One of the basic needs of humans (other than food and shelter) is the need to feel loved and like we belong. Belonging in the sense that we feel connected and accepted by others. We all have a different level of need. Some want more, some want less. I have seen many people who feel lonely, and I believe it has to do with the fact that they don’t feel like they belong. This drive for belonging never goes away, and is present at all stages of our lifespan. Sometimes our motivation for belonging lacks due to mental health problems like depression or dementia. Sometimes loss can trigger our sense of connectedness in this world. We can work on improving our need for belonging by becoming self-aware and taking a good look at our life. It may mean we need to make some changes or seek some professional help.
The need for belonging evolves across the lifespan
If we are fortunate enough to be born and raised into a family that helps us feel loved and cared for, that is one thing. However, if we are born into a family that lacks the love and protection we need, we may feel abandoned. Renowned psychologist Matthew Lieberman studies “social pain” and he believes the drive to alleviate or relieve our social pain is more important than the basic needs of food and shelter.
Those of us who feel abandoned in our younger years may not develop a sense of what “love” is. We may crave and search for that feeling of being accepted and cherished. We may search for this in relationships that are presented to us, such as in teachers, other relatives and peers. Sometimes these relationships are good and helpful. Our needs can be met in a positive way through these other relationships as long as they are healthy and free from abuse.
Sometimes we find the comfort, acceptance and connection through unhealthy relationships. Until we are mature enough to figure out what is healthy for us, we may end up learning the hard way. That is why it is so important for families (no matter what the family consists of such as a single parent) to pay attention to the basic needs of their children.
As we mature, we learn what is healthy and not healthy for us. As teenagers we may end up in troubling relationships to gain the love and acceptance we are innately or instinctually craving. We may end up getting involved with the “wrong crowd” because they are the only ones who seem to understand and accept us.
The need to feel like we belong never goes away. Just like our need for water and safety. We are social beings. We depend on others. We do things in groups. Our connections to others changes as we grow and become wiser. The basic personality traits remain the same, but our values and morals may change over time. Having children and starting our own families usually wakes up our moral compass. What is right and wrong suddenly becomes clear.
Our own innate need for belonging is often met by having children. Young children usually offer us unconditional love and acceptance (things may and will change as they become more independent). Our small and sometimes growing family helps us meet our needs for feeling loved and like we belong. For those of us who don’t have children, pets, other relatives (nieces/nephews) and friends can also provide a sense of belonging.
How do we help others feel like they belong?
Fostering a sense of belonging goes both ways. For example, if we go to a family gathering or a social outing, we may or may not feel like we belong based on our actions or the actions of others. For example, do you feel “connected” to others there? Do you feel “accepted”? Do you willingly and freely accept those in the group or do you tend to disconnect? Do you accept others as they are or do you judge or avoid?
I find that those who feel a sense of belonging have good connections with others through family, friendships and other social connections. They also know who to avoid based on the way they are treated. When we consider adults, I think about workplaces and clubs such as cultural or religious based. Friendships and family relationships can be, and need to be, fostered and nurtured.
With respect to older adults (those 65 and older) families are often a main source of love and belonging. If this is not possible, or if a person feels they want more, there are clubs and other groups that can help fulfill these needs. Examples of groups and other social opportunities for older adults include:
- Seniors Centres
- Retirement Communities
- Church/Synagogue or other Spiritual Based Groups
- Cultural Clubs
- Women’s Groups (e.g., Red Hat Ladies, Crown Jewels of Canada Society)
- Men’s Sheds
Feel like you don’t belong?
In some ways, we are all pieces of a puzzle and we all want to “fit in.” If you answer yes to any of the following questions (modified from the Sense of Belonging Instrument SOBI-P), then you may want to explore some ways to seek connection so you feel a better sense of belonging:
- It often feels like there is no place here on earth where I truly fit in.
- I don’t really fit in with my friends.
- I feel like a misfit in most social situations.
- I don’t feel accepted by most people.
- I could disappear for days and my family or friends wouldn’t miss me.
- I tend to observe life rather than participate in it.
- I feel left out of things.
Depression is linked to loneliness and isolation and can be reversed
We also know that loneliness and isolation are linked to depression. Sometimes it’s not clear what came first, the depression or the lack of connection to others. Sometimes depression is triggered by a loss. Some people need to see a health care practitioner or mental health specialist to assess if medication can help.
To end isolation and loneliness brought on by a sense of “not belonging” or feeling left out, it takes some effort and it goes both ways. To improve your sense of belonging, you need to help others feel like they belong to help that connection and acceptance grow. Here are some ways to help nurture a sense of belonging:
- Call a friend or family member to ask HOW they are doing and tell you about WHAT they are doing (don’t just talk about yourself, your own family and your own life, ensure they talk about their life, too)
- Join a social group for fun
- Volunteer for a cause you are interested in
- Find a job you enjoy with a boss and co-workers you can relate to
- Try out a club that is focused on one of your interests and see if you feel like you belong
- Contribute to newsletters and share your expertise with others
- Plan an outing or a visit with someone you care about or would like to get to know better
- Write a letter to someone who you think will write back
- Join a social media site like Facebook and find some groups you are interested in
- Join a support group
- See a counsellor if you are stuck but want to make some positive changes in your life
Our basic human need and motivation for feeling like we belong in this world can be nurtured and supported by our actions. The reverse is also true. Think about WHO you belong to, WHAT you belong to and WHO and WHAT belongs to you. If you want to increase your sense of connection and acceptance it will take some effort. The same as getting food, water, shelter and safety. It doesn’t happen all on its own.
Please provide me with your thoughts on this topic. I’d love to hear from you.
Angela G. Gentile MSW, RSW
- For additional reading, see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Dimensions of Aging and Belonging for the Older Person and the Effects of Ageism by Laurence C. Nolan (2011)
- Wikipedia has an article on Belongingness
- Check out Matthew Lieberman’s TEDx Talk on The social brain and its superpowers: Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D. at TEDxStLouis
Angela G. Gentile MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker and author of the book, “Caring for a Husband with Dementia: The Ultimate Survival Guide”, “A Book About Burnout: One Social Worker’s Tale of Survival” and the “Dementia Caregiver Solutions” app for iPhone and iPad. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and two adult children. She is passionate about all things related to Aging Well. For more information, visit: www.AngelaGGentile.com