What does it mean to belong?
Can we define the thing we all long for?
I’ve been thinking about belonging for my entire life… and writing and researching and building a community around belonging intentionally now for over five years. I am fortunate to be in dialogue and shared inquiry with some of the world’s foremost practitioners. And yet: I still can’t really define it. Today I want to try. As is often true when I start a post, as I start this writing I don’t yet know what I want to say: I’ll come back here when I’m done to share my conclusions (writing as thinking: a process of trying to understand my own thoughts).
Here’s what it comes down to, I think (TL;DR):
As bell hooks says: “Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination.” We can’t practice what we can’t name. We have a deep human need to belong: it is both the antidote to and the primary driver of our current crises. Belonging properly understood must be universal and omni-considerate: belonging that only cares for “us” but not for “them” is not belonging… it’s exclusion. We must refuse the temptation to engage in what john powell calls “othering.” Here is the definition I’ve arrived at:
Belonging is a felt sense in our bodies of safety, power, wholeness, and welcome. It is a relational quality that can be cultivated and practiced.
If you want to join our next subscriber gathering on March 16th @8am PT where we take up this question—and some of the practices named here—please consider upgrading your subscription to step into interdependence with me.
To begin implementing my 2023 intentions I decided at long last to turn my attention to bell hooks’ classic All About Love. In it she does something radical and almost breathtakingly bold: she attempts to define “love.” Of course I found myself thinking about belonging (I often think of the terms as close synonyms), and squirming with the uncomfortable knowledge that after all this time and all this work… I still can’t define it. bell offers the invitation:
Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition.
Of course: how can we cultivate a skill we can’t even name or define? bell’s audacity always inspires me: if she’s willing to take a crack at defining love… perhaps I can try defining belonging? (Indeed, it was reading her definition of patriarchy in The Will to Change that provoked my interest and ultimately inspired my 3-part series trying to grapple with that misunderstood and ill-defined term).
If my aspiration is to build belonging, then clearly I already conceive of belonging as a capacity/quality that can be built, that can be cultivated. Which means it must be definable, and practice-able. bell explains:
Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up.
The longing to belong
I believe the need to belong is our deepest human need, upon which all else turns. I love John O’Donohue’s evocative language:
The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature….Every one longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, and loved.
I agree with john a. powell, who argues that Maslow had it wrong: in our hierarchy of needs, belonging is the foundation. None of us survive even a few hours after birth without belonging, without someone to care for us. And here’s the paradox: it’s both our most basic need, and our highest calling. Here’s David Whyte:
To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence.
I also believe the desperate quest for belonging, a natural response to the crushing alienation so many of us feel, is driving many of the crises we face. Here’s Howard Ross:
The search for belonging is tearing our culture apart.
So what is belonging? What is this ineffable quality we are so desperately seeking? I’ve come to think there are four different but related components, and I want to explore them here. But first, a word on what belonging is not.
Belonging is the opposite of “othering”
For this insight I’m indebted to the work of john a. powell and his thought leadership stewarding the Othering & Belonging Institute. It’s this paradox: belonging must be both universal and specific. Fish belong. And: fish do not belong everywhere, and some fish only belong some places. This gets really dicey when we start talking about humans. The clear truth: all humans belong. The more complicated truth: we don’t all belong everywhere at all times.
The task, I think, is to define a set of conditions for belonging that are universally applicable, that aspire to meet everyone’s needs. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say our goal must be to create an “us” without a “them.” The first time I heard the idea of “an us without a them” expressed in a way that resonated for me was from Ken Cloke, who coined the concept of “omni-partiality.” It conveys the idea that we are trying to solve for all levels: caring for everyone. john powell says it best:
True belonging means we are not just creating for our group(s), but for all.
Yes: this is the difference between belonging properly understood and the false belonging created by “othering.” This is subtle but incredibly important. In his classic text on conflict transformation, John Paul Lederach frames the challenge:
How do we create spaces and processes that encourage people to address and articulate a positive sense of identity in relationship to other people and groups, but not in reaction to them?
