Have you ever felt like you belong? Belonging means that you are a part of something. You might be a member of a team, a congregation, a subdivision, or people who can’t get enough of Harry Potter. You and the other members have something in common that brings you together.
I have been in many situations like this. As a young boy, I was in several different classes in school. I played on a number of baseball teams. I was a member of concert and marching bands. I was a member of a fraternity. I was a member of a professional society. I have been in small organizations and large organizations. And the list goes on.
As a member of some groups, I felt like I belonged. But I felt uncomfortable in other groups because I didn’t feel like I belonged. What were the factors that caused this? Were some groups less welcoming than others? Were some groups critical of me? Were the factors caused my the groups? Or was it me that determined my sense of belonging?
Although I was an intelligent child and a good student, I didn’t feel like I belonged in some of my classes. I thought kids didn’t like me because I was too smart, too fat, too shy, too geeky. Although I was a good hitter and a pretty OK pitcher, I felt like I didn’t belong on teams because I was out of shape, I couldn’t run very fast, my fast ball was pretty slow. In some jobs, I didn’t belong because I was apolitical, I didn’t want to become a boss or manager, I was a pushover.
In a Psychology Today article called “Create a Sense of Belonging“, written by Karyn Hall, Ph.D., Dr. Hall discusses ways to build a sense of belonging. The first way is to look for similarities to others rather than differences. By focusing on how you are like others rather than unlike others, you will feel a stronger connection or sense of belonging. Instead of seeing yourself as special or unique, or believing that others see you as different, seek out the ways in which you are alike.
I used to think I was different, special, like nobody else on earth. My experience with NAMI has taught me some important things about my view of myself and others. About 5 years ago, I attended a class to become an In Our Own Voice presenter. In Our Own Voice is a NAMI program where people with a mental illness diagnosis tell their story and focus on their recovery and hopes for the future. When I attended the class, it was the first time since my hospitalizations that I was in the company of many people with a diagnosis. I remember being nervous about who I would meet and if I would fit in, if I would belong. But I discovered that my nervousness was not caused by a feeling that I wouldn’t belong. It was actually caused by a feeling that I shouldn’t belong. I was judging the other people in the class as being different. I was judging myself as being special or superior. After all, I have a college degree, two masters degrees, and have a good job. I must be better, right?
After working with people in the class and listening to their recovery stories, there was a point in the class when I began to cry. One of the trainers asked me if I was OK or if I needed to leave the room. I said I was fine and that I was crying because I had come to the realization that I was the same. I was not special. I was crying because I belonged. I was welcomed with open arms. It was my arms that had to be pried open. I was crying because I was happy to be there. I was learning, changing. I was happy to belong.
As I look back on things, I think that was the point when I really started my recovery.