Thoughts From The Couch – Belongingness – a need


It is not uncommon for me to ask a client where they feel they belong and for them to consider quietly and, after a while, answer ‘nowhere.’ Belongingness is a basic human need, that along with the need to form attachments is universal among human beings across all cultures. Humans have an inherent need to be part of something outside of themselves and to develop and maintain at least a minimal amount of stable, positive and important interpersonal relationships. This can be with family, carers, friends, co-workers, community organisations or a team of some sort where they feel an accepted and appreciated member of a group.

Some of us have an innate sense of belonging that often comes from growing up feeling an esteemed and much loved member of a family which subsequently fostered the ability to enjoy secure attachments. For others, who struggle with the concept of belongingness, it is often as a result of not having experienced frequent positive interactions within a framework of long term care. Without feeling consistent attentiveness and security it is a challenge to feel ‘rooted’ anywhere and thus hard to experience belongingness.

The deep primal longing to belong is etched into our unconscious minds as we all need to give and receive attention – to love and feel loved. As belongingness is a fundamental human motivation, without it, we are vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression. We can see just how strong the driver to belong is when we think of children who will do almost anything to feel loved or to belong as they remain loyal to abusive parents or abusers in general. Much of what human beings do is done in the service of belongingness and can continue long into adulthood sometimes overriding the physiological and security needs; such is the driver to satisfy the need.

W. Somerset Maugham speaks eloquently on behalf of those of us who have struggled with the idea of belonging:

‘It can seem as if everyone else belonged somewhere and to someone – I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known.’

I see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs rather like the roots of a tree. Each one is slowly tunnelling its way down into our subconscious and from there our beliefs and ways of being emerge. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belongingness is part of one of his significant needs that drives human behaviour. The ranking is usually portrayed as a pyramid with more basic needs at the root, such as food, water, warmth and rest. The more complex needs near the peak, such as esteem needs and self-actualisation. The need for love and belonging is interpersonal and sits at the centre of the pyramid as part of the psychological needs. While Maslow suggested that the psychological needs are less important than the physiological and safety needs, he believed that the need for belonging helped people to search for companionship and acceptance through family, friends and other relationships.

The drive for belonging never goes away and is present at all stages of our lifespan. The fact that belongingness is a need means that we must establish and maintain a minimum quantity of lasting relationships which is difficult if you move around a lot. Being bought up in an orphanage, foster homes or fleeing a war torn country as a refugee, leaving family behind, challenges our sense of belonging. For others who although living with, did not feel part of their birth family, searching for and finding a sense of belonging is difficult in a different way. With parents who moved around a lot, clients of mine speak of the difficulties of entering new schools when friendships groups had already been established. Each time hoping to find a group to belong to, but soon being uprooted to start the journey all over.

For some of my clients who were sent away to boarding school at a young age, they felt their sense of belonging fade away replaced by the need for survival. Young clients speak of their craving for acceptance and want to belong to a peer group. As a result, they talk of having found themselves participating in sexual acts, breaking the law and abandoning their core values to satiate their craving. For each of us, our experience is different, but what threads us together is the feeling of being an outsider in a world where others appear to belong.

In therapy, one of the first things we address is the fallacy that we can make a home for ourselves outside ourselves without first establishing a deep rooted sense of home and belonging within ourselves. By recognising how some of us can perpetuate the feeling of not belonging by always projecting home and a sense of belonging onto others, we can start to understand how we do not always serve ourselves in our need to belong. The poet David Whyte states ‘to feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence.’

It takes a lot of courage to be ourselves, to own our vulnerabilities and our feelings of isolation. Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world despite its apparent unrelenting need to change us. If we don’t abandon ourselves to belong and first turn our attention inwards, we find a place of belonging that no one can take away from us. It is only through being true to who we are, that we can make connections based on profound honesty, thus enabling a deep, rooted sense of connection and authenticity with those we meet. As we allow ourselves to be healthily rooted in who we are, and only then, are we able to rejoice in the true meaning of belongingness as – everything and everyone is waiting for us.

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