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Create a Sense of Belonging

Finding ways to belong can help ease the pain of loneliness.

Key points

  • A sense of belonging to a greater community improves one's motivation, health, and happiness.
  • Feeling a sense of belonging is important in order to see value in life and cope with intensely painful emotions.
  • One way to increase one's sense of belonging is to look for similarities to others rather than focus on differences.

Having a sense of belonging is a common experience. Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. Such a simple word for a huge concept. A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions.

Some find belonging in a church, some with friends, some with family, and some on Twitter or other social media. Some see themselves as connected only to one or two people. Others believe and feel a connection to all people the world over, to humanity. Some struggle to find a sense of belonging and their loneliness is physically painful for them.

Some seek to belong by excluding others. That reflects the idea that there must be those who don't belong in order for there to be those who do. Yet a single instance of being excluded can undermine self-control and well-being and often creates pain and conflict.

A sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health, and happiness. When you see your connection to others, you know that all people struggle and have difficult times. You are not alone. There is comfort in that knowledge.

Building a Sense of Belonging

Building a sense of belonging requires active effort and practice. One way to work on increasing your sense of belonging is to look for ways you are similar to others instead of focusing on ways you are different. Someone is much older than you? Maybe they have wonderful stories to tell and you love to listen to their experiences. Maybe you value making a difference and can contribute to their lives with your youthful strength. Does someone have a different belief system than you? Maybe you both enjoy a good debate or you both value faith in God. Sharing your differences and still accepting the person creates peace. Acceptance does not mean agreement.

Another way to build your own sense of belonging is to work on the acceptance of others. To accept others and views that are not the same as yours may require that you open your thoughts to the idea that there is value in everyone's thinking. You can find truth in even the most difficult-to-understand even though you may not agree. One of the best ways to communicate acceptance is through validation. Validation builds a sense of belonging and strengthens relationships. Validation is the language of acceptance. Validation is the acknowledgment that someone's internal experience is understandable and helps you stay on the same side, with a sense of belonging, even when you disagree.

Try saying yes to opportunities to be with others and then throw yourself into whatever the activity is. Let go of your judgments. Judgments build walls. Focus on people. At a dinner and annoyed because you don't like the food? Food is not the goal. Connecting with others is far more important than the food or the noise in the restaurant. Gained weight and don't want others to see? Stop isolating until you believe you are worthy. No one is perfect. Others have their struggles with their health too.

Watch your words and your way of thinking. Some words create separateness and others promote togetherness. Other people don't need "fixing." They have strengths and offer their own unique contributions. Think community and acceptance.

If you are emotionally sensitive, remember that in general people suffer the same emotional pain you suffer, just not as intensely (most of the time) or as quickly. Also, there are many other emotionally sensitive people who struggle as you do. Being emotionally sensitive does not mean you don't belong. Work on not blaming yourself or others.

Attributional Retraining

Dr. Gregory Walton developed a belonging intervention he called attributional retraining. Through this intervention, people shift from blaming themselves for painful experiences, such as "I'm flawed," or "It's just me," to seeing that they weren't alone and other people had experienced the same situations.

The technique is brief. It involves you seeing yourself as an expert on what you have experienced and writing about that experience to help someone else. Here is a video on how the technique works for college students. The key is to write suggestions for other people on how to cope with something you have experienced.

If you are not a college student, the issues in the video may not seem relevant. But consider how you would use the technique. For example, what two points would you offer to others about coping with intense emotions or rejection sensitivity? Your experiences can make a difference for others who also have intense emotions.

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