Each of us has a need to belong, and it’s an important one because when it is not filled we are unable to continually move to new stages of awareness, growth and development (at home or at work). For many of us this need to be part of a community is filled through family and friends but we also expect that we will find belonging in our workplaces too (and so we should). When this is present we experience contentment and happiness, allowing us to extend ourselves to deeper pursuits. However, this desire to belong can be the epicenter of much angst and disappointment; from a career perspective I have seen people stay at jobs that do not nourish them because their co-workers and team are so wonderful they couldn’t leave and I have seen people leave really amazing roles because they didn’t feel they fit in with the team or their manager. I would never advocate someone should stay where they feel unwanted or unwelcome, but in the midst of disappointment or fear about belonging we can forget some universal truths. Relationships (even professional ones) require sustained attention (in essence, work) and belonging to any group begins within us.
Being beautiful perfectly imperfect beings such as we are, easy or effortlessness is what we strive for, our reward if “we do it right”. What gives us access to effortlessness is the perception that what we do matters, has purpose and is of value, which includes efforts towards relationships. We are very open to what is possible in a new relationship – the dance at the beginning may be slow or fast, but we are all hoping for the same outcome; to be accepted as one of the group. This is true of relationship building at work and in life, and while it is nerve racking, that “honeymoon” period where we allow others to get to know us (and we them) is absent of baggage and a past. A clean slate. We may feel awkward, shy, and afraid of being rejected, but at the birth of this process there is no known reason why that should happen. It is only as the relationship advances that we become aware of potential cracks and fissures in what we are building. Enter the “mess”, that thing we prefer to ignore (if we can) in the hopes that it will not come crashing down and create frustration and disappointment in our efforts to belong. Mess comes from all around us, either our own inabilities to meet or be met by others, or their inabilities in this space – sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Mess is comprised of many contexts, mishaps, beliefs and expectations of others and ourselves and, if we are being very honest, it exists everywhere – we do not fully control it, but if we are not careful it can gain control over us. When relationship building holds feelings of belonging, the mess feels very manageable. When we are feeling frustrated in our efforts to belong, the mess is overwhelming and (in some cases) is perceived as insurmountable.
Here is the thing about the mess. It can change from manageable to insurmountable (and back) at any time. Not because of our will, but because of the nature of life. ““Well, it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.” These are the words spoken by Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Monk and Buddhist teacher. He is right, waves (to continue with the metaphor) come in lulls and swells. On average fifty percent of your time is spent in a lull and the other fifty percent is spent in a swell. When building relationships has meaning and purpose for both parties, you walk together and meet the swells head on, overcoming things like unfamiliarity, misunderstandings and differences in communication styles with ease. These are the experiences we are expecting, and if it differs from this, if it is challenging or difficult, we have mess. Sometimes we can stay in and build relationships when it is messy, and sometimes we just can’t.
What happens when we are no longer prepared to withstand the mess? It can happen for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, but essentially the crux of it is that the other party did not meet some expectation we held. This happens (for example) when someone we held in high esteem turned out to be less esteem-worthy then we thought (expectation that your new manager will recognize your good work but instead they are critical of it). In this circumstance we always have a decision – stay in the mess and work through it to bring the relationship back to it’s former equilibrium or let the mess sever any ties to belonging we hoped for or felt. The choice is ours to make. Do you let the mess control you or do you control the mess?
It starts with each of us as individuals; our thresholds for what is meaningful, has purpose and is valued are all different. For some, belonging is a “nice to have” but there is no great need for a formal acknowledgement or acceptance into a group at work, relationship building takes place amongst the ebbs and flows of reality with no expectations attached to it. Most of us know expecting everyone in your life to give you a clear indication of belonging within your interactions is not realistic – this points to another facet of belonging, you need to be comfortable being in the unknown when it comes to relationships. For some though, belonging can only exist when there is expressed acknowledgment that he or she does belong…and the “lulls and swells” may present a condition whereby every challenge requires that belonging is re-acknowledged, re-confirmed for them to trust this belonging. Where you fall on this spectrum is a matter of self-confidence and an acknowledgement of your own worthiness; often it is those with the least self-assurance that need to continually be reassured by others that they belong, an indication that true feelings of belonging, trust, may be out of their reach. “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead).
We will always face waves in life; there will always be mess and imperfection (in ourselves and others). Belonging happens when we agree to work within the context of reality and enable ourselves to stay in the mess “It isn’t that the waves stop coming; it’s that because you train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, the waves just appear to be getting smaller and smaller, and they don’t knock you over anymore.” (Pema Chodron: How To Move Forward Once You’ve Hit Bottom).
Belonging requires each of us to be comfortable in our own vulnerability. Where do you belong?