How can we define true belonging?
Rather than just being about social networks, true belonging is a prevailing sense of connectedness. It’s a belief in being part of something meaningful and trusting that you’re right where you’re meant to be. And, ultimately, it begins with yourself, because belonging, as social researcher and author Brené Brown says in her book, Braving the Wilderness, is the opposite of fitting in. It doesn’t happen when you change how you look or what you think or say. In truth, it only happens when you make the decision to deeply accept who you are.
Why it’s hard to feel a sense of belonging in a new place
Feelings of belonging are often tied to location. There’s something particularly soothing about that familiar feeling of coming home. But leaving your hometown or city, whether it’s to move somewhere nearby or further afield, is part of many people’s lives. And with more than 280 million migrants in the world today, for many, it’s essential.
But finding your way in a new environment can feel daunting and even dangerous. This is because the brain is five times more attuned to recognising threats than rewards, and when danger is sensed, whether for real or imagined circumstances, fear kicks in, diminishing the capacity to feel connected to others.
What are some ways to cultivate a sense of belonging?
According to London-based cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, Esther Slattery, who has a special interest in equality, diversity and LGBTQI trauma, the best way to do this is by calming the nervous system through the practice of ‘compassionate courage’. She explains:
‘There has been some lovely research to show that if we visualise a compassionate figure when doing a daunting task, like moving to a new neighbourhood or starting a new job, we become stronger. This softens our approach, allowing us to accept ourselves as we are and makes it more likely that we succeed in our interactions.’
Engaging in a daily self-compassion practice that begins by noticing your inner voice – if it’s anxious or even harsh and self-critical, for example – and responding with the kind and supportive tone you’d use with a friend who’s struggling, is particularly effective, according to self-compassion researcher and author, Kristin Neff. It could even help you to start to embody that compassionate figure for yourself.
‘Creating space around emotions is crucial to finding belonging because it develops a sense of common humanity,’ says Esther. ‘We begin to realise that belonging is both important and difficult for everyone – and this decreases the shame that might arise out of feelings of difference, as well as fear, and enables us to begin viewing the world around us as friendly.’
How can curiosity about others help to foster a sense of belonging?
Although engaging with the world in this way requires courage, it also needs a certain degree of curiosity – about yourself and others – to take a leap into the unknown and want to belong there. According to personal development coach and mentor, Andrea Darcy – who’s based between the UK and France and has worked with numerous clients to help develop their sense of belonging – this begins with the dropping of the tendency to judge.
‘Rather than focusing on the differences in others, I encourage clients to practise a sort of mindful connection with each person they meet,’ she says. ‘The idea is, no matter how small the interaction, you can always find at least one thing that you have in common, even if it’s just that you have the same colour eyes or are buying the same thing in the shop. It might sound silly, but it’s very powerful because, by making us more present, we end up communicating better and find that our perspective begins to shift.’
Esther also refers to a method used in therapy, which she says helps to widen perspectives on the world. She describes it as a ‘helicopter view’, particularly in interactions with others, and aligns it to the acronym ACT: accept the situation, choose how you want to respond, take action. In short, get curious, ask yourself questions about what it feels like to be someone else, and experience empathy. Acknowledging that people experience the same basic emotions and difficulties, even though they might show up differently, is key to fostering a sense of belonging.
Approaching the world in this way is transformative because it rewrites the story of belonging. Rather than being about a familiar place or group of people that enables you to feel at ease in the world, it becomes a personal skill that can be cultivated. And when you learn its ropes, you can transcend feelings of separateness, gaining inner confidence while strengthening connections with the wider community and all of life – wherever you happen to be.
For more information about Esther, visit nurture-hub.org.
Connect with Andrea at amdarcy.com and follow her on Instagram @am_darcy
You can read more articles about mental wellbeing in Breathe 60.