Fitting in is asking someone to become more like the majority; belonging is inviting someone to the group just as they are.
Where was this idea when I was working so hard to fit into the many cliques of high school? When I was struggling to be like the other girls on a new soccer team? When I was at my extended family’s house on a holiday explaining that I don’t make a lot of money, but I still do important and valuable work?
Fitting in is a nightmare for the socially anxious or when working on your self-esteem. Fitting in strips the beautiful diversity that minorities bring into our communities.
But belonging, there is magic in belonging. Belonging is what happens when you, as Nirvana would sing, “Come as you are.” Belonging is when you show up in the fullness of who you are. Belonging opens a space where your strengths and weaknesses are recognized, appreciated, and accepted.
I understand myself and where I come from is a part of what makes me the way that I am.
Belonging first requires listening: tuning in to your own thoughts and feelings, and engaging with what you find. It involves reflecting on where you come from and your values. Aligning yourself with people who bring you joy, people who challenge you, and people who comfort you. And that deep listening translates directly to conversation.
How do we listen to those around us? What is important and matters to your loved ones? Both types of listening are inherently under-taught and undervalued but can be learned. So open that flexibility muscle, that growth mindset, and try to learn to listen. Try to ask questions and gauge responses. Be respectful. Apologize as necessary. When you choose to belong or create a space for others to belong to, it is vulnerable, fragile, delicate, and needs to be treated with the utmost dignity. That is why we listen.
I can create safe culturally competent spaces to grow my understanding of myself and others.
When we belong we can create together. In order to create, all people must feel safe. Creating an atmosphere of openness with no judgment is important in this regard. Then we can invest our time and energy into culturally competent spaces and ideas. I can choose to spend my time in places of truth and love, supporting people that both share my common values and challenge me in a safe and respectful way. Cultural competence checks privilege at the door. It acknowledges stereotypes, biases, and prejudices – and chooses to move beyond them to a space of understanding in conversation. How often are children taught social-emotional coping mechanisms for talking to people unlike them? It takes practice. We must create these safe spaces for all to learn and grow.
I choose to love others where they are on their journey and regard them as a friend.
Belonging prospers in spaces where people choose emotional maturity. This looks like acknowledging that your past experience is not the only experience, and that you can learn from others. The bootstraps of many are none of our business, and how someone chooses to support themselves and grow that support is an individual choice. An outlook towards others that asks them to be something outside of themselves becomes destructive; it asks someone to “fit into my idea of who you are.” Instead, a belonging mindset chooses mercy and justice towards others. It can galvanize groups of people to come together to love and serve one another because this is their time of need, and my time might be next. There is no room for guilt or shame when your heart is full of admiration and appreciation for your neighbor.
I know my work is never over because loving your neighbor is a lifelong adventure.
Listen, create, accept, love — live this mentality. Choose to do the hard work so that you can do the good work. Build together to initiate positive social change. Invite those who need a shoulder, a hand, an ear. Call your friend struggling with mental health issues and ask them to belong with you. Initiate a conversation with a store clerk where you deeply listen and reply compassionately. Expand the world you want to live in, and choose to be accountable for how you invite the people around you to belong. Our circle of life and our influence is ever growing – may yours be ever teeming and bubbling over with love for others.