Belongingness is a fundamental human need that we benefit from individually as well as at the community and societal levels. Belonging means we are an accepted and wanted member of a group, whether it's an organized club or a loose collection of peers. Today the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same sex marriages, providing an affirmation that our love counts, that we belong.
When we know that sense of belongingness as a child, we grow up with a positive mental health perspective that anchors us into our culture and motivates us internally. Experiencing a sense of belonging as a youth helps us to believe we are important, that what we think, feel and do matters. We are much more likely to feel confident and have resilience when faced with life struggles if we have the social support of belonging.
Unfortunately, many youths and adults know the feeling of exclusion in our society. Ways this happens include subtle behaviors by others that create an environment of being "less than," verbally being labeled by peers through name-calling, and by institutionalized discrimination within our communities. The experience of being ostracized from others creates a higher risk for depression, poor daily functioning at school, work and within relationships, and even a greater risk for suicide.
As decades go by, there may be societal changes within certain communities that shift the subjective line of acceptance and belonging. For example, in 1970 my mother moved my siblings and I to a typical suburban neighborhood in Sacramento, California. Living amongst the homogenous mostly conservative two-parent households at that time proved to be a challenge for myself and my siblings. (It was a very different culture 45 years ago.) Since we are Caucasian, we were automatically afforded the privilege of our faces fitting in with the majority of our classmates. What made me feel like I didn't belong then? We were the only kids we knew that didn't have a father. My father had just died by suicide, which condemned him to purgatory by his church and was horribly stigmatized, so it became a huge shameful secret. We didn't talk about him or his death. The one time I made the mistake of telling the kids on the playground the truth about my father's death resulted in another experience of isolation. I was later known as the girl with a "crazy man" father.
Thirty-something years later I was a mom whose child was faced with exclusion for different reasons. My child, who is biracial, also had two "Team Moms" that coordinated the snack schedule, organized all the practices and went to all the games. Although there were wonderful families and friends that accepted our family, there were also the awkward actions of adults and hurtful statements of children that created a sense of being "other." As I watched and listened to my child experience feeling left out due to ethnic and/or religious differences as well, my heart hurt. I was reminded of my hard fought journey to find my own identity, self-love and belonging.
There are countless ways people experience rejection and scorn by others, though all of it hurts deeply and affects us profoundly. School bullying, being snubbed by co-workers at lunch, higher rates of arrest and imprisonment, and hate crimes are some of the detrimental institutional affects of shunning others.
Fostering a sense of belonging becomes easier when you know and love yourself. Creating compassion and understanding in yourself helps to breed the same toward others. The best way to create a sense of belonging is to look for similarities with people rather than focusing on the differences. Being open to having new experiences and interacting with other people with different ideas helps to find belonging where you may not have thought you could. Perhaps someone with a different religion than you may have an interesting story to tell, or someone much older can give you a new perspective on a situation, or a child's joy in playing with new friends will create a more compassionate and accepting community that moves beyond tolerance and evolves into embracing one another.