The year I turned 31, I had my first family misfit moment. I’d grown up 1,000 miles away from my dad, but he was always seated atop my mental pedestal. I would replay his voice saying, “Hi, gal,” when I was mad at my stepfather and dreaming of living with Mike Bridges, motorcycle dad. I moved in with him when I was fourteen and out when I was fifteen. Sixteen years later, I moved back to Tulsa, and we spent Christmas together—Dad, his wife, two stepkids, two real kids, myself and my husband. I didn’t know any of their jokes. Everyone else had watched Dad’s favorite movies 10 times. Someone would say a line, someone else would follow it, and I would laugh with them, clueless. I didn’t share any of their experiences. All night, they told stories of go-carts and boats I’d never ridden. My sister’s boyfriend had spent more years in the family than I had. He told me a story I totally believed, and then everyone laughed, because he was just messing with me. He’s a nice guy, and it’s sweet that he was comfortable enough to treat me like a sister, but…I’d never felt like such an outsider.
In the years since, we’ve made our own memories. We’ve laughed together—mostly at funerals, but being the weird family brings you closer. They’re a pretty cool bunch, and I love them.
Abraham Maslow defined five levels of basic human needs. In order of priority, they are 1) Physiological Needs, 2) Safety, 3) Belonging, 4) Self-esteem, and 5) Self-actualization. In theory, we’re supposed to focus on getting food and being safe before we focus on belonging. In reality, our priorities often become imbalanced while we’re growing up or seeking romance. We might starve ourselves to attract love or live dangerously to gain friends. Even if we’re well-fed and safe, a strong sense of belonging can have us camping out on level 3, never to venture further.
When we BELONG, life feels perfect. When we don’t, it can affect us for years.
This week, I listened as two girls relayed stories of times they felt they didn’t belong. These girls were in college sharing events from when they were 7 and 13. The shock of alienation tints their cultural lenses still today. Children are brutal and take 20+ years to learn social grace. Nonetheless, these girls have classified a whole segment of society based on the actions of their childhood classmates and cousins. Remember the Availability Heuristic? When our brains lock in a highly emotional memory, our primitive mental filing system saves it as a cookie. All we need is a key word typed on our inner search bar—“Christian,” “Father,” “Cheerleader,” “Latino”—and BING! Primitive mind predicts a repeat.
The irony is that sharing painful stories brings people together. If I tell a story involving a cultural group, and someone else has a tale involving the same group, and someone else has read an article or merely heard a rumor involving that group, we can end up creating our own circle of belonging. As we bond, we reinforce one another’s bias. History should have taught us better, but we assume we’re smart and wind up bigoted.
Nobody wants that. How do we avoid it?
- Recognize diversity. I don’t mean accepting that people fit into different categories. I mean admitting that each individual person is different than everyone else. AND the girl who makes you feel bad today will change over the next 10 years. What powerful memories might be tinting your lenses?
- Discover others. Treat each person as a story you have yet to read. People love to share when someone is interested, so be curious. When you feel that someone is rejecting you, observe his or her body language for signs of insecurity. It might not be about you.
- Clarify intention. When someone does or says something that makes you feel awkward, try to address it with that person. “What did you mean by that?” “I might have misunderstood you there. Can you explain?” It makes us feel safer when we put people in boxes, but we can be wrong. People respect a direct communicator.
- Share something. Appreciate yourself enough that you can tell a story or state your preference confidently. Even if you never fit in, you will always have YOU. Often, we earn rejection by refusing to interact. Opening up can be hard. It stings when people don’t get your sense of humor or share the same interests. But give them a chance to experience your awesomosity.
I survived the awkward family holiday. I didn’t hide in the car, hate my sister’s boyfriend or mourn the years I couldn’t recreate. I wanted to connect with the Bridges bunch. That’s why we moved to Tulsa. So, when they told me it was a joke, I laughed at my own gullibility. I chose to assume they were treating me like family. When the new year began, I listened to family stories and kept notes, eventually turning them into a book.
I want to hear from you. My husband has informed me that no one enjoys 10-question surveys, so I’ve made it easier. Click here to take a 2-question, 3-word survey on belonging. Share it with your family and friends. I’ll post the results in a couple of weeks.
I’d love to discover you, even if we’ve known one another for years. After you’ve taken the survey, post your thoughts or story on belonging in the comment box below.