I remember very distinct moments in my childhood where I was desperate to fit in. When I was younger, most of it seemed to hinge on having the right things or wearing the right clothes. I wore overalls in elementary school because I liked them, but then I got made fun of and never wore them again. I wanted Ugg boots in the worst way because everyone else was wearing them. But I also just wanted to be part of a group. I wanted to feel like I had people around me, who wanted to hang out with me. I wanted a seat at the lunch table. I wanted friends on the swim team. I wanted people to meet up with in homeroom. I just wanted people to like me.
Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, takes a deep look at this longing to belong and what it really means.
Brené says that true belonging is the desire to be part of something larger than yourself. It’s recognizing that despite our differences, we’re all connected to one another by something bigger. It’s not about the groups we’re part of, the politics we side with, the faith we believe in. It’s about the human spirit and deep down, we’re all connected.
In the book it says, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are. It requires you to be who you are.”
When I read that, something clicked. As much as I had wanted to fit in, I had never wanted to change myself to get there. I hated feeling “fake.” I realize now that all I ever wanted was for people to accept me as I was. And for kids, that’s hard.
As an adult, I now have the opportunity to really reflect on this and understand what this means.
The premise of this book was that true belonging only happens when we are true to ourselves and stand up for it. And that takes courage. It’s hard to “brave the wilderness” of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism. But you realize once you do that true belonging is more than taking sides with a group. It’s belonging to yourself, your values, and your beliefs.
The four tenets that Brené speaks to in the book are:
- People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
- Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
- Hold hands with strangers.
- Strong back, soft front, wild heart.
The first few chapters of this book, I actually didn’t understand what Brené was trying to say. I didn’t get the whole you-belong-to-yourself thing. And then about halfway through the book, it all started to make sense.
We distance ourselves from people because we put them in boxes. We stereotype groups of people. We stick with our group, and even then, we feel lonely because we’ve hinged our identity on the group attributes, rather than actually getting to know anyone. But we feel more connection and more belonging when we take the time to understand other people. Continue the conversation. Listen. Ask them more.
When we boil an argument down to “you’re either with me or you’re against me,” we lose sight of all the other options. We put people in a place to choose unfairly one of two directions and we take away their right to speak to the gray area. We lose our ability to see the gray area and to understand what may not be clear right away. There’s more than just for or against. We don’t have to belong to one group or the other. We can belong to ourselves.
Brené also speaks to the power of showing up for collective moments of joy and pain. There is an inextricable human connection at places like church, funerals, concerts, and world tragedies. People come together in love and mutual emotions. For a moment, we all understand what each of us is going through. We all have these basic human emotions of love, joy, pain, grief. No matter what groups we say we’re part of, we all understand happiness and we all have known death. We need to show up and be together for these experiences. The face to face connection is what’s real. Not sharing a post on Facebook or tweeting out a hashtag. We need to truly experience the emotions to feel the connection to people.
At the end of the book, Brené brings up quotes from one of her studies that she’d also referenced in one of her other books. I love them so much that I think they’re worth repeating.
“Belonging is being somewhere you want to be and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you 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.”
Don’t be like everyone else. Be like you. Brave the wilderness.