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We all have a need to belong.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belonging is smack in the middle of the pyramid, right there with love. This is not to say the two are synonymous. You can certainly feel loved (by your family, a special someone, or a group) and simultaneously feel like you don’t quite fit. Yet feeling loved and feeling like you belong are key components to home, to feeling at home.

Brené Brown has spent her career researching belonging and vulnerability. In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging, she discusses these topics in depth and reveals one personal experience that she feels is the origin of her life-long sense of not belonging anywhere, to any particular group. In this memory, she was only thirteen years old and failed to get picked as a Bearkadette (a kind of cheerleader) at her new school. Now, Brené had wanted this dearly, if not desperately, and the whole family was waiting for the news. When she didn’t make the team, her parents said nothing, nothing at all. She deduced, “They were ashamed of me and for me. My dad had been captain of the football team. My mom had been head of her drill team. I was nothing. My parents, especially my father, valued being cool and fitting in above all else. I was not cool. I didn’t fit in. And now, for the first time, I didn’t belong to my family either.”

It’s worth noting that at the time of this incident, Brené’s parents were fighting terribly, trying to save their marriage. Their own sense of security was in jeopardy. When a parent is hurting emotionally, it can be extremely challenging to respond to their child’s needs. Her parents were doing their best. At that moment, however, they were unable to respond compassionately to their child’s disappointment and this severely impacted her.

As a result, she never again tried out for anything. Instead, she “got really good at fitting in by doing whatever it took to feel like I was wanted and a part of something.” She also began acting out in ways that were harmful to herself. As a young child dealing with uncertainty and with parents who were unable to attend to her emotional needs at that time, she did what she could —all that she could—to manage some control over her situation.

Maslow notes that safety is the most basic need for children, far stronger than the need for independence and growth. A healthy child in pre-teen and teen years is learning to differentiate themselves from others and trying new things. But if a child doesn’t feel safe, their emotional growth will suffer. They will try to make themselves safe and, in doing so, their world will shrink instead of expand.

Brené’s story is a common example of a child surrendering their childhood in an effort to attend to the needs that the parents are unable to meet. Maslow writes, “The primal choice, the fork in the road, then, is between others’ and one’s own self. If the only way to maintain the self is to lose others, then the ordinary child will give up the self. . . If adults force this choice [upon the child, either directly or indirectly] … the child must choose safety even at the cost of giving up self and growth.”[i]

Brené discovered her way of fabricating safety in the midst of domestic chaos was to rely on research and data. As the oldest of four siblings, she was the one the others turned to when their parents were fighting. She would use her “newly formed fitting-in superpowers to identify what had led to the fighting, so [she] could concoct elaborate interventions to ‘make things better.”

Without a parent or another adult to soothe her fears and allow her to express the reasonable reaction of vulnerability, she steeled herself with new skills in an attempt to control her environment. By recognizing patterns of behavior in others, she learned to become a chameleon, which avoided any conflict. The result, as Maslow would have foretold, is that she surrendered herself for the sake of safety. She became lost—a stranger to herself. This led to years of destructive behavior until she met the man who would later become her husband. His acceptance of her, in all her human messiness, provided her emotional safety and shelter. His unselfish love—an unconditional love—assisted in developing her sense of worth and claiming her own voice and vulnerability, which has fueled her professional research and been shared with millions of people who can readily relate.

While this was not the ideal experience, by any means, her parents had always attended to her primary needs of shelter, safety, love and esteem. Only in the midst of marital strife that was occurring simultaneously with their daughter’s awkward time of adolescence — amplified by moving to a new school again — did they fall short enough to impact Brené’s trajectory into adulthood. Yet, she still played an important role in the family structure (being the one her siblings turned to), and, from years of experience before this incident, she also knew that her parents loved her. So while it wasn’t the kind of belonging that she hoped for – a need for belonging certainly amplified by her age of wanting to fit in at a new school – there was still a strong sense of worth and value that she added to her family unit.

Many of us can relate to Brené’s experience. Our parents are never perfect. They are regular people dealing with adult problems. As we were growing up, it’s pretty much inevitable that there would be a time when we felt our parents didn’t respond to us the way we would have liked. The bigger factor is whether this was the norm or an exception. Did our parents consistently provide for all or most of our needs?

When we are young, it is the responsibility of our parents to provide us with home – and that means the first four levels listed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and shelter, safety, love, a sense of belonging, and self-worth.

When one primary need is not met, we are often handicapped in having other subsequent needs met.

Children who are homeless or who experience food and/or housing insecurity, are unable to feel completely safe. Children who do have a home and enough food to eat but fear their own safety due to violence or abuse inside the home often struggle with feeling loved and valuing their worth.

However, research shows that our needs may not require fulfillment in the order Maslow describes. It’s possible for a child to feel loved, or to feel safe within the protection of parental love, even when physiological needs (such as housing and food) are not consistently met. Yet housing, food, and safety are the first things, the most basic things, we expect from home.

And – we also expect home to be the place where we experience love and belonging. Ideally, we receive this from our parents. But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our parents are not equipped to provide us with the love we need – the love that leads to a sense of belonging – because they, themselves, are hurting and lacking. This is often how we find home elsewhere: in AA, in church, or in any other community that shares our interests. The TV series, Pose, (three seasons on FX and Netflix), is a great example of finding and creating home outside of our family of origin.

We all need a home that is safe, a place where we are loved, a place where we belong. This home contains our family, whether biological or chosen. Here, with them, we are not alone. We may argue, disagree, and fight, yet we are cared for, we are protected, we feel loved. How often I’ve heard someone say their family is crazy and then added, “but they’re my kind of crazy.” Or even simply, “but they’re my family.”

Home is not always a physical place but a place of the heart. Home is where we belong.

Where is your home of the heart? Where do you belong? Is it with your family of origin? In a community? With people you have chosen? And even within that family or community, have there been times when you felt like the others didn’t get you, where you didn’t fit in?

My friend, Ruth Frost, refers to families we choose as “families of the heart.” You can find her new book, Home with Heart: Turning Living Spaces into Loving Places at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.

[i] Maslow, Abraham H. Towards a Psychology of Being, Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 1999., p 61.

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