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What is belonging?

“The spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
Some people get intimidated by the word “spiritual”, which appears at the beginning of this definition. Spirituality is often associated with being religious and is quickly pushed into the “restricted access” box for education. Although an integral part of religion is spirituality, it is possible to be spiritual without being religious. In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brené Brown defines
spirituality Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.
as,
“recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion”.

In other words, spirituality is about being connected to something bigger than us. It’s about being connected with each other and the world. Spirituality involves stepping out of a self-centered world, and into an other-centered world. It emphasizes the idea of common humanity and depends on positive relationships. If you are still uncomfortable using the term “spiritual”, then feel free to leave out this word and modify the definition of belonging to best meet your needs.

Four elements of true belonging emerged from Brené’s research:

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People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In. Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.
Every day the news is flooded with reports of terrorism, racism, injustice, politics, and fear. People call each other names, purposefully sabotage each other, and show disrespect. On social media, we are competing with each other for attention and see “opinions disembodied from accountability, truth, and, worst of all, identity”. When you take a wide angle shot of our world, it’s easy to hate from afar. True belonging is a call to action. It’s a challenge to move in and get to know the groups of people you’re supposed to hate. When you move in, you become aware of the details that shape reality. You recognize the pain, struggle, trauma, fear and insecurity that undermines many hateful actions. Ultimately, moving in allows you to transform your anger into compassion (rather than hate), and see yourself in others.
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Speak Truth to Lies. Be Civil. Brown, B. (2017). Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.

Spath, T., & Dahnke, C. (n.d.). What is Civility? The Institute for Civility in Government.
One of the biggest drivers behind how divided the world has become is the notion that “you’re either with us or against us”. But this statement is a false dichotomy: It forces people to take sides and fails to recognize alternatives. By choosing sides, you choose divisiveness, disconnection, competition, and narrow-mindedness. True belonging forces you to “refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate”. To truly belong, you must consider all alternatives, welcome all perspectives, and hear all opinions. Importantly, when you speak the truth and shed light on lies, you must do so with civility. What does that mean? Tomas Spatha and Cassandra Dahnke, founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, suggest that “civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process… [Civility] is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same… [Civility] is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored”.
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Hold Hands with Strangers. Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.
In her definition of true belonging, Brené talks about “inextricable human connection”. This connection cannot be broken, but your belief in the connection is constantly being tested (and even severed). By showing up for collective moments of joy and pain, you bear witness to inextricable human connection and are able to mend and maintain your belief in this connection. In “Braving the Wilderness”, Brené considers what it’s like to be at a concert, singing the same song as 2,000 strangers and swaying in harmony, or the feeling of connection that emerged when everyone pulled over on the road to listen to the radio announcement of the Challenger disaster before continuing to drive with their lights on. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a sense of collective suffering that has helped us open our eyes to the injustices of poverty, racism, and homelessness, as well as the inequality underpinning health care, infrastructure, finances, and employment. It has helped many people stand together and hold hands with strangers.
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Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart. Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.
To make true belonging a daily practice, you need a strong back, soft front and wild heart. Having a strong back involves putting BRAVING (i.e. the anatomy of trust) into practice. You must set boundaries, be reliable and accountable, keep a vault, show integrity, be nonjudgmental of yourself and others, and be generous in your assumptions of others. Having a soft front is all about practicing vulnerability. Your ability to have a soft and open front depends on your willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome. Alternatively, when safety is the primary barrier to vulnerability, the ability to keep a soft and open front depends on your willingness to create courageous spaces so that you can be fully seen. Finally, “the mark of a wild heart is about living out the paradox of love in our lives. It’s the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid – all in the same moment. It’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, being both fierce and kind.”

What is the difference between fitting in and belonging?

Contrary to what you might think, fitting in is one of the biggest barriers to belonging. Recall that true belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
Fitting in Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.
“is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted”. Fitting in forces you to change who you are. Here’s what a
group of eighth graders Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.
said when Brené asked them to come up with the differences between fitting in and belonging:
Belonging is about being somewhere you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
I get to be like me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.

What is loneliness? What’s the relationship between loneliness and belonging?

Loneliness is a subjective experience: It is not necessarily about being alone, it’s about feeling alone. Loneliness arises when there is a gap between how much connection you want/need and how much connection you have. It’s possible to feel lonely in the presence of hundreds of people if you don't feel connected. Similarly, you can be on your own (social isolation) but not feel lonely when you feel inextricably connected to others and the world. There are a number of different
operational definitions, Bekhet, A., Zauszniewski, J., & Nakhla, W. (2008). Loneliness: A Concept Analysis. Nursing Forum, 43(4), 207–213.
which identify loneliness as being an unpleasant experience, a feeling of “emptiness”, a “lostness” within the dimensional domain of meaning, or an unfulfilled need for social connection.

