Longing for Belonging

Acceptance by a group is a fundamental human need.

Posted Jul 16, 2018

When I was a kid, everywhere I went I would see Lee, Bobby, and Tim; Debbie, Diana, and Laura; Gary and Karen; Gina and Robby; Randy and Judy; Lee Ann and Wade. At the country club pool, restaurants, beach resorts, mountain resorts, some even lived in our neighborhood. I saw them at my house, and at their houses, but mostly I saw them at church. All our parents belonged to the Samaritans Sunday school class at Grace Methodist Church. My parents' entire social life revolved around being a Samaritan. Our families vacationed together, dined together, played games together, attended parties together, went to shows together, worked in charitable service together, and sat together for worship. This was the world where I belonged until I was old enough to start school and begin to join other groups.

Family is, of course, the first group where we will belong. We don’t get to choose which family we have, and the overall function or dysfunction of our immediate kin will have an impact on which groups we will be able to join in the future. If you come from a loving supportive household, you will most likely grow up confident and self-assured. On the other hand, if you come from an emotionally unstable household, chances are that you will grow up fearful and uncertain. Both will affect your social status and your long-term prospects for acceptance and even prosperity.

Remember when you were in school, how it felt when you got picked first for a kickball team, and... how it felt when you were picked last? Selection always seemed to be based more on popularity than sports ability, which felt terribly unfair. But if you were picked first it felt good: You’re important, you’re wanted, you belong. But being picked last felt horrible: You felt unimportant, unwanted, and unaccepted.

 Wikimedia Commons
The desire to belong is a powerful human need and motivator.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The desire to belong is a universal human need that is found in all cultures. It’s a powerful motivator that dates back to our caveman days, when belonging to a clan or tribe meant the difference in whether or not you would survive. Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of human needs, places belonging on the third tier. He said that an individual must satisfy his or her physiological and safety needs, before being able to love and belong.

When I started attending school, I found there were many groups to choose from. I chose Scouts, Band, and some others. Qualification for membership in most of these types of groups is based on common interest — that is, if you’re interested, you're in. Easy. There are other organizations or clubs you can only join by invitation or by earning a spot such as trying out for a sports team. Then there are the social groups — a treacherous emotional landscape dotted with acceptance, joy, pride, anticipation, confusion, anxiety, envy, despair, and loneliness. It feels like there’s the in-crowd, and after that... you and everyone else.

This makes me think of the song, Somewhere I Belong by Linkin Park, and its sad lyrics:

I wanna heal, I wanna feel what I thought was never real

I wanna let go of the pain I've felt so long

(Erase all the pain 'til it's gone)

I wanna heal, I wanna feel like I'm close to something real

I wanna find something I've wanted all along

Somewhere I belong

Thank goodness, most of us are able to leave all that behind when we finish school. As adults, our options for belonging are vast. People gather together because they have something in common. There are all sorts of organizations and communities where we can belong. Again, as in school, this is mostly driven by our interests. My interests have led me to sports clubs where I’ve played ball; I’ve volunteered for organizations whose causes I support; I’ve even gotten involved in political groups (uh, just briefly).

We even bond to our places of employment. Have you ever worked somewhere for a while, then quit, and later come back to visit? Isn’t it funny, how the place looks different even though everything is where it always was; and how it feels different even though everyone is happy to see you. That’s because belonging is an emotion, and since you are no longer an insider, you can’t feel the same way as you did before.

Belonging is so important that without it we can fall into loneliness and depression which can lead to physical illness or suicide. Today we're able to get involved with social media, which simulates a sense of belonging, but it falls short. There’s nothing that can replace that one-on-one bonding and friendships we form when we meet with people we enjoy in person. If you’re not fulfilling your need for belonging, I encourage you to look for a group with whom you can get involved. A great place to start is by volunteering for a cause or charity you believe in. You'll meet like-minded people with whom you'll have an immediate connection, and you'll be doing good. Now that's a win-win!

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