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A place to feel at home
Exploring the wooly ways we generate kinship and belonging
Belonging. A word so often spoken with earnest desire. Particularly given the relentless contagion of loneliness permeating daily life, belonging is the subject of many popular books, podcasts, and initiatives. It’s even the first sentence in my bio:
“Passionate about creating cultures of belonging.”
In observing the ease by which I lead with this sentence and the common (well-intended) exclamations of “you belong here!”, I started to notice some friction in my relationship with belonging. Perhaps due to the frequency of its everyday use; the potentially taken-for-granted ways belonging is meant to emerge. Perhaps I hold concern that it will become another mark on a checklist, and wonder what recognizable difference will emerge as a result of its increased popularity.
A few weeks ago I referred to belonging as “wooly”, in reference to the vague and nebulous way I’ve wrestled with the subject and my own experience. At what point does ‘belonging’ become conformity? To compel someone to act a certain way, that absolves them of choice, agency, and individuality? More so, how might we mitigate the risk for belonging to be weaponized when it engages in “othering” of different groups?1
“Belonging can materialize in forms that satisfy the motivation to belong but threaten the healthy functioning of the individual and the cohesion of society.
Moving closer to one group of people can often involve moving further apart from others.”
- Kelly-Ann Allen, DeLeon L. Gray, Roy F. Baumeister & Mark R. Leary
Beyond singing from rooftops about the significance of belonging, how do we continue to uphold its sacredness? How might we offer distinctions that ward off potential dilution of core and cherished experiences? How do we ensure meaningful momentum stride towards measurable gain?
Belonging is more than a statement. It deserves fulsome and rigorous attention, with change that helps sustain initial sentiments and transforms cultures, communities, and, ultimately, the world.
What does belonging mean to you?
Belonging is incredibly subjective2. It changes shape and intensity based on context and experiences. The literature also offers distinction between state belonging, which is more fluid and responsive to circumstances and situations, and trait belonging, which can be more long-term, less wavering, and is linked to greater health3. At any given point, a person can experience a spectrum of belonging uncertainty4. Among diverse focal points, one inquiring about their sense of belonging may ask:
Am I similar to others here?
Do I feel at home?
Am I heard here?
Do I feel connected?
Am I valued?
Do I have a voice?
Am I included?
Do I feel at ease?
Am I seen?
…(add your own)…
While often associated in the social domain, belonging can be extended to several areas in one’s life. A scent or taste can elicit the feeling5. Places, memories, events, and land can be other sources of connection. I suppose some of these contribute to the significance of cultural celebrations, and why a taste of "home", whatever that may be, can evoke familiarity.
“At the very heart of ‘belonging’ is the word ‘long’. To be-long to something is to stay with it for the long haul. It is an active choice we make to a relationship, to a place, to our body, to a life because we value it” - Toko-pa Turner6
Belonging is closely related to several other phenomena. At times, I struggle with my own slippery interpretations. My journey in the belonging research often finds me lost in a swirling sea of theories. Like many knots I’ve grappled with in my yarn, I begin to unravel one definition to only discover a larger and more convoluted tangle. “Is this belonging? Oh wait, that sounds a lot like…?” has, on more than one occasion, resulted in connection and complexity. While not by any means exhaustive, I see the following psychological experiences as integrated, often responsive and in tandem with one another:
In their own right, each of these bears a higher purpose to generate good in the world. I believe that when the inextricability of these constructs is acknowledged and intentionally unified, extraordinary flourishing can occur
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A framework for belonging
Dr Kelly-Ann Allen is a prominent voice in the field of belonging. Drawing upon interdisciplinary research, Allen and her colleagues recently published an integrated framework to better understand the related features of belonging. This contribution generates a wealth of possibilities for cultivating belonging, both individually and collectively.
The four elements include:
Competencies: The development of social, emotional, and cultural skills and abilities which build one’s capacity to relate to others, form social identities, and regulate in ways which reinforce belonging.
Opportunities: Ensuring groups, people, places, times, and spaces are available. As Allen et al. note: “The ability to connect with others is useless if opportunities to connect are lacking.”
Motivations: One’s need or desire to belong to others, influenced by personal preferences and the social and cultural contexts.
Perceptions: The subjective feelings and thoughts one has about their sense of belonging. This can be influenced by their history and overall perceptions of self (e.g., self-worth, self-confidence).
