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Growing Up Into Belonging

The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.” 

-John O’Donahue


I have been working on my capacity for receiving for some time. Teaching myself the ways of opening to love and affection, learning how to sense the feel of love in my body and noticing how it lasts or dissipates with my attention. The ability to receive manifests itself in everything from our capacity for sexual pleasure to our sense of financial security. It also lives in the endless human transactions that make up our days, not only within our most intimate relationships but in the ways we meet strangers, participate in groups large and small and generally experience belonging and isolation in our lives.


The need to belong is hardwired into our neural networks as a survival mechanism, being forsaken by the tribe meant certain death. Although the high degree of independent functioning that characterizes our relationships belies this ancestry, the feeling of being excluded still ignites deep emotional wounds of shame and unworthiness. I have known the truth of this trauma since early childhood, as our primary imprinting of belonging happens within our families. When the early give and take of family life is skewed toward isolation, we improvise to find connection as young children. The anxiety responses that form to protect us create patterns of interactions that are so deeply ingrained; one could convincingly argue that there is little separation between the pattern and the person.

Usually, these patterns carry both costs and benefits. I have grown into an inspirational teacher and leader, unafraid of teaching to large groups, yet stubbornly unable to relax into being a quiet participant. Some odd yet persistent linking of being quiet and unsafely invisible is so deeply enmeshed in my neurology, that most group participation triggers such high levels of anxiety that my default leading takes over before I recognize what happens. While being a leader in some situations is a gift, in others it is alienating for everyone. This anxiety that I have come to know as myself does not allow me to receive anything around me. My knee jerk patterned reaction to fill the space and ease my anxiety prevents me from ever feeling the deep relief that happens in belonging to community.

Thanks to a dear friend’s compassionate insights, I was able for the first time to witness this lifelong pattern as something distinct from who I am and actually stay with the shame and anxiety that compels my behavior. As I have always said, our most painful realities only demand our attention to find their healing resolution. Holding the moments we feel like we belong beside our times of isolation speak volumes about our ability to receive the love that is always available, just by sharing our full presence, even with strangers.  I feel like I have cracked a window on the persistent and painful isolation that I have long accepted as part of being who I am. I am finally able to witness a new possibility of community that has long eluded me. As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Dealing with my long standing anxiety about belonging may be as simple as focusing on how I most want to be remembered by others- by how they felt when I was near them.