The Loneliness of Belonging
I’m awkward. If you know me, you know I’m awkward. If you don’t know me, well, now you know.
I think most people have some awkwardness, but I feel more awkward than most. When I say that, you probably want to respond. Typically, we either want to avoid people who are awkward or we are drawn to alleviate the discomfort in some way.
Some of the kinds of experiences I have had regarding my own awkwardness have been to assure me the other person did not experience me as awkward. This is kind and helps me feel better briefly but not lastingly (honesty about your experience of me is good, by the way, so if you don’t experience me as awkward, you don’t have to tell me I am just to agree with me or hold back what is true for you).
Other experiences have involved telling me how uncomfortable my awkwardness is and admonishing me to do something about it. This is the least helpful (However, specific tips on how to act like a human have had some benefit!). It just amps up the anxiety that fuels the awkwardness in the first place.
I recently received the best response ever, and it took some reflection afterward to fully appreciate how perfect of a response it was.
I was in a conversation with a good friend, and I said something about being super awkward. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Yes, you are.” Just that. No attempts to reassure me, no judgment. It was not an accusation of my shortcomings or sympathy at my plight. A simple confirmation of a factual statement.
It was freeing.
For a moment I froze, fearing indictment but not finding one. Then I relaxed. All the power of the label ‘awkward’ had been stolen away. It simply was what it was, and I was free to be me. No pressure not to be awkward. ‘Awkward’ ceased to be a moral failing, or a social inconvenience, or a condition to be cured or pitied. It took on the significance of having five fingers on my right hand.
I suddenly belonged.
Or rather, I could see more clearly that I had belonged with that friend more deeply than I knew.
Belonging is a tricky business. It’s a strange mix of feeling like I belong, of actually having something meaningfully in common with a person or group, and of the other person or people believing I belong.
As Brené Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness, belonging is not the same thing as fitting in. In fact, it’s not possible to do both at once. Fitting in involves conforming, changing yourself to appear more like what others expect. Belonging requires being authentically you, and accepted for it. If I fight being me, suppress all or parts of who I am, I can’t truly belong.
How could I? If I mask who I am and just reflect what’s expected, no one actually knows me. That’s why engaging in conflict is so important. Not seeking it for its own sake, but being willing to meet people there.
My own instinct is to smooth things over, to make things safer, which means only showing the parts of me I know others will want (or at least won’t reject). But that’s super boring for everyone involved. And it precludes any real knowing or belonging.
There have been a few times when I’ve really realized how lonely I have been. The last year was one of those times for me. And I decided to try to change it.
I have found that most people like me. Whether or not they find me interesting or someone they want to hang out with might be a different issue, but people tend not to mind my company and may even appreciate me being around.
I know that, but I struggle to really believe it. I think largely it’s because people feel seen and known around me. I spend all my energy reflecting people, attuning to them, listening to them. And they feel heard and understood, and they trust me. I’m truly happy I have that affect.
It also has a shadow side.
I’m so busy reflecting others that I don’t reveal myself. More than that, I guard myself, letting only slivers that I know will be seen as acceptable out where people can see them and keeping the rest hidden inside.
This last year, I’ve made more of an effort to do things as simple as let people know I want to spend time with them. Weird as that may sound, that’s a new thing.
I voice to friends that I want to hang out and even initiate scheduling. I’ve chosen to sit next to classmates that I knew but maybe wasn’t confident they wouldn’t prefer to sit with someone else. I’ve even voiced wanting to take other classes at specific times to be able to share more classes.
These things are super scary for me. My body reacts like there’s danger, and my mind starts swirling with ‘what-ifs’ mostly centered on some variation of what if they don’t reciprocate and they reject me (or don’t reject me outright but resent my advances)?
But I’ve been doing it anyway. And it’s been going well. On top of that, I’ve been trying to say what I think about things even if it differs significantly from the assumed accepted position. That also has gone well, though I still have a LONG way to go.
I have to keep going. As many connections as I have, containing most of myself makes it impossible to be known, and not being known is super lonely. I fit in REALLY easily. I’m a master of meeting expectations. It feels way safer to do so, and of course, I can easily frame it as being responsible and considerate. But I might as well be a robot, because if people don’t actually know the me that I know inside, then there is no connection, no belonging.
So, I need to share my awkwardness. Share my differing opinions, differing worldviews, and even be willing to challenge others on their own. It’s a gift to them and to me.
Some people might need to be reminded to be gentle and empathic. I need to be reminded to confront. Some combination is possible, and necessary for real relationship. I know many people who need more of one or the other, or to find a true blending of the two instead of swerving wildly between the two. Which are you? How can you grow to belong more fully? How can you grow that would invite others to belong more fully?
Giving yourself permission to be authentic, honest, and empathic also gives others the same permission while they’re in your presence. It’s a two-way gift. I’m learning to give and receive it. What about you?