Three definitions of belonging


The need to belong is a fundamental need of humans. The social psychologist, Abraham Maslow, ranked belonging right after the basic physical needs like air, water, food and safety. In other words, the need to belonging is almost as essential as breathing. We need to belong because our social nature as human beings; to not belong would be like trying to breathe on the moon without a spacesuit. Without air, you die physically; without belonging, you die psychologically (and maybe physically).

Belonging is one of those things that everyone instinctively recognizes and knows its feeling, but we find it hard to define. Who decides who belongs? How do we belong? Why do we feel belonging some places but not others? And why do we want to belong but others may not want us to belong. This is my attempt to explain belonging, what it is and isn’t. 

Three definitions:

Here are three definitions I have found useful. (References can be found on the resources and reviews page.)

Strayhorn (2012), a psychologist writing about college students and belonging, explained belonging as the “degree to which an individual feels respected, valued, accepted, and needed by a defined group”.  This definition assumes belonging is social, i.e. that one is part of a group in some meaningful way.  Another word for this kind of belonging might be “community” and often these words are used interchangeably by researchers.

Another definition I found useful was given in the context of a life change. Hagerty and her medical colleagues looked at elderly patients and how they adjusted after moving to a senior living center. Hagerty (2003) defined belonging as bi-directional. Hagerty wrote that belonging is both a perception that one is valued by others as well as a perception that one fits in with others.

Brene Brown, a psychology researcher, studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, which all connect to the concept of belonging. She defines belonging as “being part of something bigger but also having the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.”

Application of the definitions:

The first definition (Strayhorn’s) is useful because it locates belonging in a group (and a group can be two people). But for me, that definition doesn’t go far enough.

 I like the second definition (Hagerty’s) because it shows that belonging is a two-way street – it’s my fitting in with others as well as getting signals back that I’m doing a good job fitting in and am valued in some way. It’s the “fitting in” that a lot of TCKs struggle with. “Fitting in” doesn’t just mean looking like I belong to a group and dressing, speaking or behaving in a particular way. “Fitting in” has several interacting components, all of which have to work together in order to create this bi-directional belonging. I have to want to fit into a particular group or context and then I have to behave in ways that will indicate this desire. I also have to get cues of approval and indications that my involvement is valued from the group or context where I want to fit in and I have to feel that these cues and indications are important. To illustrate this, consider how you may have felt if there was a clique in a social context (maybe a new work context) and you were excluded. You may have wanted to fit into the clique and were behaving in ways that indicated your desire and good fit for the social group. But as cliques are wont to do, you were not getting cues of approval or demonstrations that your involvement was valued. Undoubtedly, we all have experiences where our attempts to belong go wrong.

               A less commonly discussed problem with fitting in is when the opposite situation occurs. In other words, you get indications of approval and that your involvement in a social group is important but you no longer want to fit into that group and behave in ways that will help you fit.  An example of this may be a job or career you’ve outgrown. It’s been my observation that this is the more challenging place to be, out of the two instances. It is especially difficult when this occurs within a belonging structure that has been a long-term and important part of your existence, such as a long-term relationship or a group of friends that used to be close.

The third definition (Brown’s) brings in the personal element. I think this is also an area that TCKs struggle with – learning to be comfortable with all of our complexity and with that acceptance, learning to belong to ourselves. This third definition also brings in the concept of identity. How can I belong to myself if I don’t know who “myself” is? Many adult TCKs have told me that they find the well-intentioned advice “just be yourself” unfathomable. Which kind of “self” is a TCK supposed to be when one has developed many different facets of oneself, through living in a variety of cultural contexts? Most TCKs feel as though they have a different version of themselves for each of the cultures where they spent a meaningful amount of time (which is defined less as a length of time and more as the quality of the intercultural experience). A useful metaphor here would be a closet full of different kinds of clothes – work clothes, weekend clothes, exercise clothes, wedding clothes, etc. – that we exchange throughout our day as appropriate to the context.

               However, as we grow to be adults, we find it expedient to mute many of those authentic selves in order to fit in more fully to the context where we find ourselves. In other words, there are clothes in our closet that we’d like to wear but never seem to get the chance to wear. When we have worn those clothes in the past, we have felt rejected or have not gotten the response from others that we wanted.  In time, this constant muting and sublimation of authentic parts of ourselves can lead to a pervasive feeling of discontent. As adult TCKs, in order to live fully, we need to learn positive ways of unmuting our many selves, without pushing love and everything else that is valuable out of our lives.  Although belonging is far more important than clothes in a closet, the clothes metaphor is useful here as well.  We need to learn how and where to wear important, familiar clothes that we may have shoved to the back of our closets because they didn’t seem to fit anywhere or we were too busy (too stressed, too sad) to wear them.


               My take aways from the three definitions offered above are that belonging is social (even if you are naturally introverted), there are many ways in which it can go wrong and finally learning to belong within yourself is a hard hill to climb.  While these definitions don’t solve the chronic problems many adult TCKs have with finding belonging, knowing what belonging is and how it works can help us identify areas where we feel belonging and areas where we don’t.  Knowing more about belonging can also offer us a roadmap as we continue to progress through our life’s kaleidoscope of time and change.