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Belonging is the sense that we feel when we are connected and accepted by others. It’s a basic human need to be seen, loved, and cared for by people in our lives. The desire to belong is present from the moment we’re born and it continues throughout every stage of our lifespan. We may look for the feeling of being accepted and valued in the relationships that are available to us such as our family, peers, and romantic relationships. Sometimes we may feel disconnected and lonely. Learning to improve this sense of belonging may require taking a closer look at our lives.

Creating a Sense of Belonging

From the moment we’re born into this world, we rely on our caregivers for support, shelter, food, and love. We form emotional bonds that stimulate the growth of our brain and impact the way we form relationships with others. Through daily interactions with our primary caregiver, we learn how to cope with challenging situations and reach out for support when we need it.

If the caregiver is supportive and attentive, we learn that the world is a safe place. We feel empowered to explore the world in all of its wonders. When challenges arise, we know that we are supported. However, if the caregiver is not attuned with our needs, the world becomes a scary and dangerous place. A place filled with obstacles and feeling overwhelmed as we navigate through a maze.

As we grow older, we form relationships with others at playgrounds, school, church, and so forth. Eventually, we develop intimate and romantic relationships with whom we rely on for support and connection. If we are connected and in tune with our partner, we feel empowered and the challenges become less scary. I often hear people say, “if my significant relationships are going well, I feel capable, empowered, and strong. But when my significant relationships are not going well, I feel as if my world is crumbling.”

Chronic Invalidation

Several years ago, I was playing games with my nephew. We were playing, running around, wrestling, and making weird and loud sounds. After a while, I felt exhausted. I went to the refrigerator and got us popsicles. My nephew was sitting next to me on the porch as we were enjoying the flavors of frozen water. I looked over at my nephew, watching him enjoy the popsicle and I decided to play a trick on him. I wanted to take away his popsicle for a moment and look at his reaction. So… I did it! He looked at me with puzzled eyes as if he was saying, “how could you do this to me?” and began to cry.

I thought to myself, “what’s the big deal? It’s just a popsicle.” Although it was just a popsicle for me, at that moment, the popsicle was a lot more… it was a moment of comfort, safety, and connection. At that moment, it meant the world to him and suddenly, it was ripped away. Taking the popsicle away was an act of betrayal and invalidation, no matter how small of a feat it may have seemed.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on this experience. I began to realize that when we have a secure attachment with people in our lives, the moment of misconnection becomes an opportunity for reconnection. When I returned the popsicle to my nephew, I gave him a hug, he smiled and we continued with our day. However, if we have a pattern of experiences where we felt insignificant, the moment of misconnection becomes overwhelming and threatening. Our brain perceives it as a threat, and we go into a panic trying to figure out how to survive. These experiences can directly or indirectly communicate that our thoughts, experiences, and emotions are insignificant.

When we reach out for support and receive a cold shoulder, it causes pain and leads to confusion. We begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with us. Am I crazy? Am I unlovable? What’s wrong with me? These messages become louder and louder with each experience. We may learn to cope with these experiences through isolating, using substances, anger outbursts, and the list goes on. These experiences can be so overwhelming that you may feel like you’re about to burst or they may be paralyzing to the point of not being able to get out of bed. These are common reactions that our body has adopted to cope with overwhelming emotions.

Need to Belong

We all want to feel supported, heard, seen, and accepted for who we are. The sense of belonging is a basic human need just like the need for shelter, food, and water. This feeling of belonging helps us derive value in life and cope with overwhelming emotions. We know that there is someone that we can rely on to help us navigate through challenging experiences.

A sense of belonging develops from being yourself and feeling truly seen. Sometimes, we may ignore hurtful words or behaviors because we want to belong. We may choose to overlook deeply painful experiences in our relationships, or we may pretend to be someone else. When we choose to look the other way, we may neglect ourselves in the process because we want to belong. This realization can be painful and overwhelming.

We all want to be loved, seen, understood, and accepted. Regardless of the experiences and circumstances you may be going through, I would like to remind you that you belong. You belong to yourself. When we learn to extend kindness, love, and acceptance towards ourselves, we begin to embrace the fullness of who we are.

Learning to trust yourself can be a daunting task. You may even wonder, “where do I begin?” I want you to know that you don’t have to carry the weight by yourself. We’re here to support you and walk with you on this journey of belonging. Call today!

Written by therapist Viktor Terpay

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