The outer area of the framework denotes how belonging is nestled within and subject to social, cultural, environmental, and temporal contexts and experiences. A gust of changing wind in the context of one’s life and circumstances could alter one’s sense of belonging. Conversely, creating favourable conditions for healthy relating can greatly influence experiences of belonging.
What I especially appreciate about this framework is how it both underscores the dynamic nature of belonging and its nuance. I note the opportunity presented when considering how individuals can develop their belonging skills, and how those abilities may ripple to invite others in.
This validates some of my own observations regarding the value of leadership development courses, both as opportunities for belonging and to develop competencies. For example, as leaders engage in leader-as-coach education, they foster skills to belong and to offer belonging to others in practicing empathic listening.
At a recent Global Compassion Coalition gathering, Rick Hanson referenced the proverb “so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”7 An exchange between two people may seem fleeting, but the impact of even a seemingly insignificant action can extend well beyond one's imagination.
I also want to double-click on motivation. Somewhat lost in the “you belong here” messages, particularly when offered by organizations, is the question of whether a person indeed wishes to have a deep sense of belonging to whichever place or group is making the offer. A person’s motivation could be lower as they are already well-resourced and involved with many other core groups. Alternatively, they may be guarded and distant due to suffering they’ve endured.
Power also plays a role. For instance, within the employer-employee relationship, there exists an inherent exchange of resources and power. One may not feel willing to fully embrace a sense of belonging to or within an organization, particularly when overwhelming workloads and high performance expectations flavour day-to-day experiences.
So now what?
Ultimately I wish for statements to be transformed into comprehensive action. Instead of stating “you belong here”, the message becomes “I am glad you are here” and this sentiment is reinforced through each interaction, every process design, and the overarching culture. Let us create the places where people want to belong.
I believe we would be well-served by developing multifaceted approaches to foster belonging. Organizations and leaders would be wise to consider Allen and colleagues’ integrated framework when determining robust strategies to enhance individual and collective wellbeing. I hope to share additional observations of practical efforts for each of the four elements in future issues, particularly how distinct interventions can foster “psychological shelters...to shield people from the harsh gusts of history and the stinging rain of our social world”8.
Further, choice must be held in highest regard. We cannot force anyone to develop a sense of belonging, and each person’s expression of belonging will be different. Their social milieu, expanding well beyond the group or place in question, and personal history may call upon us a swell of compassion. Regardless of this variability, what matters is that each person is accepted, invited, and valued in a way such that, if they choose, they can form deep and lasting bonds.
Personally, I am on a bit of quest to explore the amplification of belonging. Similar to how high-quality connections offer a distinction between those interactions which are life-giving and those which are depleting, I am curious about how belonging becomes “activated”. When belonging gives life and moves beyond a potentially passive sense of ease to form strength, togetherness, and solidarity among groups and communities.
I suspect this nuance exists in the literature (if you have sources, please send them my way!), and it likely has undertones of mattering, trust, and social support. I see glimpses of this occurring, particularly in group coaching spaces, when people begin to notice they are no longer alone and instead become emboldened by the strength of walking in solidarity.
It Starts Here
As Brené Brown notes “We have to belong to ourselves as much as we need to belong to others”9. At the core of belonging is acceptance and compassion. It's cloaking the perfectly imperfect ways of our shared humanity with love.
The path to belonging starts within us. Each moment, day by day, is a chance to choose connection, care, and wholeness. For me, this includes doing my own inner work so that in moments where I might be tempted look away, I instead turn toward others.
In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi,
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
Thank you for reading. I’m so glad you’re here, and please share your thoughts on how we can keep cultivating belonging for all.
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Allen, K., Gray, D. L., Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (2022). The need to belong: A deep dive into the origins, implications, and future of a foundational construct. Educational Psychology Review, 34(2), 1133-1156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09633-6
Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Rozek, C. S., McInerney, D. M., & Slavich, G. M. (2021). Belonging: A review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(1), 87-102. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049530.2021.1883409
Clark, L. A., Vittengl, J., Kraft, D., & Jarrett, R. B. (2003). Separate personality traits from states to predict depression. Journal of Personality Disorders, 17(2), 152–172. https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi.18.104.22.16890
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Allen, K. (2020). The psychology of belonging. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429327681
Turner, T. (2017). Belonging: Remembering ourselves home. Her Own Room Press.
2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV
Cohen, G. (2022). Belonging: The science of creating connection and bridging divides (First ed.). W.W. Norton & Company.
Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. Random House.