When I was 21 and living in Taiwan for a year, my parents came to visit. My father chafed at the customs I had absorbed, like taking my shoes off at the door to the house, and accused me of trying to be Chinese. I replied that we were in their country and, as their guests, we ought to respect their way of doing things.
Having grown up between three cultures, I’ve done this since birth. Wherever I was, I observed the people around me and did my best to blend and be as inoffensive and appropriate as possible. In Venezuela, I became more gregarious. In Sweden, more subdued and proper. In New York, I’d pretend not to be going anywhere on vacation because I wanted to fit in with my classmates and not be the freak who’s always away visiting my foreign families.
I thought this would buy me a sense of belonging, but I now see that I was doing my best to fit in. I hoped that doing everything perfectly according to the dominant culture in which I found myself would make me belong. It didn’t. The more I tried to twist myself into the person my surroundings called for, the more isolated I felt. I didn’t belong anywhere and was never fully seen by anyone because I wasn’t myself. In these situations, which self was “myself” anyway? I had no idea.
Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. Fitting in asks us to adopt the customs, mannerisms, beliefs, and even the dress of the group with which we want to fit in. It requires that we mold ourselves according to their dictates and conform to their expectations.
We can fit in without feeling like we belong. Look at all the high school kids who follow the latest trends and move in packs but feel intensely isolated, desperate not to be discovered as having their own desires and needs that differ from the group.
How often are we silenced and coerced by a group dangling belonging in front of our noses like the tastiest piece of cake into doing something that feels wrong but we do it anyway because of our hunger for that cake and fear that if we speak up they’ll take it away and we’ll starve?
Any time we look outside of ourselves to determine our sense of belonging, we’re f*cked.
We’re wired to seek belonging. We are social, tribal creatures. There’s nothing wrong in our desire to be a part of something larger, whether it’s a family, sports team, company, or spiritual movement. Being a part of a group teaches us about ourselves and can help us hone our particular contribution to the whole. The love we experience in a group can help us develop the confidence to put ourselves out there. There are many positive aspects to being a part of a group and I’m not suggesting we forgo that experience to go it alone at all costs.
On the contrary, I’m suggesting that we’ll never experience true belonging with others until we take the power away from them to determine whether or not we feel like we belong. That until we show up with our belonging already sourced from within, we don’t discover who we really are and the joy of living in integrity with that.
As we grow and evolve, it becomes necessary to examine tribal ideas we take for granted and question whether or not they actually fit. Maybe we’re going against a nagging feeling inside in order to fulfill what the group wants us to do. Maybe we’re tired of wearing the same thing as our friends and want to wear something that sparks our heart but is completely against our tribe’s fashion dictates. Maybe we know we’re silencing our voices in order not to rock the boat. All of these are signs that it’s time for a change, that the self we constructed to be a part of the group has become too small for us.
Some of us are beginning to wake up to the truth of how much we’ve compromised ourselves in order to fit into a conditioned idea of belonging. An idea that demands fitting in. We want to discover what unconditional belonging feels like and how we would show up to the world if we felt it as the ground of our being.
This kind of belonging begins within and overflows to others as open generosity and receptivity. Through cultivating inner belonging we build a world where we can disagree and still respect each other and be friends. We build a world with belonging is available to everyone, not just those who think like we do. A world where belonging is everyone’s birthright, not something we have to earn. I see that world germinating inside of us and know it as the truth of who we are.
Together, let’s let it grow.