“Where do I Belong?” is One of Life’s Key Questions
“Where do I belong?” is a question that takes on immense importance for many individuals at different stages in their life journey.
The issue of belonging changes its form, depending on our stage in life, our particular life circumstances, and whether we’re undergoing any major life transitions. It can come up for us in many ways, but it never loses its relevance and urgency.
From earliest days of life to the end of our life journey, we are confronted with the question of belonging — to our family, to communities, to ourselves, to a particular place, — and in the great scheme of things. It is one of the very fundamental aspects of what it is to be human.
This isn’t just an intellectual question. This is about something that is visceral, almost cellular, deeply rooted in our instinctual core. As the great John Bowlby established in his work on attachment, the sense of belonging is a fundamental part of human identity at all levels of development.
Our Psychological Need to Belong
People have a fundamental need to belong. Our connection to other people matters to us in some fundamental ways. Our self-esteem, and even our concept of ourselves remain partially rooted in the connection that we have with other people. Meaningful connection with others increases our resilience against stress, makes us subjectively feel happier, and leads to a more positive assessment of who we are..
Similarly, as work in the growing field of environmental psychology has shown, people also can have a very strong need to belong to a place. As researchers at the Université de La Réunion recently re-confirmed, connection or attachment to place has an important and fundamental connection with well-being. This may be a relatively new area of exploration for social science, but the Australian Aborigine cultures and other indigenous groups have known this truth, and emphasized its importance, for well over 40,000 years.
Here are two different but related kinds of belonging: belonging as human connection; and belonging as connection to place. In our era of rapid social and technological change, ceaseless mobility, and continual shifting of membership in social groups, many people find themselves asking “Where do I belong?”
How We Search for Belonging
We can spend a lot of time denying our need for belonging. This may be particularly true when we have not had the opportunity we needed in early life to bond with a mother figure. Or where a child didn’t feel themselves to be a genuinely loved and cherished member of a family unit, or where a family unit became disrupted, perhaps through divorce or the death of a parent. Something similar can happen where a child has a life of continual movement, so that they can never properly “put down roots” anywhere.
All of these situations may result in struggles with anxiety and/or depression, certainly. Yet the root issue may be attachment — not feeling a sense of belonging or security or “roots”.
When someone struggles with this kind of issue, they may not be easily able to say what is wrong, or else the issue is so painful that it is not easy to face head-on. So the individual avoids it. Such an issue around belonging can lead to all kinds of avoidant behaviour, such as struggles with addictions, and avoidance of commitment and connection with others.
Yet what we really need to continue our journey to wholeness is a sense of rootedness and connectedness to significant individuals in our lives, to social groups and to a place where we belong. Jungians would refer to all these things as being connected to the archetype of home.
Finding Healing Through Belonging
To begin to answer the question “Where do I belong?” may first of all involve facing the ways in which we feel disconnected, or feel that we don’t belong. For a good number of people, this can be quite painful. To look at this part of our lives can sometimes require quite a bit of courage.
Simultaneously, we might well need to acknowledge that we have a deep yearning to be connected, and to belong. Acknowledging the degree to which this is true can also be difficult.
These are areas that I can begin to look at on my own, and I can begin to move forward in terms of finding connection. Yet there may be immense benefit in engaging with a supportive therapeutic relationship, such as /a-midlife-transition to assist in this process. Working with a therapist can be a supportive relationship that helps immensely in opening the sensitive and important aspects of the question, “Where do I belong?” — and that leads toward fulfilling answers.