Fulfilling Our Need for Belonging

As a socially-oriented being, I am most at peace when surrounded by trusted family, friends, and colleagues. I relish being part of a cohesive group and feel rather lost without it. For me, it ranks right up there with food, water, and air as essential to life. So I was naturally drawn to Dr. Brené Brown’s latest book, entitled Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.

Dr. Brown opens the book with a story from her childhood that punctuates the pain we suffer when feeling disconnected from our families and/or peer groups. Most of us could probably mine our histories and narrate similar experiences. Yet she challenges the notion that belonging can proceed from the outside in. Such motivation could result in conformity that thwarts our ability to be authentic. Rather, the table stakes for deep feelings of connection are two-fold: belonging thoroughly to ourselves, and believing thoroughly in ourselves. From that ground of being, we are free to be fully present with others without sacrificing who we are.

togethernessShe defines TRUE BELONGING as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges the difficulty in forging connection in an increasingly cynical and divisive world. It calls upon us to listen with an open heart and be more curious than defensive. It speaks to the need for tethering difficult conversations to our shared humanity while allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in the process. To that end, she serves up a set of guiding principles to illumine the path ahead.

PEOPLE ARE HARD TO HATE CLOSE UP. MOVE IN. It’s not easy being in the presence of someone whose background, experiences, and perspectives are radically different from your own. It’s especially hard when standing on different sides of a debate about which you are especially passionate. Yet it remains vitally important to respect that individual’s human dignity and offer the courtesy of listening with the intent to understand. If we can navigate difference in a way that deepens mutual understanding and instills compassion, we have the opportunity to transform conflict and create something new and beneficial.

SPEAK THE TRUTH TO B.S.; BE CIVIL. Dr. Brown makes a distinction between lying (defying truth) and bs-ing (dismissing truth). The latter shows up when we feel compelled to weigh in on something we don’t know or understand and/or we lack faith that facts or truth can be discerned. It muddies our capacity to be authentic with ourselves and others. That being said, the call to mount a challenge still comes with the mandate to approach one’s self or others with generosity, empathy, and curiosity. Mutual respect allows us to ask questions and explore differences within the context of a safe space.

HOLD HANDS. WITH STRANGERS. When we show up for one another to share the joys, sorrows, and everything in between, we lose our capacity to deny our human connection. It takes us out of a “we” versus “they” paradigm. It enables us to realize that we are all part of a collective experience that is greater than ourselves. It opens the door to a sense of meaning and positive affect that can help us live longer, more rewarding lives.

STRONG BACK. SOFT FRONT. WILD HEART. A strong back gives us the courage to be ourselves, speak our truth, and do what we believe to be right. The soft front creates the requisite vulnerability to experience love, joy, trust, and intimacy. The wild heart is “the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid, all in the same moment.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges that many of today’s alliances are born of shared contempt for others. She deems them “counterfeit connection.” They reflect a deep spiritual crisis that diminishes all concerned. Though less overtly harmful, the desire to conform to a group’s norm at the expense of one’s inner compass can be equally damaging. Separation from a comfortable situation can prove unnerving, but author Jan Hatmaker offers the following consolation:

“The loneliest steps are the ones between the city walls and the heart of the wilderness, where safety is in the rear view mirror, new territory remains to be seen, and the path out to the unknown seems empty. But put one foot in front of the other enough times, stay the course long enough to actually tunnel into the wilderness, and you’ll be shocked how many people already live out there — thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging.”