The opposite of loneliness if belonging. Similar to loneliness, belonging is a subjective state: It has nothing to do with how many people you know or how many places you are associated with. Instead, belonging is about feeling taken-in and accepted as part of a group. Your sense of belonging and/or loneliness can be affected by your mood, your health, or your self-perceptions.
For example, Hill, R. D. (2008). Seven strategies for positive aging. WW Norton & Company.
“people who suffer from a depressed mood may feel like they don’t belong, even if they are surrounded by supportive family or loved ones”.

How do loneliness and belonging impact wellbeing?

Think about the last time you felt truly alone. What feelings come up for you? Loneliness is a very unnerving, uncomfortable, and emotionally painful experience.
Brain imaging studies Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., & Williams, K. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.
have shown that feeling lonely activates brain regions similar to those activated by physical pain. Interestingly, social pain even has the potential to be more distressing than physical pain because you recall the details of social pain better, which makes it easier to relive the painful experience. The effects of loneliness and belonging on physical health are also clearly documented: A
meta-analysis of 148 studies Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Layton, J., & Brayne, C. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
(308,849 participants) found that the influence of a lack of social relationships on the risk of death is similar to that of well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and greater than other risk factors like a lack of physical inactivity and obesity.
This same review Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Layton, J., & Brayne, C. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival. Relationships have been identified as the most important pillar for human flourishing and is closely related to the pillar of meaning. In fact, a
longitudinal study Lambert, N., Stillman, T., Hicks, J., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R., & Fincham, F. (2013). To Belong Is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(11), 1418–1427.
found that an individuals’ momentary sense of belonging predicted their perceived meaningfulness of life up to 3 weeks later. Not only this, but a sense of belonging is also known to reduce heart rate, decrease negative mood, and increase social self-esteem. One of the ways scientists have enhanced student’s sense of belonging is by encouraging inclusivity. Simply
enhancing inclusive behaviours, Begen, F., & Turner-Cobb, J. (2015). Benefits of belonging: Experimental manipulation of social inclusion to enhance psychological and physiological health parameters. Psychology & Health, 30(5), 568–582.
can cultivate belonging and result in both adaptive psychological and physiological outcomes.

In the field of education, students who feel that they belong at school (i.e. are part of a school community) are
“more likely to perform better academically and are more motivated to learn”. OECD (2017), “Students' sense of belonging at school and their relations with teachers”, in PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris.
A
2019 study University of Missouri-Columbia. (2019, July 30). Students with a greater sense of school-belonging are less likely to become bullies. ScienceDaily.
also found that students who feel a greater sense of belonging with their peers and school community are less likely to become bullies. These benefits of belonging within a school community challenge teachers and school leaders to find ways to create supportive and accepting environments for students. Cultivating and nurturing a school community may involve offering different student clubs, building personal relationships with students, encouraging diversity, or providing support services.

Where can I learn more?

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

Psychopaedia – Mental health benefits when kids feel they belong at school

PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-being, Chapter 7: Students’ Sense of Belonging at School and their Relations with Teachers

Turnitin – 7 Ways to Give Your Students a Sense of Belonging

Edutopia – Every Student Matters: Cultivating Belonging in the Classroom

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Understand that loneliness and belonging are subjective experiences that can be influenced by their mood, health, and self-perceptions
  • Clearly explain the difference between fitting in and belonging
  • Create a daily practice around the four elements of true belonging
  • Identify behaviours, actions and words that cultivate a sense of belonging and community at school
References
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Begen, F., & Turner-Cobb, J. (2015). Benefits of belonging: Experimental manipulation of social inclusion to enhance psychological and physiological health parameters. Psychology & Health, 30(5), 568–582.

Bekhet, A., Zauszniewski, J., & Nakhla, W. (2008). Loneliness: A Concept Analysis. Nursing Forum, 43(4), 207–213.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be andEmbrace Who to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live,Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.

Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., & Williams, K. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

Fiona M. Begen & Julie M. Turner-Cobb (2015) Benefits of belonging: Experimental manipulation of social inclusion to enhance psychological and physiological health parameters, Psychology & Health, 30(5), 568-582, DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2014.991734

Hill, R. D. (2008). Seven strategies for positive aging. WW Norton & Company.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Layton, J., & Brayne, C. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316.

Lambert, N., Stillman, T., Hicks, J., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R., & Fincham, F. (2013). To Belong Is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(11), 1418–1427.

OECD (2017), “Students' sense of belonging at school and their relations with teachers”, in PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Free Press.

Spath, T., & Dahnke, C. (n.d.). What is Civility? The Institute for Civility in Government.

University of Missouri-Columbia. (2019, July 30). Students with a greater sense of school-belonging are less likely to become bullies. ScienceDaily.

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