The difference between “belonging” and “fitting in”

Have you walked into a room and suddenly felt like you don’t fit in? Perhaps you’ve been the only woman in a male-dominated field, or the only guy wearing a suit while everyone is in jeans. Perhaps the difference has been internal rather than external—a subtle feeling that everyone else is connecting and you don’t quite “click.”

These experiences can make you question whether you belong—in your workplace, among your friends, in a room of strangers, and even in your own home. They can leave you feeling empty, hurt, and even questioning your purpose in life.

The missing link in situations like these is having a sense of belonging—knowing that there is space for you, the real you, in every place you walk into.

World-renowned author and researcher, Brene Brown, says this about belonging:

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” —Brene Brown.[1]

Belonging is an intrinsic need for all humanity. Without a confident sense of belonging, we stumble around and end up settling for something far more dangerous to our well-being, acceptance.

Fitting in to find acceptance

The greatest imitator of belonging is acceptance. It is easy to believe that if people accept you and your lifestyle that equals belonging. This simply isn’t true. Belonging, despite its name, isn’t found in an external location. Belonging and acceptance are two entirely separate entities.

Acceptance is pursued through the act of “fitting in”—choosing to act the way others would expect, want, or even need you to act. Acceptance-seeking can only be satisfied when the desired response of the people you are trying to fit-in with is achieved. The challenge that comes from acceptance-seeking is that you end up on a roller coaster of emotions, dictated by another person’s approval.

Not only is this unhealthy because you are compromising or burying your very own identity, but it is dangerous because you have no control over the approval of others. You are putting your entire well-being into the fickle whims of other humans.

The major division between acceptance and belonging is that belonging doesn’t come from without, it begins from within.

Author Parker Palmer writes, “Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must exist within you.”

Before community, and that elusive sense of belonging can exist, it must take shape inside you. I’ve heard it said that one must find belonging within oneself, but I believe it is far more than that.

First, you have to find your self.

The first step on the journey of belonging is to discover who you are, and stop believing that belonging is given to you by somebody else or something else.

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Find your “onlyness”

An author on TEDideas wrote that belonging is found when we discover our “onlyness”—the very things that make us unique. Onlyness is the sum of your personality, your history, your hopes, your loves, and all that you are; it is the essence of you.

Finding your onlyness is a journey, not a destination. A person doesn’t wake up and suddenly know the beginning, end and in-between of their self. It takes time, and a multitude of experiences, good and bad, that begin to shape the unique facets of your soul. And honestly, the journey isn’t always easy or pleasant.

Sometimes it requires that you learn some harsh realities of life. Other times, it might mean you need to stop sabotaging yourself and get out of your own way.

Brene Brown describes this process as walking through a wilderness. It’s wild and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable.

“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness–an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” —Brené Brown

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What is belonging?

Brene Brown is an expert on the subject of belonging. She describes it as, “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.” But it extends beyond that to something internal as well. It is the willingness to bravely acknowledge we belong to something greater than ourselves, and that our belonging isn’t dependent on our actions or the approval of others. It simply is our human right.

Belonging is in direct contrast to fitting in. It has roots that go deep and are unshakeable, whereas acceptance is shallow and fickle. Belonging brings emotional security, but acceptance-seeking is undependable ground that is constantly shifting beneath you.

A true sense of belonging comes when you can be unapologetically you, and know there is a place for you in the world that isn’t dependent on whether people accept you or reject you. It is also a place where growth happens—because you can be vulnerable about your own weaknesses, without shame, and choose to learn from others and improve in those areas.

When you walk confidently and humbly in this way, you build trust in your relationships because the people in your life are secure in knowing the truth of who you are. This establishes strong bonds within your relationships. If you are simply trying to fit in, it compromises your own personal integrity and erodes trust and emotional connections.

Whether you are beginning this journey or miles down the road, here are some helpful things to keep in mind as you pursue belonging and finding the real you.

Belonging is not dependent on others

A common misconception is that it is up to other people to make you feel like you belong. Belonging begins with the willingness to stand alone and take ownership of your own life and decisions.

Does this mean you should never take into account the thoughts and feelings of others? Of course not. But believing that you have to be someone else to belong will never work.

The reality is no one is perfect. While you’re berating yourself for having a messy house, just remember, there’s someone breathing a sigh of relief, because their house is messy too—and you just reminded them that we’re all imperfect, together.

Despite our greatest desires, other humans have a great BS detector. When we attempt to project ourselves as someone that we’re not, it will be known, even if it’s intangible. True relationships and belonging cannot be built on a lie.

Belonging can be developed

To overcome the desire to settle for acceptance, we all must push past years of conditioning by our peers and the world around us. We are constantly told that we need some product, some look, something, to make us who the world wants us to be; when all we really need is to be ourselves.

