When Belonging is Up to You
We evolved to be a communal, relational species, wired for belonging. But finding a place/people to belong to can be a real challenge.
As a species, we’ve evolved within tribal communities dependent upon one another. As a result we are wired for connection with others.
In short, we long to belong.
But sometimes we sabotage our own possibility to find such belonging.
BELONG vs FITTING IN
Thanks to the work of thinkers such as Toko-pa Turner and Brene Brown, when it comes to being part of a larger group we can make a distinction between “belonging” and “fitting in.”
Fitting in is a process that requires we hack off, hide, or otherwise reject parts of ourselves in order to, well, fit in.
Belonging, on the other hand, is when we can show up fully and truly as we are (no hacking or hiding required) and receive acceptance, welcome, and love from the group.
Many churches claim to (and might even seek to) embody a model of belonging, but in practical terms they end up operating more along the lines of fitting in. You can see this play out in their teaching (eg, here are the official beliefs of the church, and what we ask you to believe, in order to acquire membership) as well as in their practice (eg, here are a list of behaviors that, if indulged in, will threaten your status with the group).
As a result, people discover that in order to “belong” to the group, first they must “fit in” by adapting particular beliefs and avoiding (or adopting) particular behaviors.
This amounts to a conditional kind of acceptance: You get to be part of the tribe as long as you stay within the bounds of belief and behavior.
Many of you know first hand what it’s like when you “fail” to maintain these “conditions.” It’s painful. It’s sad. It’s really, really hard.
As stated above, we are social creatures with an inborn need for connection. Belonging is a natural desire, and it’s also good for us (emotionally, spiritually, and physically). So not having it, not belonging to a group, is hard and it hurts.
We thrive in community. We are better together. Loneliness sucks, and if you’ve ever felt the sting of being ostracized from a community or a church, you know the kind of suckage I speak of.
Anyway, the point here is to highlight the distinction between belonging and fitting in:
Belonging is unearned and unconditional.
Fitting in is earned and conditional.
We long to belong, which is different than fitting in, but it’s easier said than done.
In part that’s due to external factors, such as when the tribe/community demands fitting in instead of offering belonging.
And then other times, belonging is hard because of internal factors.
Sometimes the group in question might be incredibly clear in its insistence that you are welcome, you matter, and you belong, but in your own inner world you struggle to receive it. The gift of belonging might be right there for the taking, but something within us prevents us from actually enjoying the gift.
I recognize there’s a real risk here of victim-blaming, and please know that’s not my intent. I’m not saying that if you don’t feel like you belong to a given community then it must therefore be your fault. No, no, and no.
What I am saying is that sometimes, however, we would do well to examine ourselves and leave open the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we are sabotaging our own potential belonging.
BELONGING CAN BE SCARY AND VULNERABLE
The story we often tell ourselves is that we want to belong to this group, but they are making it so we can’t! When perhaps the deeper reality—the one your heart is afraid to name—is that you yourself are sabotaging your own capacity for belonging. And instead of looking in the mirror we blame others.
Jesus once came upon a man who’d been sick for 38 years and he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
We might think that’s just Jesus being cheeky, or asking a rhetorical question, but I think it’s a genuine question to ask.
Do you really, truly, actually want to get well?
The answer to that isn’t always obvious. As I’ve taught before, sometimes we are more afraid of the calm after the storm than we are of the storm itself. Because even though the storm is chaotic and rocky, it’s at least familiar. We know who we are in the middle of the storm.
But who might we be if the storm ends? Who might we be without this thorn in our side?
Sometimes the prospect of healing can be scary.
The man replied back to Jesus, “I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up...(legend had it that the pool nearby had healing properties)... someone else always gets in ahead of me.”
This guy took a page out of my book: immediately project the blame on to someone else for my state of unhealth. Oh I’d be much farther down the road on such-and-such if it weren’t for so-and-so!
Why might we do this? Why might we not actually want to get well, and instead blame others for our state of being?
Perhaps because—as beautiful as true belonging can be—the road to get there can feel incredibly scary and vulnerable.
Scary because it requires we show up fully and truly as we are, not as we pretend to be. If you’re anything like me, you might spend a lot of time and energy wearing masks to project (false) images of who you want others to think you are. Yet true belonging requires we shed those masks, and just be ourselves. Terrifying!
Second, true belonging is super vulnerable. Since we show up as we are—alongside others doing the same—true belonging can lead to genuine connection, which results in meaningful relationships. And that’s awesome, of course, but if you’ve ever had such authentic connection… and then had it broken… it’s the worst. As a defense mechanism, we then find it safer to keep people at arm’s length and avoid such heartbreak from happening again thankyouverymuch.