Here’s how I understand it: the very act of defining an “us” by definition creates a “them”: “them” who are not “us.” Identities and categories have boundaries, of necessity. So for me it’s less about not creating an “other,” and instead it’s about not othering: it is refusing to make that difference the source of a power-over relationship, of superiority/inferiority. It is to celebrate difference without domination. Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller have my favorite articulation of this aspiration in their work on the “biology of love,” where they write:
Love is a manner of relational behavior through which the other arises as a legitimate other.
This to me is the crucial distinction: when we define the boundaries of belonging, do we still see the “other” (who is not “us”) as a legitimate other? Do we still include them in what john powell calls the circle of human concern? Any effort that seeks to solve for my belonging without caring about yours is not belonging: it’s exclusion. It can feel like belonging to those on the inside, but it’s a false belonging: it’s contingent on “othering.” This is the difference between the false belonging of ethno-nationalism and the capacious belonging imagined by deep democracy. I like Bridgit Antoinette Evans’ line here:
The project of our society is to constantly re-imagine how we belong together.
So what is that universal quality of belonging that we seek? How can we define it, understand it, and know it when we feel it?
Belonging is a felt sense
I mean this literally: our bodies can feel when we belong; it’s a somatic experience, not a cognitive one. John O’Donohue puts it simply:
Our bodies know that they belong.
I want to credit fellow Building Belonging member Michaela Ayers both for pushing me to define the term, and for naming this idea of a felt sense; see her presentation here. I want to build on some of her insights and offer my own understanding.
We recently ran an exercise for a cohort in the Building Belonging community where we invited people to narrate a time when they felt like they belonged, and universally people returned to the same set of themes. I want to name and unpack three here:
Safety. This is the starting point: our bodies cannot experience belonging if we feel under threat. This means that belonging requires the absence of oppression and coercion.
Power. To belong is to be significant: it is for our existence to matter. It is to have agency; the ability to influence our context.
Wholeness. For so many of us the path to alienation begins by denying or rejecting aspects of ourselves: it is about fragmentation. Belonging is about integration, about showing up as our full, unalienated selves.
I feel confident and grounded in naming these three; they also point to much of my frustration with the current discourse around belonging. I’m glad belonging is gaining traction as a concept, but too often it’s a whitewashed, stripped-down, emaciated version of how I understand belonging. Yes belonging is about wholeness, about fully living into our authentic truths; in this I really respect Brené Brown’s work:
True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
But it’s also about power. This is a key contribution from john powell’s work, and something often missing from mainstream discussions (including from people like Brené). john reminds us:
Belonging requires both agency and power to cocreate.
This is why so much of the “belonging-at-work” discourse falls flat for me: they want belonging inside a hierarchically organized domination system/institution. That isn’t belonging, and we do ourselves a disservice by pretending it is.
This definition feels almost complete; but there’s still something missing having to do with acceptance, with feeling seen.
Belonging is about right relationship: to be welcome
Belonging is inherently relational: we belong to or with something. This is the piece most dictionary definitions pick up on: something about acceptance, inclusion, being a member of something. It feels really important to name this… and it makes me nervous. Yes it is vitally important to be seen, to be recognized, to be accepted for who we are. And yet: I’m worried that it gives away too much to make our belonging contingent on someone else recognizing us.
Here’s the truth: we already belong. By the very miracle of our births, of our existence on this wondrous planet… we belong. I deeply resonate—even as I find it provocative—with Mara Glatzel’s gorgeous blessing on belonging for her new book:
I belong. My belonging belongs to me… No one can ever take away my belonging… I don’t need anyone else’s permission to be who I already am.
This feels right to me… and edgy. Right because I do think our fundamental belonging is to ourselves. As Rev. angel Kyodo williams says:
Belonging belongs to you.
Edgy because we do need others: we are social creatures and deeply interdependent, and can our belonging truly exist if it is never acknowledged/honored by others? And of course our belonging can be taken away, or denied: the part of our belonging that is tied to a relational identity (family, group, nation, etc.)
As with all things, I think of belonging as fractal: we belong to ourselves, each other, and the earth. Because the interpersonal dynamic feels the most challenging, I want to explore the relational aspect of belonging by grounding it in what it means to belong to the earth.
