Going down the rabbit hole: How to fulfill your sense of belonging?
Have you ever suffered from a lack of a sense of belonging? To your close friends? Your Family even? Colleagues? Even your life partner? Well, I have… with all of them!
Belongingness’ — it’s not just a ghastly word, it has also been a difficult issue for me in my life. I decided to write this piece, to speak up in public about my problem with ‘belongingness’, in the hope that in doing so, I would ease the pressure that I have accumulated. I mean, frankly, this has been a hairball that has been keeping me stressed and confused for a big chunk of my life, and it’s about time I got it out of my system. But I also feel that what I have learned so far from my journey is worth sharing here.
As a kid growing up, I always felt that I did not belong to anything, any group or identity that I found around me; I was bored, easily turned off and even repelled in some cases. If that sounds familiar to you, I hope this post can help.
When I was looking for a definition of belongingness, I liked what Wikipedia said: “Belongingness is the human, emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people tend to have an ‘inherent’ desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.” See, I have always felt that ‘inherent’ desire to belong to something greater than me, but I never knew where my place really was. We are tribal animals, but I couldn’t find my tribe. I kept having this curiosity to learn what was beyond the borders of my direct and indirect environment: what was beyond my closed family home, beyond the periphery of my community, beyond the borders of my country? Imagine having me as a child: I was inundating my parents with a never-ending flow of questions, while they tried to deal with meanders of daily life. I found that, at young age, there were predominantly three aspects of my life where I really struggled with feeling that sense of belonging.
I grew up in a somewhat dismantled family; we were three siblings with parents who were running the rat race, trying to make a living. I had a mother, who I consider was abusive — mentally even more than physically. Let me put it this way: her and the concepts of motivation or inspiration never seemed to have got acquainted. I was somewhat considered a black sheep, at least in her eyes. So, my mum and I always fought and argued; I rarely agreed with anything she said and she was always bitter, discriminatory, negative. They say every man wants to marry their mother. Not so here my friends. Everything that she was, was everything that I didn’t want in a woman later in my life.
And what about my siblings in all this? They were living in their own world; we were separated by a large age gap and we rarely spent time together beyond standard family gatherings and obligatory social occasions. It’s kind of sad to reflect, but we disagreed more than we agreed and didn’t have relationships of confidence, nor trust. That’s just the way the cards fell.
Finally, we have my father. He was a workaholic and now, looking back, I wonder if he was trying to remain as many hours at his workshop, so he wouldn’t have to deal with coming back home and hearing complaints and pettiness. How many men hide out at work like this? My father was also very skilled at coming out the victim, the world his nemesis and all external circumstances hopelessly beyond his control. These days, we call this victim culture and it s perpetrators snowflakes, but to me, he was just dad.
So, simply put, living in that environment was not an ideal place to create the next Steve Jobs or genius.
Academically, I was an official failure, like… really! Barely making enough points on my scorecard to be able to move to the next grade in school, I felt like I was the only commoner in my class and everyone else was an aristocrat. Perhaps I had problems with learning, or I just could not understand the language that the teachers were speaking — the end result was that I sucked at school. Nevertheless, I like to think that the system has completely got it wrong: teaching was didactic, lessons shoved down our throats and as unpalatable as school dinners. It was a push/pull effect: everything was so rigid and mechanical, it was like being schooled in a gulag. There was no consideration made that there are different strokes for different folks — every kid has a different learning need, right? Sometimes, one system needs to adapt or, at least, offer several types of learning methodologies to cater for those needs? Right?
Now, for me, this resulted in a phobia of school, a dynamic being established centering around nothing short of terror and fear. Every Monday morning, for many years, I would be experiencing constant nausea or constipation. I had a few friends from school, but they were, ironically, united in their alienation: we were all in that same boat of outcasts. It didn’t help that they also cared even less about school than I did.
So, my utter lack of belonging was almost complete. Almost.
I grew up in a civil war and that is what I experienced and witnessed, daily, until the age of thirteen. Then this w as followed by a roller coaster period of corruption and political unrest in my country, which naturally resulted in an unstable economy — my homeland was pretty much an organized mess.
I’m not naming names, because it’s irrelevant and the lessons are the same. To illustrate though, imagine a country that’s geographically small and where the metro areas are constantly overpopulated. That means traffic congestion is a daily struggle. Imagine now approximately eighteen different religious communities, with their own multifarious rivalries and tensions, trying to live side by side. Imagine the creation of numerous militias by these different groups and their supporting political parties. But the biggest export the country had was its people and their skills and talents.
All this time, I kept trying hard to find friends, communities that could substitute the lack of belongingness that I had already experienced within my familiar circle and the absolute alienation I had felt at school. I never really found an answer. Eventually, I decided to leave my home country and follow my intuition to seek answers beyond the borders of my familiarity and environment — I was on the lookout for where I could belong.
If the country’s biggest export was talented people, maybe this could be my way out too? I decided to leave and become one of those stats.
It took a lot of guts, but I managed to move to another country that offered a much better quality of life. I was fascinated with the change and the dazzle of that new environment; I was convinced from the moment I arrived that this was the place that I wanted to make my new home. It took me many years, a lot of hassle, and a lot of hustle, but I managed to set up a life there, permanently there. The excitement of that accomplishment started wearing off after I got into the routine life I had set up for myself. We all forge our own manacles, I guess.
I started racing on that hamster wheel. I was becoming a clone of my own dad.
I was wheel spinning in an environment that was all about making more money, all about spending less and finding ways to avoid higher taxes — I began to feel that surely there was more to life than chasing the dime? So, that infamous lack of sense of belonging started kicking in again. My old friend loneliness curled up in the corner of my days.
What happened next? My lack of belonging felt complete. I tried to tackle it.
