We sat around the circular table, discussing. Everyone else seemed to freely share their answers, stories, questions, and opinions. I concentrated on my breathing to keep the tears from falling. No one seemed to think like me and, yet again, I felt like an outsider instead of one of the group.
I had told myself that it was ok to be different, that I didn’t have to be like everyone else to belong with them. I really do believe that it’s good we’re not all the same. Acknowledging and embracing our differences can help us be a compliment to each other.
As much as I was trying to convince myself that it was ok to be different from those around me, I didn’t trust that they would feel the same way. I kept my mouth shut, waiting for them to give me permission to be myself. In the meantime, I took everything they said as a criticism against me, even though I had given them no indication that I wouldn’t agree with their opinions.
I felt unseen and rejected. It didn’t matter that I’d been the one hiding or that the people in my group had gone out of their way to try to be friendly. I doubted I’d ever find anywhere I belonged, no matter how hard I tried to believe I could belong without being the same.
The thing is, I’d been looking to others to give me permission to be different, to be myself, before I gave myself permission to show those differences. In doing so, I hadn’t been watching for ways we belonged together. I had been searching everything they said and did for evidence that they wouldn’t be able to accept me for myself if I let them really see.
After Christmas, our discussion groups were changed and I found myself with a new group of people. This time things felt different. Part of the difference may have been that most of my new group members were closer to my age or maybe we just happened to have more in common.
Actually, however, I think the biggest difference was in me. Over Christmas break, I’d read Brené Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness. When I came to this quote, it felt like someone had just turned on the lights:
Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods, we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.
In my quest for belonging, I’d been doing the exact thing that would ensure I’d never find it. I’d been searching for all the ways I didn’t fit, all the ways they might think I’m not good enough. Of course I was going to find evidence I didn’t belong, if that’s what I was looking for.
With my new group, I tried to focus more on watching for points of connection. I wanted to learn to see ways we could belong together, even if we weren’t the same and didn’t always agree.
My attempts were far from perfect. Long-held ways of being take time to change. And yet, this perspective made a huge difference in how I showed up and how I experienced our time together.
I was able to shift more often out of wondering what they thought of me or at least to take the risk of sharing something without knowing for certain what their reaction would be. I was more able to let their words show me something about them instead of searching those words for their opinions of me. I was able to care more about them when I wasn’t trying so hard to guard against them hurting me.
Our desire to belong can be so strong that we will do anything to keep from being rejected. Unfortunately, so often, we try to avoid rejection by fitting in. We watch for any potential sign of criticism and then tailor our words and actions to be someone who is accepted. Often we end up feeling more on the outside than ever. Even if we are welcomed, it’s not the real us they’re accepting. We still feel unseen.
I’ve spent far too much energy looking to others to assure me I’m ok. It’s never enough. I’ve looked to others far too often to tell me who I am. The answers I find never quite fit. I’ve been looking outside myself for something that can only come from within.
Now, taking this quote to heart doesn’t mean I’ll belong with everyone. It isn’t the magic formula for finally feeling accepted everywhere. But it does shift my approach. It encourages me to look for opportunities to develop the connection I hope to find more than I guard against the criticism I fear. It helps free me from constant evaluation so I can be more present because it reminds me that my worth is not dependent on the approval of any person or group.
I still catch myself sometimes watching for the ways others might think I don’t measure up. I’m sure there are times I look for criticism without even realizing what I’m doing. But it helps to remember that I’m likely to find what I’m looking for. It makes a difference to remember that belonging starts with belonging within myself.
What about you? Where do you look for evidence that you’re not enough? When do wait for others to tell you that you belong? How much time to you spend evaluating yourself instead of looking for ways to connect with those around you? When have you experienced belonging?