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When You Feel Like You Don't Belong (An Explanation)

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, belonging is the most important thing humans need aside from sleep, food, water, and shelter. His hierarchy shows that a human cannot reach any kind of meaningful self-esteem without it. Yet so many individuals live in a perpetual state of feeling like they don't belong.

"The most stable and healthy self-esteem is based on deserved respect from others rather than on external fame or celebrity and unwarranted adulation."

- Maslow

What Exactly Does It Mean to Belong?

First I'll give you my definition of belonging: To belong means there is an fundamental resonance between you and that which you belong to. It makes sense to you, or it feels like home, even if you can't articulate why. When you belong, you are deeply compatible with a person, group, place, or thing.

Spiritual teacher Teal Swan defines it like this: "To belong is to be a part of something. But true belonging is to be so much a part of something that you can’t not be a part of it." (She gives the example of all humans belonging to the human race.) "In true belonging, you are held and contained by something. It is the most positive expression of ownership in existence."

Do You Belong Anywhere?

So how do you know if you "belong" in your current relationship, friend group, family, workplace, town, or even your country? Because this pattern is formed early in life, we must first ask ourselves: Did I grow up with a sense of belonging as a kid?

People who struggle with belonging often grow up in strict religious families or families that otherwise held very different belief systems than their own. A family that you couldn't relate to (and they couldn't relate to you) paves the way for belonging issues in adulthood. Children in these environments often end up wondering, "What's wrong with me?" This question sets the stage for a lifelong pattern of "How can I fix myself?"

On top of that, a family who was not accepting or respectful of your different opinions, interests, goals, or personality is the nail in the coffin - These people grow up shamed, either subtly or directly, and have no doubt in their mind: "Something is wrong with me."

"Isolation and non-belonging will often come disguised as belonging. We can call this shadow belonging. A common form of shadow belonging that happens in families, occurs when a parent demonstrates narcissistic personality traits. In this family, one child who does not please this parent is typically ostracized from the family sense of belonging. We call this child the black sheep or the scapegoat." - Teal Swan

Unfortunately, schools systems often exacerbate belonging problems. Other students and even teachers consider differences a threat to the structure, and so children that don't "fit" are ostracized further.

What Happens When You Don't Belong?

In a sentence: You develop a core self-concept of shame. From there, a million negative patterns can ensue, from people-pleasing, to apathy, depression, anxiety, dishonesty, and more.

Anxiety can be a big issue because feeling like you don't belong activates fight or flight ("You are not safe here!"), and so you can never fully relax. Imagine the anxiety level of someone who never felt belonging their entire life? With each failed attempted at belonging somewhere, the desperation gets worse.

Unfortunately, this is the norm for many people, and it may have been the norm for you.

Sociologists have theorized that shame is a big motivator of criminal activity. Frequently scolded for being 'bad' in childhood leads to an adult who truly believes they are bad - defective at their core. And so the groups and activities they gravitate toward match that feeling precisely. This is exactly what Teal means by shadow belonging - They only "belong" there because of their shame.

Some people try to power through their shame and still be successful (ashamed of their shame itself). But it's like trying to fight gravity. It's as if you're competing in a race where everyone else got a 5-minute head start.

​Having a foundation of shame drastically shapes your life. For example:

- a person who was teased their whole life for wanting to be an artist - How confident can they possibly feel showing their work to potential clients?

- a person who was repeatedly told they were too emotional tries to make a relationship work - How can they possibly voice their needs without shame silencing them?

The problem is that shame roots deep and only begins to unravel when people fully believe it wasn't their fault - that there was nothing wrong with them to begin with. Belonging issues are usually about growing up in incompatible environments.

And here's the counterintuitive part - People who can't find belonging must re-experience the painful moments and feelings of alienation so there can be a catharsis - a full letting go and forgiving. Done repeatedly, this creates a 'clean slate' energy where the shame is replaced with a self-concept that is more neutral (e.g. I'm not good or bad, I'm just me!)

Eventually this person can even move toward a POSITIVE self-concept, or self-esteem. This includes being more of themselves (more shadow is integrated, so there is more of your "Self" available to you). This also means that your words and actions will align more with who you actually are (aka, authenticity!)

Being OK with Not Belonging

Oddly, shadow work helps you belong better in places where you used to feel a lack of belonging. A person who has truly healed their belonging issues will have a much easier time returning to the environment of the original wounding. A perfect example is people visiting family around the holidays - There's a reason this has gained such a reputation for being stressful. Holidays are not innately stressful - It's triggers of unhealed wounds that are stressful.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you should tolerate any kind of mistreatment from anyone. Just because you can tolerate non-belonging environments better doesn't mean should be there full-time. In fact, when belonging wounds are healed, you can find real belonging - whether in a marriage, career, friend group, or elsewhere - for the first time.

You may also find that the people you feel "belonging" with changes or greatly diversifies after healing. Why is that?

Because there's an overarching type of belonging that comes before any of the others - and it's belonging to yourself.

It's actually physiological - You're either accepting what you are experiencing in your body moment-to- moment - or you're at war with it.

So when you nail this kind of belonging, all other kinds immediately become easier.

Once this falls into place, you'll notice other people have an easier time recognizing who you are and valuing it. You won't have to justify who you are because you've already done the emotional work (facing shame).

If you're wondering HOW to actually do this, there are plenty of healing modalities out there - Just make sure you choose one that teaches you to directly process emotion rather than wallowing in it or stuffing it down.

And as always, you can check out my Shadow Workbook for more concrete exercises and information about processing emotion.

I wish you belonging.

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