I know how it feels not to belong. I know how it feels to belong. And I know what it takes to get there.
I think you’ll agree that most of us are at a point where our professional and personal lives are completely tangled together. Both are infused together into what we call REAL LIFE.
When I say the word, “belonging,” most people don’t think “work.” Yet the reality is that belonging is all-encompassing. Belonging in the workplace and belonging outside of the workplace go hand-in-hand. If you don’t feel like you belong in the workplace, you’ll carry that into your personal life. The reverse is also true. Not feeling like you belong at home can transfer into your professional life.
Belonging is an underrated life goal. It makes businesses profitable, employees work harder, families functional, and individuals purposeful and joyful. Nurturing community and belonging in your life – and in the lives of others – will reap rewards that are well worth the effort.
How Does It Feel To Belong? To Not Belong?
I ask my workshop participants, “how does it feel to belong?” Here’s some of what I hear: It feels… “like I have a seat at the table”. “I can be my authentic self”. “comfortable”. “You don’t need to worry.” “safe”. “empowering”.
I also ask, “how does it feel to not belong?” It feels… “scattered”. “embarrassing”. “awkward”. “less-than”. “Lonely”. “Upsetting.” “Out of place. Like I am not supposed to be there.”
You have probably felt some of those same emotions. Like me, you may know how it feels to both belong and not belong. It took me my entire childhood and a large chunk of my adult life to finally feel like I belonged anywhere.
My Personal Journey Towards Belonging
As a little girl, my controlling and sexually abusive father forced our family to move – a dozen times – from town to town, school to school. Repeatedly ripped from any type of community, I was always the new girl with thrift store clothes, a homemade boy’s haircut, and crooked teeth. I was embarrassed, lonely, sad, and frightened at times. But I had a palpable desire to be liked and so in each new place, I tried to belong: through false personas and actions, pretending to be like “those cool kids” or giving myself to others in a way that created a false, and fleeting, sense of belonging.
But eventually, I realized that I never had and never would belong anywhere. So I just stopped trying. And then a shift happened. Not belonging became powerful for me. I would tell myself, “I don’t need to belong. I don’t need anyone and I certainly don’t want anyone to need me.” Eventually all I needed was my next crystal meth fix.
In my twenties, after overcoming a drug addiction that nearly took my life, I began to build a thriving professional sales career. But I always declined the invitations to join my colleagues after work for drinks, fun, and connection – and ultimately, the invitations stopped coming. I worked all day and all night. I went home and never once tried to belong. My relentless work ethic was like a badge of honor. I was blown away by the accolades I received and the connection I felt the first time my name was on top of the sales chart at work. I began to crave that feeling. Unwillingly, my desire to be liked and to belong crept in again. But I equated ‘belonging’ to sales results. When my name was on top of the sales charts, I belonged. When it wasn’t, I didn’t. My sales results were my belonging veneer.
In my thirties, it seemed everyone around me had what I was missing: Friendship. Community. Belonging. After finally admitted to myself that I wanted to truly belong, I chose to do something about it. I joined a running club, and with the support of five women, forged my first community and sense of deep belonging.
Taking a leap of faith and opening up with these women in a raw and honest way changed my life forever. I carry that choice with me throughout every aspect of my life.
Discovering The Inner Workings of Belonging
Creating and nurturing a sense of belonging isn’t one-sided. It requires action from both parties. When I was learning how to belong, I made a choice to open up. It took initiative on my part to not only join the running club, but even moreso, to talk to these five women. Not about the weather, but about me – my real, true, genuine self. And these women chose to embrace my differences, perspectives, experiences, thoughts, and even disagreements. And together, we belonged.
Photo: Running girls
This sense of belonging – during the grueling 20-week training program – motivated me and amplified my desire to cross the marathon finishing line.
Think about how belonging can amplify performance at work.
Creating an environment of belonging in the workplace requires this same double-sided approach – the intention to belong and the intention to create belonging. It takes leaders to come into the workplace and with great focus, purpose, and intention to say, “I’m going to do my part to create a sense of belonging.”
Consider this: Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) efforts in the workplace can make great progress towards making people feel like they belong. Gartner researchshows a 20% increase in inclusion when initiatives are implemented at the organizational level, which corresponds to greater on-the-job effort, retention, and high employee performance.
You might be asking yourself, “Trish, this all sounds great. But how do we do it?”
There are many resources focused on creating belonging in the workplace. I appreciate the advice from LaTonya Wilkins, CEO of The Change Coaches and bestselling author of Leading Below the Surface (How to Build Real and Psychologically Safe) Relationships with People Who Are Different from You:
“In many organizations, the formula to practice goes like this: We learn something and then we take action. But what is missing is embodiment. It’s not enough to learn objectively about it–we have to understand what it feels like to embody it.”
How much more would your team successfully achieve, and enjoy the process of doing so, if they felt a sense of belonging?
Creating Deeper Relationships In The Workplace
I finally embraced my role in creating belonging. But, I still separated my professional-self from my personal-self and therefore held myself back from a deeper sense of belonging across my full life. Until three years ago, when I chose to bring them together. I told my boss at the time (the CEO) that I wanted to double down on my mission to help young women achieve enduring success. And I wanted him to know why.
I made a choice to tell him my story – to share a greater, more meaningful part of me. Keep in mind that I was on his executive team. I had created an incredible professional brand for myself. But he didn’t know my story. No one in my professional world knew my story. I made a decision that he would be the first person I told. I already felt a sense of belonging on his team. And I believed, sharing more of me, would deepen it and I was right.
I did my part and took the initiative. And then he did his part. He embraced me even more as a part of his team and as part of his life. He appreciated me more than he already had. After that, I felt more connected to him, to my company, and our team. All because I had given him more of who I am. In return, he embraced me fully.
Now It’s Your Turn
Belonging takes action from both parties – those who want to belong and those who can help create that belonging.
I’m not suggesting you have to share your personal story with your boss in order to belong. But I am asking you to consider how sharing more of your authentic self with others (which I totally know takes vulnerability!) can connect you more…..and connection fuels belonging.
In addition, go help someone belong. Be that person that fully embraces those who are reaching out to find belonging in the workplace, in your neighborhood, in your local running club.
Every person, no matter their story, experience or perspective has felt that they didn’t belong at some point. Anchoring on that feeling allows for an awareness of what others are feeling all around you: team members, colleagues, clients, friends. Who in your life, right now, might feel that they don’t belong? Write down a name. Write down an idea to help. Then take action.
“I am so moved by your words. We all know that this year has had its many challenges and have presented both physical and mental tolls on my team and me. I needed to hear your story more than you’ll know. I have a whole new outlook on what success means to me and how doing the little things great can change so much in my life and in the lives of others around me. Thank you for sharing your light with us. ” ~Workshop attendee
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