Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I’ve discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.
The first step to loving ourselves is honesty. With honesty we are able to see many things in our lives, including where we are belonging and where we are fitting in. The way I can tell that I’ve just left a situation where I was trying to fit in, is when I’m walking away and I’m hit with a fitting in hangover. “UGH! Why did I say that?” Feeling like an asshat, I run the conversation in my head over and over trying to see some good in it and then finally resorting to planning the chance to redeem myself. “I’ll be myself next time for sure!” I can tell when I’ve left a situation where I was myself, because I have this sense of peace in my mind. I don’t feel the need to run the convo in my head over and over. I feel confident and good about myself.
I was always striving to be with the most interesting and popular people. I always felt like everyone was having fun without me, so my interests changed depending on who I was with. I assimilated myself into the person or group I wanted to be with. Developed their likes and dislikes, their styles, their attitudes. It finally took an ER worthy anxiety attack to bring my attention to this losing myself routine that I had going on. Looking back, why I thought I belonged at a party with a bunch of musicians 10 years younger than me is a mystery. I am the furthest thing from a musician and my favorite music is movie soundtracks. That next day though, I had a really bad fitting in hangover and a regular hangover that just made it worse. Trying to fit into where I didn’t belong never worked, because I was not being myself and I tried too hard to talk about and do things that I knew very little about because they never really interested me in the first place.
You can’t fit a circle block into a triangle hole. No matter how drunk you get. You will always be at triangle trying to fit in with the squares.
Looking back, I missed out on some really great people and opportunities by dropping my not so popular likes and interests and adopting those of others that I thought were cooler. Being self-aware now I see this pattern throughout my entire life. Social anxiety caused by the need to fit in led to drinking to calm the nerves, which then led to sloppy awkwardness, which then led to more anxiety and so on and so forth the cycle continued.
The last and greatest fitting in hangover was a slap to the face and jarred my reality. I realized that I had no idea who the hell I was socially and where I belonged. It’s a bizarre feeling not knowing how to act at social events unassimilated. I associate not belonging with loneliness. That is why resisting assimilation and fitting in for me is so hard. The knee jerk reaction to attempt to fit in still arises in me and David, my husband will tell me when I’m doing it. Typically this knee jerk reaction occurs when the majority of people around me all have similar interests and experiences and I try to share whatever little shred of knowledge or experience I have on the subject just to be included. It always ends badly and I walk away from it embarrassed and feeling silly. I always buff myself now before walking into those circumstances. I tell myself that I am a very interesting person and have lots to share on many different topics. If I am asked.
Once you find your sense of self the people you enjoy being around and who enjoy being around you change. After you start expressing yourself and not adopting others attitudes and interests, the quantity of friends’ drops and it becomes apparent that the quality is much more important. You begin to see clearly those around you who have been there all along, but you were too busy fitting in to see. Belonging doesn’t involve being in a large group doing activities together every weekend. Belonging doesn’t take the effort that fitting in does. Having a sense of belonging means that even if you are alone, you still feel involved, heard and valued. Fitting in will always feel lonely. The people I belong with may not have the same interests as I do, but they take an interest in them anyway. They are the people that celebrate my successes and buff me up when I’m discouraged. If they haven’t heard from me in a while, they check up on me. They make me feel loved and valued consistently and are always raising me up. They matter to me and I matter to them. That’s how it should be. Do not allow people to matter to you that you do not matter to. Love and value yourself enough to only allow those who love and value you into your universe. We are all worthy of belonging. Sometimes we just don’t know where.