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Fitting in Versus Belonging

These questions can help you decide if a group is right for you.

Key points

  • Asking ourselves questions about how we feel when we’re with a group can distinguish anxious trying to fit in from genuine belonging.
  • Sometimes we stick with a not-so-good group because we don’t want to be left out or we’re afraid of being alone.
  • Sometimes a group that used to work for us no longer does because we’ve changed in important ways.
Source: yonikamoto/Shutterstock

Brené Brown (2015) makes an important distinction between just fitting in and truly belonging. She writes:

Fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. (p. 231–232)

Belonging gives us a sense of security because we feel known and valued. Trying to fit in, on the other hand, makes us feel anxious and constantly on edge because we sense that if we slip up, we’re out.

Questions to Assess Belonging

Understanding the difference between fitting in and belonging is crucial for making wise choices about who we spend our time with. In my book Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem (Kennedy-Moore, 2019), I offer a list of questions to help you (or your child) figure out if a group is a good fit:

  • What do you have in common with them?
  • How do you feel when you’re with them?
  • To what extent do you feel like you have to hide or change what you think or do to be accepted by them?
  • Do they seem interested in what you think or feel, or do their opinions seem to matter more than yours?
  • Can you relax around them, or do you feel like you have to be careful of what you say or do?
  • Do you find yourself pretending around them?
  • Do they bring out the best or the worst in you?
  • When you make a mistake or do something that’s not perfect, how do they respond?
  • If you were upset about something, how would they react?
  • How do the people in this group usually treat each other?
  • How do they treat people who are not in this group?
  • Do you like who you are when you’re with them?

Why We Cling to Familiar But Not-so-Good Groups

Sometimes we stick with a not-so-good group because we don’t want to be left out or we’re afraid of being alone. Sometimes we do it because it seems easier than trying to find a new group. But the emotional cost of staying in a group where we don’t truly belong can be high. We can end up feeling hurt, resentful, inadequate, and even more lonely. Feeling alone in a crowd is painful. Settling for effortful fitting in also deprives us of genuine friendships.

Sometimes a group that used to work for us no longer does because we’ve changed in important ways. It may take time for us to realize this. Letting go of an old connection can be sad, even if we’re happy about the changes in ourselves that make that letting go necessary. Let yourself grieve if you need to, but don’t let habit or nostalgia keep you stuck in a group that doesn’t fit who you are anymore.

Finding New Groups

If you decide to move on from a group that doesn’t work for you, you don’t necessarily have to make a big “I’m leaving!” announcement. Maybe less contact works better for you than no contact. You may also choose to stay in touch with some members of the group but not others. Or, you may just gently ease away from that group.

You also don’t have to limit yourself to just one group. Different groups could reflect different aspects of who you are.

To find a new group, look for people you could see regularly who share your interests or experiences. Think about what you enjoy doing that you could do with others. Or maybe try something entirely new that interests you so you can meet new people.

Individual friends can be a bridge to new friendship groups. Be open to meeting friends of friends. Say yes to invitations you receive. Consider inviting people you like but don’t know that well to join you for an outing or get-together.

Finding a new group takes time, effort, and courage, but gaining a sense of genuine belonging is worth it.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore


Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Penguin.

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