When I think about what it means to belong to the land, to a place, there’s something about feeling at home. During my almost-fifteen years on the East Coast of the United States, I never felt like I truly belonged. I was happy there, I could certainly fit in, and aspects of myself belonged. But something was missing. It turns out that for me belonging is tied to mountains, and to specific trees: to redwoods, to Ponderosa pines, to cedars, and to Douglas firs. Which means that although I can be happy in many places, only the bioregion of Cascadia truly feels like home: like I belong.
And it’s mutual. I still remember the first time I took a friend from Chicago to Mt. Rainier (Tahoma) to hike the Skyline Trail, one of the most spectacular alpine settings in the world.
I felt the familiar soaring sensation in my stomach, the near-giddiness and childlike awe I always experience in such places, and I asked how he was feeling. He kind of shrugged and said something to the effect of: yeah, I can tell it’s pretty, but it doesn’t really do much for me. I was floored: it had never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t be moved by such scenery. Eventually I settled into acceptance: fair enough. Perhaps for him belonging is urban; where I need trees and mountains, perhaps he needs buildings and lakes. Perhaps Chicago is home.
So maybe the point I’m trying to make here: belonging requires being seen and celebrated for your unique “wholeness.” It’s about feeling appreciated for being you. Acceptance isn’t strong enough; it’s too thin. It’s too low a bar. People don’t want to just be accepted. We want to be valued, appreciated, fully seen, honored, celebrated.
So I want to add this as the fourth element of belonging, to capture the relational component. If I’m looking for a single noun to accompany safety, power, and wholeness, I think it’s captured in the idea of “welcome.” It carries a connotation of gladness, of a warm embrace (following O’Donohue), and explicitly imagines a relationship: someone/thing doing the welcoming.
This is what I mean by right relationship: I see you and you see me (I’m reminded of the Zulu concept of ubuntu, often translated as “I am because you are”). I appreciate the fullness of Tahoma’s beauty: she is seen by me. Seen in her fullness, she returns the favor, and acknowledges my belonging: she allows me to traverse her slopes.
Freedom and belonging
I’m not quite sure what to do with this idea. There seems a clear connection, but I’ve debated whether freedom is a condition of belonging (alongside safety, power, wholeness, and welcome), or whether it’s more like a synonym, the thing we feel once we have belonging. I think it’s the latter: if we think of belonging as a secure foundation, a form of secure attachment… then that felt experience allows us to feel free to roam, to explore, to engage with the world.
And: there’s a different quality of freedom in refusing to make belonging contingent. In refusing to allow others to set the terms for our belonging. I’m still sitting with this provocative line from Maya Angelou (it’s better if you watch/listen in her own words):
You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
I think perhaps she’s trying to get at the distinction between belonging and fitting in that Brené Brown captures so beautifully. That perhaps the freedom she’s conjuring—as a Black woman in America—is the freedom to define belonging on her own terms. This is the unique burden and responsibility of those told they don’t belong in the dominant paradigm.
[Editing this post after publishing to point to Quanita Roberson’s recent piece on belonging and freedom which I hadn’t yet seen… taking up this very same Maya Angelou quote! Synchronicity and co-arising in emergence… we enjoyed a deeper dive conversation into this topic after I shared this post to the Art of Hosting community of practice and she reciprocated by sharing hers 😃].
I love the invitation/reminder here from Kate Morales’ gorgeous and evocative essay (hat-tip to Lindley Mease for the share):
Out of necessity and sometimes survival we must invent different structures to live, love and learn within.
Yes. New structures of belonging… for everyone.
Practices of belonging
I love this line from Paulo Freire (hat-tip to subscriber) drawing the connection between our aspiration for transformation, the importance of imagination and vision, and the necessity of practice:
If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I must make use of every possibility there is not only to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in practices consistent with it.
The beauty of having a definition—a clear vision of the thing we’re striving for—is it allows us to identify concrete domains of practice. What does it look like to practice belonging… right now? This post points to five paths toward belonging.
