A famous rock star said that she never felt more alone than after a performance in front of thousands of admirers. After the performance ended, she had no one to turn to who met her need to belong. Heroin became her closest companion and the counterfeit experience of belonging. Her companion eventually killed her.
The need to belong is one of our two most powerful needs. The other is our need to matter. Belonging is the need to be accepted for who we are as emotional and spiritual creatures. In order to find belonging, we have to know how to confess our emotional and spiritual experience to trusted others. Confession simply means to admit we are human, that is, essentially feeling, needing, desiring, longing, and hoping creatures.
Children reach for belonging easily. They live in daily confession—all day long—until they learn otherwise. They know their great need to belong without being taught.
The need to belong is equal to our need for food, water, shelter, and clothing. A child will walk away from a table of food, so to speak, to find a parent. This literal metaphor illustrates that the child will leave food to find a more important sustenance.
What happens to the child’s need to belong, when the child’s experience is consistently rejected by the ones they need? Simply, the child will begin to be ashamed of his or her own need of others. The need to belong, however, still remains, ever-present. The belonging-shame conflict leads to finding some way to get the need met without being true to one’s God-created makeup. They begin to hide their internal experience, rather than continuing to grow in their abilities to deal healthily with it.
They will try to find a way to belong that suits the ones they need, rather than being themselves. We need to look no further than ourselves to see this reality. Note how often we adults present our own truthfulness based on whether or not we will be rejected—not belong.
We often learn to despise and deny our neediness, because we reason that the needs will go unmet unless we perform for the audience. We run from our vulnerability of being human, because we carry a message inside us that tells us there is something wrong with having feelings and needs. We learn to think that if others know our internal experience, they will: reject us, run away, not like us, find something else wrong with us, start a fight with us, judge us, own us, indebt us, and so on.
To avoid rejection, we then spend a great deal of energy reacting to relationship and relational need through manipulation rather than being truthful. Our fear of rejection can make us suppress awareness of our need to belong for who we are. This reality is not full life, and does not meet our need to belong. Nor does it allow others to be safe belonging with us, because we are being more watchful than truthful.
When we face that there is no place to go where we can escape our inborn need to belong, we can come back to reality. We can get with people who are truthful about themselves, people who confess their human struggle, their grief and their celebration. These are the people who have foreclosed on trying to “fit in” as a substitute for belonging. They can offer a place to “relearn” what was always present. Amazingly, the confession of our own humanity with others who do the same returns us to who we always were.
The need to belong is met when we are able to present our internal experience to others who accept who we are and where we are before any “improvement” occurs. To live well in a world that expects us to perform, as we are also created to do, we first need the strength that comes from those people with whom we can simply be ourselves.
Chip Dodd, PhD, is a teacher, trainer, author, and counselor, who has been working in the field of recovery and redemption for over 30 years. With his clinical experience, love of storytelling, and passion for living fully, Chip developed a way of seeing and expressing one’s internal experience called the Spiritual Root System™. To read more from Chip, visit his blog, or check out his books.