I’m not saying we consciously sabotage our own belonging, but considering the above two factors, I have no doubt that we might be subconsciously avoiding that which feels both scary and vulnerable.
It makes sense.
DO YOU WANT TO BELONG?
I’ve seen this many times at our church. We preach the message over and over again about Belonging, and we insist repeatedly that you belong here! However, we still occasionally hear from folks who feel like they don’t belong. It’s not uncommon that, through the course of multiple conversations, we discover how the root cause of their lack-of-feeling-like-they-belong is one or both of the above factors.
And again, let me reiterate, my goal here is not to victim-blame. There can certainly be other, very valid reasons why a person may not feel like they belong even in a community that preaches and practices belonging. But I’ve seen it too many times to ignore that maybe, just maybe, the person in question is their own worst-enemy when it comes to their own belonging.
This is why, I think, Jesus aimed straight at the heart of the matter. Do you want to get well?
Perhaps today, if you’ve been feeling like you don’t belong somewhere, you might hear the question: Do you want to belong? Like, for reals?
Are you ready to open yourself up to others in authenticity and vulnerability, and risk making your true self known?
Are you prepared to risk making connections with others who open themselves up to you, and can you sit with them in their messiness and pain and withhold your judgment? Aka, can you accept other’s place of belonging as well as your own?
Are you open to the possibility of being hurt again? Because human relationships are messy and always vulnerable to fissure and fracture. I understand the instinct to shutter up the doors to our hearts and keep people out. But I also know how such a posture leads to loneliness and disconnection.
So, friend, do you want to belong?
Because it might be possible that the reason you don’t feel like you belong somewhere is because you’re not letting yourself. Because you’re holding out. Because you’re too scared to actually receive belonging, to trust that it’s real, to test it out.
Maybe your challenge is this: next time you’re in a group where you want to/hope to/wish to feel like you belong, just whisper under your breath, “I belong here. I belong here. I belong here.”
Because at the end of the day, no one can do that for you.
No one can force you to belong.
You must own it.
And choose to believe it.
What Do You Think?
Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in somewhere? What was that like?
Have you ever experienced what you might call “true belonging?” What is that like?
Can you identify a time in your life where you might’ve sabotaged your own sense of belonging? How did you deal with that (or are you still working on it)?
What am I missing above? Push back on my thoughts, I’d love to hear it!
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This is yet another fantastic piece! It spoke to me so deeply because I've been searching for a place to belong for years. You're right that it is scary and makes people feel vulnerable to show up as their true selves.
The bit you said about knowing who we are in the storm but not after is spot-on for me. I once expressed to my therapist that I'm afraid of getting better. Not only will I then not be able to see my therapist anymore (at least that's what I thought), I also don't know what it's like to not be burdened by depression/depressive episodes since a depressed me is the only thing I've always known. My therapist essentially said a similar thing about how scary it is to be in that position.
I'm also always left thinking "Are they REALLY being nice?", "Were they just being polite?" and all kinds of other anxious worries after social interactions. I think the pressure is even higher for me since my wife is the pastor!
Anyway, thanks for the reminder for us to look inward and also question our own heart to see whether we're self-sabotaging. It's easy to do and is easier to remain bitter and angry at other people rather than admit that we do truly need to take the risk to show up.
(Btw, the adult sunday school we did last week on the clobber passages went really well but we realized that we probably should've gone through just a few verses at a time rather than the entire list! I've directed people to your book/site. My wife also purchased The Shift and unClobber for the church library!)
It is a little scary at times how things align with what I am going through and what you are writing. First I will say that many times at SOJO I have felt that "true belonging" you talk about where I went home with my cup full, didn't question the conversations I had, or doubt that I was really loved. You, Kate, and SOJO introduced me to a loving, non-judgmental God and I have grown and transformed. I still struggle at times with the thoughts after church, small group, or other gatherings I attend with those pesky questions, "did I say the wrong thing?" "Did I share too much?", "are they just tolerating me?". And then we have the words who beyond their definition carry a personal trauma meaning such as anything about me being silent, implied rejection, and others. Some of this is anxiety but it is all connected to childhood trauma. I am writing through those in my poetry, and with therapy. I am on the path to a more constant belief that I belong, I keep showing up because I believe I will get there. It’s a good thing I have a safe place to go, filled with loving, inclusive, affirming people to practice. I belong here. Thanks, Colby.