It took me by surprise the literal ache that I felt in my chest. The need for belonging: the ache that was lodged in my chest, that shouted, you are alone. No one sees you. No one hears you. Your life is insignificant. I wanted to share my pain, but I couldn’t find the way. It felt like there was a wall between myself and the rest of the world. I could see it, I could touch it, but I couldn’t move beyond the wall that separated me from them.
The Need to Belong
We don’t talk about it often do we? This need to belong, to be part of something that is bigger than just us. The need to be seen. The need to be recognized.
Belonging – it’s an innate need we have closely linked to our survival. Back in the day when we were still cavemen and women, we needed to be part of the tribe, otherwise, our chances for survival were slim. While we no longer have to watch for sabre tooth tigers and other predators (luckily for most of us), our desire and need to belong, to be part of something, to be part of an “us” still dominates our way of thinking and being.
It was the same feeling that I had so often come to know as a child growing up. Why did I look different from anyone else? Why wasn’t there anyone in my family who looked just like me? As an only child from a mixed race background, I grew up very dominantly white areas and I always looked like the odd one out on both sides of my family. Why couldn’t anyone look just like me? I truly longed to have a sibling who would just be like me (never mind my romanticized ideas about siblings and family). Birthdays and Christmases were spent asking my parents for a brother or sister, yet unfortunately, it was never to be.
I compensated my lack of a feeling of belonging by trying to fit in, achieve and be perfect. I even went as far as choosing to study in the UK to see whether I could fit in there (I was born in the UK and for some reason, I thought this could be ‘home’ as well. Never mind that my British citizenship was purely a formal matter…). I chose to study Japanese (surprise!) and went on to spend my second year of university in Tokyo, again boarding the plane with the desire to find myself there.
While I really enjoyed my time in Japan, it was also a painful and confronting experience of realizing this was not my home either. While things are improving in Japan, it is still far removed from being a multi-cultural society and I had quite a few experiences where I very much felt the outsider. Hafu, the Japanese term for people of mixed Japanese origin, literally means half. While I don’t mind the term, it confirmed the feeling that I had within, that I was part this, part that, not really part of anything completely.
While I take pride now in my mixed background and very much consider myself a citizen of the world, this took a long time. There’s still that ache within sometimes that just wants to fit in and belong. To not be asked where I’m from, to not have to explain why I look the way I do, to explain again that “no, I’m not Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese or Siberian for that matter (and I’m not kidding on that last one…).
There are so many of us who miss this sense of belonging. More and more of us live outside of our home countries. Multi-cultural relationships are increasing each day. A feeling of separation isn’t just limited to race and ethnicity, we can each feel our separateness from others in so many different ways. It’s been eye-opening to speak to people who have been adopted, friends who come from different social backgrounds, others who have been the victims of bullying, members of the LGBTQ community that in so many places around the world still need to hide their sexuality, women who feel a sense of separation because their bodies do not fit the social image of what is considered beautiful. The list is endless.
In the end, human beings have so many crafty ideas on how to separate us from them. It’s a dangerous practice this continuous boxing in of people, us versus them, you versus me. The invisible walls that are being built up, hiding our shared humanity from each other. Yet funnily enough, we all want the same: love and belonging. Paradoxically, it is those very desires and needs that make us separate ourselves from others. As if the separation from one, will act as the glue that holds together the other.
So how do we even begin to move through this sense of separation?
• Treat yourself with kindness and compassion. I’ve literally gone through times where I’ve had to write up a list of things I could do for myself to soothe the soul. It’s as basic as lighting incense, taking a bath, putting on calming music, curling up on the sofa with a book. I was reminded by someone the other day that books often provide a gateway to belonging as we find companionship in its pages. The more I can love myself, the more I can truly love someone else, continuously adding more glue to the social fabric of this planet.
• Reach out to someone close to you. The biggest antidote to a sense of separation is finding companionship. This can be tough as we are often unwilling to show this vulnerable side of ourselves. Yet is often exactly what we need to do. This doesn’t mean that you have to share your feelings with everyone around you, but find that friend that you can open up to. Vulnerability truly creates intimacy like nothing else.
• Realise that we are all humans. Each one of us with many of shared feelings and experiences. It’s so easy to separate yourself from others, thinking that you must be the only who feels this way. You’re not. You are not the first person and you will not be the last. The truth is that we often have no idea what someone might have been through. I still find myself surprised when I speak to clients and they share some of their life stories with me. We never know what is being kept hidden inside. Sometimes it can help to seek out like-minded spirits. While I don’t necessarily contribute directly to the interactions, I very much enjoy being part of a Hafu Facebook Group.
• Stand by someone else. Truly take the time to listen and care for someone else. The greatest gift we can often give someone else is our time, love and attention. If you notice someone who is being left out, speak up and include them. Give the gift of care.
• Develop more courage to stand alone. I’ve pondered the question of belonging for a long time until I eventually came to realise: I belong to me. I belong everywhere and nowhere. Ultimately there is only one of me as there is only one of you. Some journeys we can and will only ever make alone – and that is how it should be. Try to let go of the need to be liked. It is an impossible task anyway and don’t you want your life to stand for something?
• Say yes to yourself. Each time we choose others over ourselves, trying to fit in, what we essentially say to ourselves is: no, you do not belong. No, you are not worthy. No, you are not loved. So I ask you, to say yes.
Yes, I belong.
Yes, I am enough.
Yes, I am loved.
Yes, I am love.
This has always been the truth of who you are. How could it be anything else?
This journey more than anything else begins with the journey to the self, thereby creating a sense of belonging within yourself. Unveiling layer by layer who you truly are at heart, what matters to you most, how you want to live your life – and ultimately putting that into action, creating step by step a life that is yours.
If you’d like to read a little more on my personal journey of belonging, please visit: https://naomisaelens.com/about-me/
Photo by: Greg Rakozy