Belonging Is an Act of Courage

Belonging Is an Act of Courage 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

Where in your life do you feel a real sense of belonging?

That question on the surface feels like a pretty simple question to answer. And it’s easy to assume that almost anyone you ask would have an answer to this question.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with this question, and I now realize that it’s far more complicated than I thought.

Belonging is a concept that is increasingly sneaking into our conversations about employee experience and well-being in the workplace. It has its roots in psychology. It’s one of those concepts, like many we use when talking about the human experience, that isn’t particularly well defined or understood yet.

And yet, it’s a concept that has deep emotional significance for most people. We may not be able to describe exactly what it is, but we know the experience when it happens. It’s the kind of experience we want more of, as much as we can get, but it’s often as hard to find as it is to define.

Part of the reason that belonging has such resonance with us is likely because the absence of belonging can be so painful. Let me offer you another question to ponder.

When was the last time you felt excluded, particularly when your desire to belong was strong?

Sadly, it’s far easier to think of answers to this question than the first. I’ve become convinced that we are facing a crisis of belonging, not just at work, but across our society. We are starved for and craving a deeper sense of belonging. And it’s not just one particular group or segment of people who are feeling this.

Two Major Insights Into Belonging

I have facilitated two separate retreats this year where we exploration belonging in an attempt to understand it more fully. I’ve come away from that work with two major insights.

First, we need to dive much deeper into belonging to understand what it is, how it works, and how we can foster it in all areas of our lives.

There has been some work done in this regard, but there’s much left to do. As I’ve explored this with colleagues and friends this year, questions emerge that highlight our need for a deeper understanding of this concept. For example:

  • Can you only belong to another person or group?  Or can you also belong to a place or experience?
  • Can you belong to yourself? If so, what exactly does that mean?
  • What role does belonging to or accepting one’s self play in the ability to belong to others?
  • Are belonging and exclusion opposites?
  • Can belonging exist in a group without some degree of exclusion? In other words, is exclusion a necessary ingredient to belonging?

These are not easy questions when you start putting them into actual application in your life or at work. And yet, they are questions we need to wrestle with until we find answers.

My second insight is that belonging is an act of courage.

While there are a lot of definitions out there for belonging, here’s how I’m defining belonging today based on both my experience and reading: Belonging is a feeling of unconditional acceptance.

Belonging is a feeling of unconditional acceptance. 

The place where I feel the greatest sense of belonging is in my marriage. Angie accepts me fully through our entire range of experiences together—when I’m at my best, and more importantly when I’m at my worst. It’s a rare and unique experience that has been incredibly powerful and important in shaping the quality of my life.

I think this definition also works when we talk about belonging to ourselves. The work of unconditionally accepting who we are is not easy and it’s a lifetime of work. I usually describe this as our journey to authenticity.

The real magic of belonging happens when we both belong to ourselves (i.e., we are fully authentic) and we belong to others simultaneously.

There Is a Catch to Belonging

But here’s the catch: To have the opportunity to experience belonging requires that you reveal yourself fully. It requires vulnerability, and as a consequence, it is an act of courage. This is true for both the individual and the group.

Belonging requires vulnerability, and as a consequence, it is an act of courage.

As an individual, to be unconditionally accepted as we are requires that we reveal who we are. The danger is that you can’t be fully accepted before you are fully revealed. It requires a leap of faith, an act of courage, before you can receive the reward. And the reward is not guaranteed.

If you are part of a team of mostly Christians, revealing you are Muslim or atheist might be met with acceptance but it also may not. The same could be true for being liberal in a conservative company. Any time, you reveal something about yourself that feels unique or different, there will be a risk. Even when you are pretty certain the group will accept you regardless of these things, it’s still a risk when you fully reveal yourself.

Belonging to yourself truly is perhaps one of the hardest and bravest acts there is because we live in a world that sends you signals all day every day that you are somehow not enough.

And when you unconditionally accept someone else, it also involves risk and vulnerability. What if they don’t accept you back? What if their beliefs are completely different than yours? What if who they are fundamentally conflicts with who you are? These are not easy circumstances to navigate, and they make the act of acceptance far more challenging. Extending belonging to others requires courage.

This insight that belonging is an act of courage helped me understand why the work of creating belonging is both so challenging and so important. The irony is that, as in most cases, the courage required is repaid a hundred times over in most cases. But, we’ve got to take that step.

The work of creating belonging is both so challenging and so important.

Here are my requests of you:

  • Experiment with revealing more of yourself to others as a way to explore and understand how belonging works.
  • Ask the people in your life about their experiences of belonging and exclusion and how it affected them.
  • Work on ways that you can extend a more unconditional acceptance to those who you live and work with.

We can be the solution to this belonging crisis together. We just have to muster the courage to do it.

 

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