Can we ever truly belong?

I’ve just started reading Brene Brown’s new book on belonging called Braving the Wilderness. It’s already raised some questions for me that I’m pondering in the light of my own journey of belonging, but also my children’s.

Knowing you belong in a family or group and feeling that you belong are two different things. Our adopted children came to live with us nearly 10 years ago, changed their surnames and to all intents and purposes belong to us. On paper that may be true – the courts certainly confirmed that. But, I wonder sometimes how that feels for them.

This week there was a national ‘get a different name’ day in our UK calendars which is a strange day to have. When I think of adopted children this has happened to them without their say really. I wonder how they might feel about celebrating a day like that?

In schools we can assume children feel that sense of belonging because they may have been coming through the gates for a number of years. Yes, they are on the register for the school, attend daily, wear the uniform – but do they feel that they truly belong?

Maslow’s hierarchy of need talks about a sense of belonging as being one of the foundational elements that we need as humans to be able to function. After the hygiene factors of air, water, food, shelter, sleep, safety and security – belonging comes next before we can have good self-esteem and find meaning and purpose.

I love Brene Brown’s definition of true belonging:-

True belonging is 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’. Brown 2017.

To truly belong we shouldn’t have to conform to what others think but be encouraged to be our true selves. When I look around our educational environments I am sad to see children being pushed into a narrow path of acceptance. Every child is such an individual and what a shame to stomp that out at an age when creativity is at its best?

Identity is a strong force within us. The need to be like our parents or the peers around us can be great at times. In my teenagers I see this with their peers. The inner struggle to belong and not be different is strong. I love to see young people who go against the grain and stick to being who they are. Of course, in adolescence we are still discovering who we are (I still am at 48!) and that develops through the mistakes we make and being able to fail and get ourselves back up and try again.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that the more self-aware I can be the more comfortable I feel in my own skin. For example, whenever I used to go on a course or in a group of new people I would feel uncomfortable until I connected with one person. I didn’t realise why this feeling was there until I did Strengths Finder (Now discover your strengths – Marcus Buckingham) and I realised that one of my strengths is called Relator. This is someone who needs to feel strongly connected to a few people. Once that connection is made they can work really well together to achieve something.

One of the other concepts in Brene Brown’s book intrigues me too and especially how it relates to young people and schools. Brown considers how in a world where being with like-minded people seems so important there are more people lonely than ever before. She likens the life-threat of loneliness to that of starvation!

‘Living with air pollution increase your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity, 20 percent. Excessive drinking, 30 percent. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.’ (Taken from meta-analysis studies by researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B Smith and J Bradley Layton).

How does this relate to children at school? I hear you ask.

Well, making and maintaining friendships is one of the number one challenges I hear all the time within the world of Attachment. So many of our children and young people struggle to make true friends and to feel truly connected to others. They may be adopted and don’t feel that they belong anywhere, they may be children looked after by the state but feel overlooked by all, or they may be in a seemingly ‘safe’ environment but somehow are distant and disengaged.

True belonging for me is about being comfortable with yourself. Knowing that you are ok and that you are enough. In our homes, and schools, we should be enabling children to discover who they are, what their strengths are and how they can contribute to the world around them. I know we do this is many schools, as I’ve observed, but maybe take a few minutes out this week to consider these questions for those children in your care:-

  • Does this environment not just allow but encourage individuality?
  • Instead of focusing on someone’s weak areas how can I encourage their strengths instead?
  • How can I help the lonely to feel more connected in our school?
  • What would help me to feel more connected to the people around me (whether children or other staff)?

If, like me, you’re curious about this whole area of belonging, identity and loneliness maybe pick up a copy of Brene Brown’s book and have a read yourself.

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Nicola Marshall

With over 13 years working in personal development Nicola Marshall has attained numerous skills and a genuine care for others. She is a fully trained coach, adoptive parent as well as the founder of Brave Heart Education.
Nicola Marshall
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