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October 12, 2013     2


Understanding the Distinction between Belonging and Fitting In

Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
-Brene Brown

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Brene Brown lately. If you don’t know her work, you’re missing out. She has a Ph.D. in Social Work and has been studying shame and vulnerability since 2001. Her “claim to fame” came in 2007 when she did a TEDx talk titled, The Power of Vulnerability, which has been viewed by over 11.4 million people worldwide. Recently, Brene appeared on Oprah’s Lifeclass and Super Soul Sunday. In addition, she’s a NY Times best-selling author and has written 3 books. I just finished reading one of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

One of the major themes in Brene’s work revolves around the difference between “Belonging” versus “Fitting In”. Often mistaken as synonyms, these two terms have very different meanings, as well as very different impacts on your life. Let me explain.

In the preface section of her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene provides two lists of attributes (or patterns) shared by the thousands of people she collected stories from as part of her research. The first list, she labeled “Do”, and it characterized people who enjoyed a strong sense of love, community and connection. These people were able to embrace their imperfections and vulnerabilities and share them with others. Their shared attributes included worthiness, faith, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude and creativity. Good stuff, right? When I think of the “Do” category, I envision people who are loving and accepting of themselves and others, grateful for what they have, plugged into their purpose and not afraid to make mistakes.

The second list, she labeled “Don’t”, and it characterized people who denied their imperfections and vulnerabilities and tried to hide them from others for fear of judgment and rejection. Their shared attributes included perfection, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment and scarcity. When I think of the “Don’t” category, I envision people who put up airs to seek approval and acceptance, operate with a lack mentality and judge both themselves and others.

Brene then goes on to define each one of these terms and describes how fitting in gets in the way of belonging:

“Fitting in” is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted.

“Belonging”, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are. Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

Translation: In order for us to truly feel like we belong in this world, we need to love and accept ourselves. Human beings are hard wired for connection. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s in our emotional connections and our relationships that we find belonging, purpose and happiness. But there’s also no escaping the fact that our ability to make those connections is severely hindered if we can’t connect with ourselves, first and foremost.

I spent so many years seeking my “belonging” by trying to “fit in”. I tried to be cool, fiercely independent, and impervious to others opinions and judgments. I failed miserably. And for all of my attempts to “fit in”, I only created more separation and judgment in my life. (If you want to hear a little more about my story, click here.) .

The path to shifting your mindset from one of “fitting in” to one of “belonging” isn’t an easy one, especially if you’ve been conditioned to seek external approval and acceptance by others. With that said, I think it starts with being mindful of your behavior and ensuring your actions are coming from a place of authenticity and self-respect. Ask yourself what the motivations are behind your actions and if they’re aligned with who you really are. Lastly, you need to identify and open up to those trusted individuals you can share your whole self with, imperfections and all. The fact of the matter is, it’s only when we present our true selves to the world that we tap into real “belonging” and the worthiness, creativity and love that accompany it.

Can you identify ways in which you’ve been trying to “fit in” versus “belong” in any area of your life? Have you successfully shifted your life from trying to be perfect and self-sufficient to accepting and sharing your imperfections and vulnerabilities? Have any advice to share with other readers? Join in on the conversation by adding your comments below.



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  • […] good news is we can learn to be aware of the difference between fitting in and belonging, both concepts are often thought as being synonymous but they can be quite different and have […]

  • Clara says:

    This so makes sense to me. Thank you. I find other people very hard work (outside hubby) and always opt for ‘freedom’ over ‘belonging’, assuming that ‘belonging’ inevitably means ‘fitting in’. Having spent 6+ years in a very shame and power based rural community, I am still very doubtful I’ll ever find really nourishing friendships. But I’ll use your helpful article as a stepping stone!

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