couple relaxing with their dog

What is True Belonging?

Many of us go through life seeking meaning in relationships. We seek to be understood, to be accepted, to be seen for who we are without judgement. We seek love. Often, this pursuit can seem daunting as we experience situations and relationships that fall short of this ideal. True belonging is something that most of us yearn for in our families, our significant relationships, our friendships, and in our community. Simply, it is a sense that we belong. It is a sense that we are accepted and valued as we are. It is a sense that those around us are truly interested in who we are. True belonging is permission to be transparent with another about who we are beyond pretense. True belonging involves a deep-down sense that those that are offering this belonging truly understand the nature of who we are.

From childhood to adolescence, and into adulthood we seek this state of belonging. Often, it may feel like panning for gold as we sift through the sand of relationships which do not deliver this prized state of being. Some relationships become “fool’s gold” replicas that initially seem to promise the real thing and fall far short. When we experience true belonging in a relationship, we know it. We feel joy in the sense of experiencing unconditional love and a positive regard which reassures us at the core. Unfortunately, like water in the desert, many of us spend a lifetime seeking this precious resource only to find a remnant here or there that keep us moving forward in the search.

What are the Obstacles to True Belonging?

There can be many obstacles to true belonging for each of us. Some of us experience pervasive shame and a sense that we do not deserve this kind of care. Others, through a sense of insecurity seek out relationships where we are the primary giver. The other is more of a taker. These relationships take from us, but also provide an unhealthy dose of hiding through the giving. Receiving genuine unconditional love and acceptance from another person is much more vulnerable and requires trust and letting go of the control that so many of us value in protecting ourselves. Most healthy relationships are reciprocal, involving a dynamic interplay of both giving and receiving.

Some of us find ourselves in relationships with narcissists who are charming and charismatic in finding a way to make all roads lead back to them and their needs. Insecurity by those who do not feel they truly deserve love can lead to a dance with the narcissist. Over time, it becomes tedious and the attender to the narcissist grows weary of this exchange. A series of non-reciprocal relationships can be an endless path of giving without experiencing or receiving a sense of true belonging.

True belonging can also elude those who have not done their own work in the realm of emotional healing. Sometimes our wounds can result in toxic dynamics that deter healthy people from us that are capable of offering true belonging. For a variety of reasons, many of us experience limited doses of true belonging in our relationships throughout our lives. Some people seek a variety of substitutes in lieu of true belonging. They seek counterfeit belonging in drugs, alcohol, gambling, professional prestige, financial means, and through power. Over time it becomes abundantly clear that none of these substitutes will fill the of void of what we are truly seeking.

Why do we Seek True Belonging?

Regardless of your person or your personality, it is difficult to deny that most of us sincerely desire to experience this acceptance, care and love in our lives and relationships. You could argue that we are intuitively engineered to seek out this kind of belonging. Walking through a given day of challenges is made so much easier when we can bring to mind someone who has our back, who cares about what's happening in our day, and who wants to encourage us in the obstacles that we encounter. We see this longing in an infant for her mother. We see this longing in the child who wants to play with friends. We see this longing in the adolescent trying to climb the high school social ladder. And, we see this in adults who seek a variety of paths and relationships to find true belonging.

Where Can I Find True Belonging?

The truth about true belonging is that it rarely is found exclusively in only one person or relationship. True belonging requires a tribe of our people who can come around us in various ways and roles to nurture us. Even a strong and healthy marriage will not exclusively provide all of one's true belonging needs. A sense of this value and acceptance often comes from a multitude. It can come from sports teams, work groups, social groups, important friend relationships, counselors, coaches, mentors, and family members. For those from broken families, the search for true belonging becomes a patchwork of finding surrogates (parent-like mentors, uncle type figures, friends like brothers and sisters) who speak to us in meaningful ways. We must be proactive in relationships to find true belonging. Often, sitting back and waiting for this type of belonging to come to us is not fruitful. Most people are inherently shy. Therefore, learning to take initiative with quality people that we'd like to get to know better is a crucial skill. This takes an investment of both time and attention because those that can offer aspects of true belonging to us are going to want some value for themselves from the relationship as well. They will also want our attention and acceptance. These aspects of relationship take time and investment.

In my work as a psychologist and life-coach, I've had the privilege to offer a sense of true belonging to many. It is a sacred trust to stand in the gap and hear a person’s story, needs, and insecurities. It is a privilege to offer them the gift of genuine acceptance. If the right fit, this type of relationship can be extremely powerful and healing in the ability to experience true belonging. Those who are able to allow a counselor to give them this gift find that they are better equipped to both receive and give this gift to others in the outside world.

Further, people find true belonging through their faith in God. Many report this as the core of their most profound sense of true belonging. In the midst of stressful circumstances around us, we can experience an anchoring of ourselves in a sense of divine love. The concept of a God who loves us unconditionally regardless of our flaws, insecurities, and challenges can be a pinnacle of true belonging. Divine love has been credited with a “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Lastly, as you explore true belonging, it’s crucial that you understand that you are certainly loveable and can experience true belonging in your life. You are worthy of love and acceptance. You are worthy to be known. You are worthy to be understood. “Why me,” you may ask. “What’s special about me?” Why not you? You, as much as anyone, are worthy of true belonging. Knowing this truth about yourself is a starting point to finding it.