We spend a lot of time in our lives feeling confronted and conflicted about our differences. In our youth we are hesitant to accept our differences for fear of being left out. As we get older, we embrace being different, long for it even, label ourselves unique, and hope that we will be accepted not in spite of it, but because of those differences. How many times throughout our lives whether in personal, social or professional settings have we feared isolation as the outcome of being different? Because we need more than just to fit in; we need to fit in as is. To be accepted. And what’s really at the core of this ongoing personal pursuit? To feel like we belong.
What is belonging? World renowned professor and author Brené Brown defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
We accept our differences as a consequence by default before we ever embrace it as a badge of honour. And so we sometimes feel the need to change who we are or where we are in hopes of fitting in, being liked, feeling wanted and feeling worthy. In every aspect of our lives at one time or another we have sought belonging. To connect and be connected. And sometimes it’s a long stretched out journey. And sometimes it’s a daily struggle. And sometimes we rely so heavily on the need to belong to make us feel like we have purpose. Because we want so badly to know we matter and for others to know we exist so we ourselves can really believe it too. And being equipped with the mindfulness and confidence to recognize we need to know it and believe it above all else takes immense self-awareness, a mastery in itself that requires a lot of patience, practice and understanding. In our thoughts, in our actions, in our paths, we are always searching.
So where do we need to start? With self-belonging. Combined with self-acceptance, self-love and self-care. Brown believes that “true belonging is 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.”
What we exude is what we attract. And if we don’t feel true to ourselves and accept ourselves then we lose our courage and who we worked so hard to build ourselves up to be only to be rearranged into who others want us to be, risk not being aligned with our values, and ultimately undermining our own worth. Without a strong sense of self belonging as our foundation, building a false sense of belonging will surely crumble.
Are higher education institutions and leaders also looking for a sense of belonging? Absolutely. And what about students? Undeniably. Whether entering higher education freshly out of high school or as an adult learner for the first, second or third time, the culture shock of entering higher education has students craving belonging and acceptance from the minute they enter their new academic world. When primary students enter new grades, the newness is frightening and the first thing they search for is comfort. Through recognized friends. Through impressing new friends. Through being part of an inner circle. And entering higher education thrusts you back on the outside, making the search to belong cyclical. The spaces we occupy act as a comforting embrace, as does our surroundings and the people we choose to let into our sacred personal spaces, and the leaders we choose to guide us along the way. All so critical to this fundamental desire to belong.
The feeling of belonging pre pandemic was already difficult. People are naturally divided through differences. And sometimes people accept differences. And sometimes people are turned off by it. But think about the impact the pandemic has had. When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, it forced people into physical isolation and even further from the place of belonging we are yearning for. It became harder to develop a connection with people and with places. With educators and peers. With leaders and teams. With friends and families. With future friends and mentors. The pandemic has made us realize how important the human connection is. Introverted or extroverted, we all want to be seen and heard however we choose to communicate. We want to be accepted and show others we accept them. To develop a safe and healthy space of belonging.
So how can we construct new and exciting ways of belonging? That don’t only rest on the people but the place itself? By creating less feelings of isolation and more inclusion through shared spaces and experiences. Recognizing and celebrating our differences in a safe and accepting space creates new and memorable experiences and helps lessen any feelings of seclusion. The spaces we create, in higher education in particular, are so important to creating a sense of belonging because it allows students to feel their best and perform their best, giving them confidence and reassurance to do well in their studies and this positive experience resonates well into their careers. And this goes for the leaders within academic institutions as well. They are critical in creating a space for belonging and through these shared spaces have the opportunity to exercise their social and emotional leadership with empathy and understanding towards the teams they lead, and the students’ lives they impact. Having a safe academic space that includes diversity and inclusion creates a positive reflection of the values and reputation of an institution and the leaders within.
What are some of the ways to create a sense of belonging? Community gardening, fun activities that are safe, new digital platforms to connect people, shared dining and culinary experiences. Anything that brings people together and does not limit the participants but encourages diversity and inclusivity and togetherness.
The pandemic has undoubtedly given rise to feelings of isolation. With mandatory quarantines measures in place, establishing a connection is more important than ever. As we are emerging from our personal spaces, the outer space we occupy is so important in our search for belonging. And as we create welcoming and inclusive spaces, we shouldn’t place a capacity for welcoming others. Whether we are or entering higher learning as a student or leading within a higher education institution. Or into our first job or the next act in our careers. Wanting to belong is deeply rooted in us. Knowing we already belong is a true sign of growth. And having a space to share and grow together makes room for belonging.