I sought refuge in seeking career success and in trying to develop a meaningful romantic relationship, thinking that if I was successful with either one of these, I could find myself a purpose and a raison d’ệtre. Wasn’t having a mission, an objective, a raft of accomplishments, where ‘normal’ people found their sense of belonging?
I gave it my best shot… and this is how it went.
I tried to find fulfillment through my career; it sort of worked for a while, but now I wonder if I was really just ‘numbed’. I have managed to travel a lot and am proud to think of myself as a truly international citizen of the world. I’ve experienced multiple cultures. I’ve lived in four countries, aside from my birth country, and my career is essentially what took me to three of these new places. Yet, and I’m sure you know what I’m about to say: I could not identify with any of them, in each I could not find my place.
At some point, the allure of that global lifestyle started to fade. They say you can’t sugarcoat a turd and call it candy! I realized that the actual job that I had was making me miserable. I also realized that as long as you do not align your values with your career or job, you can only be attracted for a while by that dazzle of the golden cage that the company has placed you in; eventually you will start feeling this burning sensation that tells you that you are simply not fulfilled.
Maybe my relationship would save me? I tried to find refuge in relationships, even as one failed after another. Romantic partnerships often followed the same pattern: I would immediately idolize the person that I was with, but often, in time, realize that perhaps I was making that person become in my head someone who they were not in real life.
Marlyn Monroe put it very elegantly: “I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let people fool themselves. They didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead, they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn’t …”
Clearly the emotional roller coaster of recovering from each and every failed relationship, started to take a toll on my sanity and my belief in myself. I was always wasting a lot of time, emotional capital and mental capacity trying to decipher who was right and who was wrong, as well as replaying in my head countless memories that finally did not serve me well.
It’s obvious now, but I was looking for belonging in all the wrong places.
I got really desperate, in fact, so much so that I started falling into anxiety, which soon morphed into a monstrous case of insomnia and threatened to snatch me, and pull me down into depression. I was literally losing sleep over this! I couldn’t shake that sense of feeling empty and unfulfilled. Did I even deserve to belong anywhere or with any other human being?
I figured that I needed to think in a different way about how I could go about resolving all this stuff. Looking back at my journey, I discovered that I was constantly repeating a specific pattern: I was constantly looking outside of me for something that should bring peace to a thought or an emotion that actually resided within me. I decided to work with a therapist to unpack this notion more. I was adamant to find an answer.
Hell, I had tried pretty much everything else.
And just recently, I think I may’ve found an answer.
Lo and behold, I have come across a very interesting theory through my work with the therapist. It feels like a gift.
In our first sessions, every time I talked about the lack of belonging, she would prompt me with questions to identify how this or that made me feel alienated or excluded. My answers started to form a pattern: three emotions were showing up time after time after time…
Unworthiness, failure, rejection.
My therapist then introduced me to the Sieve concept: see, I was constantly looking for external validation or emotional support for something that really needed to be fulfilled internally. By constantly looking for external emotional validation to fill up the void that I had — like I had done with my career, with my relationships, even with my parents, when I was a kid — I was pouring water into a sieve! I would never be fulfilled until I had found peace within me, until I can internally fulfill all the emotions that I had been deprived of right from childhood.
One day, I should be able to get to a stage where I feel that I am complete… internally, by myself, without the support or the validation of any outside entity. For example, whenever I had a woman in my life, I was burdening her with the responsibility of energizing me emotionally. I kept asking for more affection and attention — sometimes unconditionally, but yet I kept feeling empty to some extent. I was seeking an external person to fill up an internal need within me. That never worked and was not going to work.
I also have that negative belief system to unpack and all those feelings of rejection, failure and unworthiness. Those revelations were huge , but the problem was that I didn’t know where to start. So, I decided to go back into the timeline of my life and start with my childhood. The idea was to identify, to the best of my memory, the moments when I felt the emotions of being rejected, unworthy or a failure, and then to get the adult version of me to rekindle a sense of worthiness and completeness. I had to speak to that child within me. I was a ghost visiting my own past, revisiting these moments, one after the other, being the kindly voice that that little boy had needed but had never had.
The future is 2mm away
There is no beginning nor any ending to the journey of healing ourselves. Tony Robbins speaks about the concept of the 2mm, saying: “When life isn’t going according to plan, and your brain keeps telling you “nothing is working,” it can feel like you are a million miles away from where you want to be. But the truth is, you’re really only 2mm away. This is true even if you are performing above your standards, because there is always another level. And to break through, it comes down to the little things. Because it’s those tiny little habits that add up — a week from now, a month from now, a year from now — to make a profound difference.”
To illustrate, you go to the gym and pump away every day and every day you get to look at yourself in the mirror and still you don’t find any improvement — but that is only because the improvement is so small that, on daily basis, it cannot be perceived. Come back in a month, in a year.
Another example, imagine yourself on a plane, taking off from Europe, on a heading for Japan. Change the bearing by 2mm, change the angle of its trajectory — do that, and you’ll be taking your baggage off the conveyor belts in Australia.
I’ll keep adjusting my bearing; I’ll keep exercising my emotional muscles; I’ll keep being kind to that little boy inside, and I’ll keep inching forward, changing my course as I need to, 2mm at a time. And one day, I’ll get there. One thing we have to be mindful of is that within us there can be more than one entity; in my case, I have the persona of that ‘young me’ within, as well as this grown up guy writing this blog post — because of the unmet emotional needs of that younger me, this supposedly grown up Laurent has had to suffer from having a void within him and not knowing its source, and therefore, not knowing until now, how to fill it. Unpacking the emotions that come out whenever you are confronted with that gaping hole — that can help you to identify what can be the source of the feeling of unfulfillment.
The answer is always within us. Finding belonging starts with finding ourselves.
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