Why We Long to Belong

At the Center for Family Transformation, we often use the Life Model approach as a foundation for healing.  This approach is described as “an ideal model of a human at every age and stage of life [that] would be a sort of ‘life model’ for our development” (2, p. 21).  The Life Model teaches the vital importance of a sense of belonging and true identity as part of a holistic view of what makes humans thrive in life and relationships.  This is a contrast to the medical disease model which is useful in psychology to explain what is wrong and how things got that way, but which does not always describe how to achieve maximum mental and psychological health.  

One of my most notable experiences with belonging came in the company of my aunts. I remember my experience as a young girl observing the joy on their faces when we were together.  Because they were only five to ten years older, they thought of me as their little playmate, and they loved to have fun with me.  Later as a young adult, after they had moved away and had lives of their own, they would come back into town and take me with them on their extensive shopping trips to the local mall.  I sometimes felt like I was their sister, and it felt good to be included.  Years later, I told my aunts that I always felt like I was their younger sister.  Imagine how lovely it was to hear them say that they had always thought of me as a sister too.  That gave me a sweet sense of belonging which was even more encouraging because it came from an unexpected source.

We All Need to Belong 

The need to belong is an integral part of the human experience.  We are hard wired to seek to belong, and we respond with joy and satisfaction when we experience a sense of belonging.  This is apparently true for all ages and across all cultures.  In a review of decades of research conducted by psychologists from Case Western Reserve and Wake Forest Universities, the authors identified and described empirical support for the need to belong.  They concluded that a sense of belonging was a fundamental human motivation.” Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation ” (1, p. 497).   In their concluding remarks, they wrote: 

Again and again, we found evidence of a basic desire to form social attachments. People form social bonds readily, even under seemingly adverse conditions. People who have anything in common, who share common (even unpleasant) experiences, or who simply are exposed to each other frequently tend to form friendships or other attachments. Moreover, people resist losing attachments and breaking social bonds, even if there is no material or pragmatic reason to maintain the bond and even if maintaining it would be difficult (1, p. 520).

Studies have shown that people with serious mental health issues are impacted by self-stigma, and having a sense of belonging can mitigate this (4).  Another recent study of veterans with serious mental illness has shown that having a sense of belonging “significantly moderated the relationship between internalized stigma and suicidal ideation.” (5, p. 91) Said another way, when veterans with mental illness felt like they belonged within a group, they felt less stigmatized and experienced less desire to harm themselves.

Identity Is Formed Out Of A Sense of Belonging

Through a sense of belonging, we learn who we are and who we can become; we learn our true identity.  One major precept is that in order to thrive, people need to be connected to others through family and community.  Therapy can be incredibly helpful for dealing with relationship problems, depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction and many other psychological issues.  It is a place where the client can be honest without feeling judged.  But therapy alone, without a supportive community, is much less impactful. Sometimes, clients see minimal or no results from therapy because their family, friends, or community are unhealthy!  On the other hand, clients who belong to others in healthy relationships and social groups tend to gain their fullest potential.

 “Therapy seems to work pretty well when clients belong to a community where their lives are nurtured….even though therapy can help people face the places that are stuck in their lives, it alone will not supply the power to get them unstuck.  A family and a community need to supply some of the power.  That is where people are supposed to find out who they are, and where they are supposed to find help in getting unstuck.  It is where they should receive life (italics in original text)” (3, p. 9-11).

Another way to think about belonging is to think about group identity.  What groups do you identify with, and how have those groups shaped your values, perspectives, finances, goals or social interactions?  When we are young, we develop our individual identity through our interactions and attachments to parents and close caregivers.  As we begin to mature, we start to incorporate a group identity in addition to an individual identity.  We learn how “me and my group” behave when faced with various situations (7).  The Life Model explains that identity is hard to describe because it is complex and changes over time as we acquire different roles or accomplishments, such as parenthood or career achievements, as well as when we join various social networks (6).

Questions for Reflection and Growth

To wrap up this discussion, I want to offer you some questions to ponder moving forward to discern how belonging (or lack thereof) is impacting your life. For individual belonging, who in your life has created belonging for you? In what way? For group belonging, what groups do you belong to?  What are some characteristics and values of your group? 

Some examples from early childhood could be: “my mom made me feel loved when she sang songs to me at bedtime; my parents made me feel like part of the family when they told stories of cute things I said; my grandfather made me feel special when he fixed my bike without me asking.”

Some examples from early adolescence might be: “my best friend laughed with me and invited me to her birthday parties; the boys played tag and baseball with me on the playground.” 

Some examples from adulthood might be: “our neighborhood association makes me feel happy when we reach out to new neighbors with cookies and an invitation to join our network; my spouse makes me feel valued when he/she listens without trying to fix me; my spouse makes me feel cherished when we discuss and make major decisions together; my faith community makes me feel safe when they are kind to others who may seem unlovable.” 

Conclusion

Our need to belong is part of the human experience that we all share. Hopefully this article has helped you understand that having a sense of belonging is essential for living a healthy and satisfying life.  But you may be left wondering, “What can I do if I am struggling to find a place of belonging or have been hurt in the past?”  I plan to address that topic in the next blog post, Belonging Part 2.  

Bibliography 

  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. Retrieved Nov. 5, 2021
  2. Coursey, C. (2016). Transforming fellowship: 19 brain skills that build joyful community (2 ed.). Holland, MI: THRIVEtoday.
  3. Friesen, J. G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R., & Poole, M. (2013). Living from the heart Jesus gave you. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
  4. Treichler, E. B., & Lucksted, A. A. (2018). The role of sense of belonging in self-stigma among people with serious mental illnesses. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, Vol. 41(2), 149–152. Retrieved Nov. 5, 2021, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/prj0000281
  5. Wastle, H., Lucksted, A., Phalen, P., & Drapalski, A. (2020). Internalized stigma, sense of belonging, and suicidal ideation among veterans with serious mental illness. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 43(2), 91–96. Retrieved Nov. 5, 2021, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/prj0000386
  6. Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., & Sutton, S. D. (2014). Joy starts here: The transformation zone. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
  7. Wilder, J., & Hendricks, M. (2020). The other half of church: Christian community, brain science, and overcoming spiritual stagnation. Chicago: Moody Publishers.

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