February 21, 2020
Most people would never guess that for a good portion of my life, I’ve felt like an outsider.
I always had a lot of friends and would surround myself with people constantly. My entire career was built off of being “a people person.” I was with people so much that I convinced myself that I was an extrovert. I dragged myself to more happy hours than I had the budget for, didn’t miss a single birthday, and prided myself on being the one person everyone could rely on.
It would take years for me to learn that I was secretly an introvert with extreme people-pleasing tendencies. And even though I was a social butterfly, I was actually very lonely inside.
Through the years, I have learned ways to manage these people-pleasing tendencies, and feel more like myself. Here are four tips — if you find yourself feeling lonely — to achieve a greater sense of belonging:
According to Talkspace therapist Joanna Filidor, LMFT, people who struggle with a poor sense of belonging have likely struggled with it for most of their life. For example, if you grew up feeling different, you might hold a core belief of “I do not belong.” These types of core beliefs become sticky and begin to shape how you view the world. “As you begin to go through life,” explained Filidor, “your brain only pays attention to the evidence that will support the core belief ‘I do not belong’ so even if the overall experience is one where you do belong, you might give more weight to the one interaction with a coworker where you didn’t belong.”
The more inner work I do, the more I realize the extent to which I crafted my life around fitting in with those around me rather than developing my own sense of self. It’s easy to do, especially if you are super sensitive like me. For example, I grew up in a household of academics — my dad is a retired physician and my mom is a scientist — so, of course, as a little girl I did what I needed to do to fit in and be seen. I excelled at school, focused on pursuing a traditional career path, and kept my creativity side over in the “hobby” category. Without being able to express my authentic self, I unknowingly developed a narrative that I didn’t belong because I never felt free to be myself.
In her book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone,” Brené Brown says, “I don’t think there’s anything lonelier than being with people and feeling alone.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surrounded by people and felt completely alone. It’s hands-down one of the worst feelings. Because the logical part of you is screaming “How could you possibly feel alone right now? There are so many people to talk to!” by your heart is saying, “But I don’t want to talk to anyone. No one understands me here.”
I’ve found that a lot of my feelings of loneliness stem from a deeper well of unworthiness. That people don’t understand me, don’t get me, don’t see me, and don’t appreciate me. One of the only ways I’ve been able to pull myself out of the painful feelings of not belonging is to practice self-love and unconditional self-acceptance. Filidor reiterates that experiences like trauma, dysfunctional childhood, and unhealthy relationships can lead to a feeling of not belonging. “These experiences cause a person to chronically experience a lack of unconditional self-acceptance,” shared Filidor, “leading them to rely on external forces for validation.” If you can feel worthy all on your own, then the feeling of not belonging won’t sting as much.
There are times when I feel like I belong with my friends but not with my family. Or my work but not my company. Or the White community but not the Asian community. Or the Asian community but not the White community. Or my marriage but not the location in which we live.
Belonging is multi-faceted and it’s important to respect the complexity of your feelings about the spaces in which you feel you do or do not belong. When you have different and conflicting identities, Filidor stresses the importance of using the word “and” instead of “or.” As she explains, “We can be one thing and another at the same time, even if those contradict.” Understanding that you can feel multiple ways — even if contradictory — allows room to feel accepting of yourself and who are.
I never would have been able to articulate the roots of my loneliness without the help of therapy and other expert resources. Investing in your own inner work and making your healing journey a priority is critical to achieving a sense of belonging. After all, we can’t change behaviors, relationships, or mindsets that we aren’t aware need changing.
Here are three of Filidor’s favorite resources to check out:
It is hard, especially in our increasingly divided world, to feel a sense of belonging. Social media makes it even harder by painting an unrealistic picture that no one else ever feels lonely. However, it’s completely normal to feel lonely at times. And if that wave of loneliness washes over you, remember that you are loved, you are worthy, and you don’t have to be anyone else but yourself.