Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Stop Trying to Fit In, Aim to Belong Instead

Don't waste time and energy fitting in when you could truly belong.

Key points

  • "Fitting in" means changing oneself to be part of a group, whereas "belonging" means showing up as oneself and being welcomed.
  • Acting intentionally in order to facilitate connection is not the same as changing oneself to "fit in."
  • Giving up the effort to "fit in" leaves more energy for things that truly matter.

I confess that I haven't read Brene Brown's books yet, though I have seen the TED videos. Her books get bought most frequently together with mine on Amazon, so I really should learn more about her work. What I know of it, I have enjoyed reading.

Fitting in is not belonging

I recently read an article she wrote for, and was struck by her description of the concept of fitting in versus truly belonging. In Brene's words, fitting in is not belonging:

"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.

"Many of us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted. (Take it from me: I'm an expert fitter-inner!) But we're not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking."

She says so well what I know to be true. During various seasons of my life, I have not fit in. I was too smart, too awkward, and too much of a "goody-two-shoes" in high school, plus I didn't have the right clothes. As you can probably guess, I felt different from the other docs-to-be in med school. I still feel a bit awkward when I'm around other medical doctors; it's hard to explain why.

My whole life I've known, usually painfully so, that I'm not very "normal" (even if I might appear to be, at first glance).

Are you aware that you spend a significant amount of energy trying to fit in? Have you noticed when you do it? Are you ready to give it up?

Committing to belonging

I've been in one social situation in the couple of days since reading Brene's article. I was meeting a new group of people, and something someone said triggered a response from me based on something I learned at a Harvard course last month. I mentioned Harvard in my comment, and noticed the person's face tighten a bit. At least I thought so; I'm pretty good at reading people and excessively aware of facial expressions and body language.

I cringed inside and felt that familiar shame. Darn. I probably looked like I was bragging or name-dropping when really I was just so excited about the information. To me, where I learned the information I referred to makes it more credible.

This brought up all my usual "shut up and try to act more normal" feelings, but because of Brene (and admittedly with some effort) I dismissed them. So what? I'm an info nerd and going to Harvard to learn stuff about mind-body medicine is more exciting to me than going to Disneyland.

If I don't spend so much energy worrying about what others think of the real me (or trying to hide the real me), I'll have lots more left over for dancing flamenco.

(Note: There is a difference between the wisdom of choosing words wisely in order to facilitate connection and real relationship versus feeling "not good enough" and trying to be something you're not in order to gain acceptance. The two feel very different, and I am writing about the latter.)

So will you take on this challenge? Will you commit to belonging based on who you really are, and give up the soul-sucking goal of always trying to fit in?

Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013

More from Susan Biali Haas M.D.
More from Psychology Today