However, we can use this to our advantage by recognizing that everyone else feels the way we do. Everyone is afraid of being rejected. Everyone is afraid of not fitting in. Turn this upside down. Accept everyone. Treat everyone like you would want to be treated. Invite them to belong as their true selves.

Years before I met my husband, he participated in a swing dance class. At the time, he was shy and nervous around people until one day, he hit upon an epiphany—maybe other people struggled with feeling like they didn’t belong too.

Taking this to heart, he went to class each day with the goal of treating each and every dance partner like they were the person he wanted to dance with most—greeting them warmly, asking them questions about their life, and engaging fully in the moment with each person.

Before the first class was over, he realized that he’d found a hidden secret—and all he had to do was follow the ancient “golden rule”—treat others as you want to be treated. Everyone wants to be accepted, welcomed, encouraged. Everyone wants to belong.

Even if you don’t feel like you belong yet, you can practice by inviting others to belong. You can accept others for who they are, in every different situation you walk into. While belonging starts with taking a deep look at who you are, it also takes form as you make space for other people to really be themselves too. The more you make space for others’ unique-ness, the easier it becomes for you to hold space for yourself.

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Belonging starts today

If belonging comes from within, it would follow that you can’t find belonging simply by having a fairy godmother wave a wand over your life and—voila—belonging! Rather, it is developed over time with effort, hard work, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

Here are some suggestions for how to find a sense of belonging in your life.

1) Start writing in a journal

There are surprising benefits to writing down your thoughts and feelings. Many counselors and therapists suggest journaling as a therapeutic treatment for their patients.  This private reflection encourages people to come to a deeper understanding of themselves and their experiences. In a quest for belonging, journaling is an essential part of processing your inner dialogue and your life experiences.

2) Try new things

Belonging stems from understanding yourself. If you don’t try anything new, your boundaries will never grow and expand and you won’t find the edges of who you are. Pushing yourself beyond what is your “normal” can help you discover new aspects of your personality.

However, knowing yourself is imperative, so let your heart lead in this area. What are you drawn to, but afraid of? Try that and see what your response is. What have you always wanted to do, but you’re not sure you can? Begin taking a class or joining hands with someone who can help you try new things. What excites you and gets you fired up? Where have you found deep connections with others? Dive into those places more fully and see what they spark in you.

3) Speak your heart boldly

Fear is one of the greatest hindrances to walking in belonging. If you share your heart freely, you’ll find others will resonate and connect with you when they also have had similar experiences. You’ll also find people are curious about your life even when they haven’t walked in your shoes. Don’t be afraid to share the hard parts and the places that feel like deep waters. It’s in those places that we can make true connections with each other, and belonging emerges in community.

4) Break free of lies

You may have an inner monologue in your mind that keeps you trapped in bad habits, unhealthy relationships, and prevents you from being who you want to be. Start listing out the lies when they cross your mind and speaking the opposite over them. Maybe your lies sound like, “They don’t want you there,” or “They don’t care what you think.” Change these narratives to what is true if belonging is already yours: “I have something to bring to this situation,” or “My opinion holds weight because it is rooted in my unique life experiences.”

Start rejecting the lies that sabotage you from walking in belonging and begin believing that you already belong and have something to offer others and the world.

5) Be kind to others

Mother Theresa wrote, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”[2] As you walk out your belonging, you’ll see a kinship develop with the people around you. A recognition of belonging to each other will emerge and will bring people to a place of greater compassion, love, and purpose.

Acts of kindness are the ultimate embodiment of finding belonging because when you discover who you are, it is easy to let the overflow of that pour into the lives of others, for their good and the betterment of the world.

You belong

Regardless of where you start, searching for a sense of belonging is a natural human experience. It is integral to our lives and is part of everything we do. So whether you start by helping others or diving into personal introspection, remember that belonging is already yours. You belong just as you are. Right where you are. You don’t need anyone or anything else to give you a sense of belonging.

Did you know that there are over 7 billion people in the world?  But there is only one you. You have a place on this earth that no one can take away. You have experiences and knowledge that are uniquely yours. All of who you are—your onlyness—cannot be replicated. Whether others choose to accept you or not, you can bring yourself to the table with the confidence that you belong, right where you are and just as you are, simply because you are.

So walk out into the world, your workplace, and your relationships with the confidence of knowing that you belong. Because you really do.

[1] Brené Brown (2010). “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”, p.40, Simon and Schuster

[2]Mother Teresa (2010). “Where There Is Love, There Is God: A Path to Closer Union with God and Greater Love for Others”, p.329

Picture of Elisha Catts

Elisha Catts

Elisha Catts is a writer, tea-aficionado, and a lover of good books and conversations. Elisha graduated with a degree in Political Science and International Studies and loves deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and the universe. You may find her chasing her tribe of children, picking up hitch-hikers, dancing in the rain, or curled up with a good book and a cup of tea.

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