This is an abridged version of Bob Van Oosterhout’s work on belonging and authenticity. For more, visit his website.
Everybody needs and wants to belong. We all want and need to feel valued, accepted, and recognized. We want to be ourselves, to be at ease in our surroundings and be able to discover and develop our unique gifts and potential. We want to be part of something, to make meaningful contributions, and find shared interests and commitments.
Belonging and authenticity are intertwined. We can only fully be ourselves when we have a secure sense of belonging and we only truly belong when we can fully be ourselves. Authenticity without belonging is an ongoing challenge with risks and setbacks. Belonging without authenticity is false belonging. It’s never enough because we never know if we truly fit in when we’re trying to be someone else.
The sense of true belonging is increasingly rare in our world today, and it’s a serious problem. There are hundreds of incidents of mass violence in the United States every year - almost all of them carried out by people who feel excluded and isolated. Rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have been consistently linked to a lack of belonging and meaningful connection with others. False belonging attracts people to violent extremist groups and those who promote hate and fear.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H Murthy wrote “So many of the problems we face as a society—from addiction and violence to disengagement among workers and students to political polarization—are worsened by loneliness and disconnection. Building a more connected world holds the key to solving these and many more of the personal and societal problems confronting us today.” (“Loneliness,” Kindle Edition, p xix)
What does it mean to “truly belong”?
True belonging is a feeling of being valued, included, and connected without pretense or judgment. Acceptance is an important aspect of true belonging. Acceptance requires an open heart. Judgment and blame are replaced with understanding and support so we can adapt to limitations and work through mistakes. An adversarial mentality is replaced with the awareness that we are far more efficient and effective when we work together to explore possibilities and solve problems.
True belonging recognizes the fact that the greater good is best served when everyone is supported in developing their gifts and potential. It creates conditions where we can work together to improve the lives of all. True belonging produces shared responsibility, an awareness that what we do affects others, and the realization that we all have a role in creating and sustaining a healthy, vibrant community.
True belonging has no boundaries. We are closest to those who know us best and can only realistically maintain a few very close relationships. But there are circles of connection that encompass neighbors, communities, cities, states, countries, and ultimately the entire planet. We all belong on this earth. We are part of the natural world. We originated here and were born here. We belong here. We diminish that sense of belonging when we judge, blame, isolate or exclude others and prevent them from becoming their authentic selves.
How does fear interfere with authenticity and belonging?
Fear is part of nature. It’s a reaction to an immediate threat to our health and well-being. But fear inins nature is brief. Most often it’s a reaction to being seen as lunch by a hungry predator. A potential victim runs or fights to survive the attack and then recovers after a short rest.
The lack of belonging and authenticity in our world today can be linked to the effects of prolonged fear. Prolonged fear builds in reaction to events from the past (trauma, rejection, etc.), or worry about what might happen in the future. Much of it is manufactured fear, carefully designed and promoted by politicians and media to get and keep our attention and support. Prolonged fear isn’t discharged through running or fighting but keeps us in a constant state of tension that affects how we see ourselves, each other, and our world.
How can we let go of fear and restore authenticity and belonging?
It’s an uphill struggle but the slope becomes less steep as we realize who we really are and go back to our true nature. Actually, remembering the acronym GO-BACK can guide us.
Start with GRATITUDE and OPTIMISM, then make a commitment to restore and maintain BALANCE so that fear no longer restricts our vision and thinking; ACCEPT current limitations in ourselves, others, and our culture as a starting point for improvement without judging, blaming, or categorizing; CLARIFY how we have adapted to fear and seek to understand our own and other’s needs, interests, and potential. Be KIND so we can keep our hearts open and act in ways that touch the hearts of others.