First, do no “othering.” This is the practice of seeing the “other” as a legitimate other: an essential aspect of living into a world where everyone belongs. Building on my last post: this is about refusing to use toxic shame, resisting the impulse to de-humanize those we deem different. Note this is the only negative practice here, where we are practicing “not” doing something. The positive opposite of othering in practice is the art of welcoming, per #5 below.
Safety is essential. Obviously this isn’t entirely within our control, but I really like the invitation to take responsibility for our own safety to the extent possible (I appreciate fellow Building Belonging member Leonie Smith’s reminder that “psychological safety” is too often a luxury of privilege: we can’t afford to wait for oppressive systems to create the conditions for us to feel safe). I offered some thoughts here about what is within our capacity to control.
Power: ahh so much opportunity for practice stepping into our full power, to act from the agency that is available to us. I think the domain that feels most accessible and radical here is boundary work: naming and identifying our needs and desires, and setting and enforcing our boundaries in our relationships. It’s about not giving away our power; about claiming our agency.
Wholeness: connected to agency, this is revolutionary work. It’s the four-step process I outlined here, about deeply attuning to what it is that we long for, to re-integrating the fragmented pieces of our selves. I still can’t make it through the “All of You” song from Encanto without tearing up; I’ve cued it to the part where she is at last seen (welcomed!) in her wholeness… ah what a gift (spoiler alert, if you haven’t yet seen the film: highly recommend!)
Welcome: I think there are a few domains of practice here, thinking at the fractal levels I call “I, We, World”: I named some here. At the level of “I” we can practice self-acceptance (this is the emerging field of mindful self-compassion), and that higher expression of it: self-love. This is the lifelong practice of learning to belong to ourselves. And at the level of “We” we can extend welcome (the opposite of othering) to people in our lives: we can practice creating and holding space for belonging. For those of you who are parents, we have a daily opportunity to show up for our children, to celebrate them in their fullness, to provide a home that gives them the felt experience of belonging. And at the level of “World” and land we can practice connecting with and attuning to nature.
I continue to think attuning to desire is a radical practice of belonging. I love this line from Kate Morales, where she explains why:
If we don’t know where our own desire lives, we leave the door open for someone else to tell us who and how to love, what to want, why to learn; to traumatize us and shrink our creative power… we must bravely teach ourselves how to love.
I want to give the last word here to Mara Glatzel, and her beautiful blessing to belonging from her new book on needs. Just a gorgeous—and challenging—invitation… to belong.
This post was hard; defining something as simultaneously profound and slippery as belonging is daunting. I looked for inspiration to everyone who has informed my own thinking on the subject, and concrete definitions are vanishingly rare, or seem incomplete. The books on my shelves speak poetically to the concept, but don’t offer a definition that I can anchor on. I’d love to know what feels good about the one I’m offering here; what feels like it might still be missing; and any definitions you’ve encountered that you feel hit the mark. This feels important to land: as bell said, how can we cultivate a skill we cannot define?
I hope you will choose to share your thoughts/reactions in the comments below, and to join our next subscriber gathering on March 16th.
I'm very grateful to have finally carved out the time to soak up this outstanding essay. Your essays are a masterclass in holding clarity, nuance, understanding, and not-knowing all at once, and with care and wonder. I felt the point about power to be especially resonant... Feeling safe in our own expression of power and significance *and* feeling enlivened by another person's sincere expression of their inner power—without feeling intimidated or less than—is belonging in action. I see too that rejecting or dampening another's fullness and significance (#2) can come from collective trauma around lack of safety (#1) in visibility, expression, and agency (the integration of all facets, #3). And then there was the part of belonging to the land, and even with specific trees. There is so much to reflect on here, and it felt healing to read... thank you.
A bold undertaking to define belonging! I resonated with all of it - and particularly the element around feeling “welcome.” I struggled most with how belonging and freedom fit together, but definitely am aligned with the idea of belonging to oneself first - and that fits with the “wholeness” piece. However, my biggest ah-ha from this piece was the notion that there can be an “other” without “othering”: it expands the notion of belonging and feels really powerful. Sitting with that. Thanks for all the work you put into this (and all of your writing)! Love, Jen