital opportunities to practice our social skills. I can’t tell you the number of people—many of whom are quite extroverted, social, friendly people—who have said they experience anxiety, self-consciousness, and sometimes downright fear at the prospect of having to reinsert themselves into social situations after such a long time of not interacting regularly with others.
The study lists the following skills as being helpful for cultivating connection and a sense of belonging: self-awareness, emotional regulation, verbal and nonverbal communication, conforming to social norms, and active listening. Luckily for you, every single thing on this list is something you already do to some extent and something you can proactively work to improve. If you feel like you don’t belong because you don’t know how to connect, there are many resources out there to help you learn, practice, and improve. Read some articles, get some coaching, practice with a friend, attend a workshop… These skills are within your reach! I promise.
Sometimes the feeling of “not belonging” persists even when you want to, you have opportunity to, and you actively have been seeking connection. This could be the result of previous experiences with rejection, miscommunication, a negative view of others, low self-esteem, or numerous other causes. Here’s that feedback loop again! You don’t feel like you do or can belong, so you’re not sure you want to belong, so you withdraw.
Some things that help:
1) Realize it’s normal. Everyone feels like they don’t belong from time to time. That doesn’t mean it’s a permanent state of existence. It’s a feeling, and feelings pass. (If you let them.)
2) Ground yourself in reality. Most of the stories you tell yourself are just that: stories. Sometimes your stories are based on facts; often, you’re just making stuff up. What do you actually know to be true?
3) Watch your focus. You get to decide how you allocate your thoughts. Do you focus on all the “proofs” that you don’t belong? Or do you focus on the positive feedback you receive from others and the ways you already do belong?
Everyone wants to belong. It’s a basic human need. And yes, there are some misguided souls out there who try to make themselves feel like they belong by excluding others. You will face that in your lifetime, and I’m sorry for that. However, most people are just as eager for connection and just as worried about not belonging as you are. Reach out. Instead of worrying about rejection, help others feel included.
We need more connection and belonging in the world.