I've been spending a lot of time asking this question lately in my class about belonging. And what amazes me is that, nearly without exception, everyone is instantly able to remember (at least) one time that they fit in but did not belong. Many of us vividly remember a time that we fit in or were included:
We were asked to attend a party;
We were invited to a meeting;
We were welcomed to the lunch table in the cafeteria;
We were asked to share our opinion in a brainstorming session at work.
And yet...we did not feel like we belonged:
We didn't know anyone at the party and spent the whole time at the snack table;
There weren't enough seats around the conference room table and we awkwardly sat in a chair along the edges of the room;
People stared at our food because it smelled or looked "different";
Someone interrupted us mid-sharing of opinion because our opinion was not really valued.
Inclusion represents the actions that we - either as individuals or organizations - engage in to include other people. But belonging is something else all together. It's the feeling we have of being valued and respected for who we truly are.
Leave it to the wonderous Brené Brown to perfectly capture what fitting in looks like and, in contrast, the transformative feeling of belonging: "Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them." Belonging is something else entirely—it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all. Many of us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, (Take it from me: I'm an expert fitter-inner!) But we're not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking."
In my Leading a Culture of Belonging class, I ask the participating leaders - many of whom have objectively accomplished many outward indicia of "success" - to reflect in small groups about a time that they fit in or were included but did not belong.
There is a moment of quiet while folks shift into their small breakout groups and then, within about 10 seconds, the entire room (or Zoom breakout room) is alive with animated chatter. Because, almost without exception, it is remarkably easy for folks to immediately remember a time that they were included but did not belong. Many people think back to a distinct moment in their childhood. Or when they recently became a supervisor and found themselves supervising someone who used to be their peer. Or when they were invited to after-hours activities with colleagues but never felt their peers really wanted them there. The examples go on and on and I observe participants sharing their stories of feeling excluded with courageous vulnerability and humility. And I bet that YOU can vividly recall what it felt like during a time when you merely fit in but did not belong. The clamminess of your palms. The beating of your chest. That feeling that you would like to be anywhere but where you are at that moment. And the sad reality is that many of our co-workers feel like this every day. They go to work feeling merely like they fit in, but do not belong. Feeling like they have to hide or squash or cover some integral part of who they are to avoid judgment or some sort of retribution. During the remainder of the Leading a Culture of Belonging class, we explore together how leaders can cultivate a work environment for their teams where team members enjoy a sense of belonging. Where staff feel empowered and encouraged to bring their best, full, authentic selves to work every day. Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to navigate the work day?
Let me tell you about a time that I recently fit in...but did not belong.
Two weekends ago was my 25-year college reunion (how did that happen!?). Despite the hundreds of photos from the late 1990s that likely depict me with an enormous smile plastered across my face, college was four years of me not feeling like I belonged. I certainly fit in, but I never felt like I was quite....me. A significant reason that I lacked a feeling of belonging was the result of an enormous identity shift that occurred just a few months before college started. In high school, I was a cross-country runner (in the fall) and long-distance runner (in the spring). Running was truly my first love - I was one of those people who truly reveled in running for hours - and something that I was incredibly fortunate to have success at. I loved being part of a team and my identity was inexorably interwoven with being a runner. And then, in the spring of my senior year, I developed bursitis of my hips (kind of like tennis elbow) that ended my running career essentially overnight. All of my dreams of running in college on the cross-country team went poof! overnight. My identity as an athlete and being part of a team - part of something bigger than myself - evaporated just months before college.
When I got to college, I absolutely loved my classes. I did make some wonderful friends. But I always felt a bit like I was tying myself up into a pretzel in order to fit in. I remember seeing the women's cross-country team run by during practice and feeling a literal ache in my heart that took my breath away. Every time I'd think, "I was supposed to be part of that." I felt waves of loneliness during those four years that I had never experienced before and have not experienced since. 25 years have passed since then, seemingly in a blink of an eye. For the past year, my inbox and mailbox have been bombarded with reminders of my approaching 25-year college reunion. So why did I go, you ask? I'm rarely one to shy away from a challenge and so I challenged myself to go. I promised myself it wouldn't be as scary as I feared. Then I found out that my three closest friends were not attending. Enormous gulp. Could I still do this? My wonderfully supportive partner Mark encouraged me to go and promised not to leave my side. We drove up to idyllic Vermont two weekends ago and I noticed that none of my classmates were texting me, "Mandy, when are you getting here?" No one was awaiting my arrival. I remember stepping onto the campus and immediately asking Mark if we could turn around and leave. And guess what?
We didn't leave. And I had a wonderful time. I was so delighted to see so many lovely, smart, kind, and interesting people, many of whom I had not seen in 25 years. Many of whom had been great friends but who I lost touch with, which I now regret tremendously (and plan to reverse). I also had a lovely time chatting with folks that I hadn't really known during my four years but who I befriended for the first time. Throughout the day and night, my classmates and I connected over what we had been doing over the past two and a half decades; we laughed over shared memories; we danced till almost midnight to a beloved band. I am so grateful that I went. So what did I learn?
Sometimes the narratives that we've created in our heads are hopelessly inaccurate. Thanks to the mighty negativity bias, I had done a better job clinging to my moments of insecurity and vulnerability than remembering the many good times. Now, I feel empowered to rewrite my mental history of those four years. I even proudly bought a sweatshirt from my alma mater and have been wearing it around the house - a tiny and seemingly insignificant gesture that I would not have done just a few weeks ago.
We can do things that scare us. I can stand in front of a room full of hundreds of strangers to facilitate a training with my heart barely skipping a beat, but I was terrified to step onto this bucolic Vermont campus. But I did it and I rewrote that part of my personal history.
Let me be clear. My less than 24 hours at my college alma mater did not magically create some sort of magical, retroactive sense of belonging for those four years. If adult Mandy could go back in time, I would likely have chosen a different college than the one I attended. One where I anticipate I would have felt a greater sense of belonging for a number of different factors. I'm a very different person today than that 17-year-old young adult who chose her college 26 years ago. But that day powerfully reminded me, personally and professionally, of how critically important it is for every one of us to create spaces, for ourselves and for others, where people experience a sense of belonging. Where our thoughts and perspectives and contributions are valued and embraced. Where we don't show up every day waiting to be interrupted, or credit taken for our ideas, or our contributions merely tolerated. It takes intentionality, hard work, and thoughtfulness. But it absolutely can be done. Let's get to work!