Creating a sense of belonging among employees is a top priority for every successful company. Top companies invest millions of dollars in repairing a broken onboarding process because they realize the importance of creating an experience where new hires feel like they belong. According to an article by Business News Daily, “Poor onboarding is a major cause of employee turnover, which can cost a company 100–300% of the employee’s salary in total.”
Despite the significant financial investments made by companies to create a sense of belonging for employees, belonging is an elusive feeling for many trauma survivors. Many of us don’t feel like we belong anywhere. In this article, we explore what it means to belong, how trauma affects our ability to belong, and what we can do about it.
Belonging: What is it?
For those who don’t know me, I am a big Brene Brown fan. I am especially fond of the way she defines complex terms like belonging. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown says this about belonging, “Belonging is 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.”
Barriers to Belonging: A Trauma Perspective
Dr. Brown mentions several barriers to belonging, which ring true from a trauma perspective. There are four concepts that I want to explore from her definition: 1) fitting in, 2) seeking approval, 3) presenting our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, and 4) self-acceptance.
1. Fitting In
“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 25) For the trauma survivor, the ability to “fit in” is a survival strategy, even if it means we must sacrifice our true selves in a dysfunctional family. Many of us have perfected the ability to fit in so we can survive. This is a highly adaptive coping strategy for children, but it can cause problems for us as adults if we continue to rely on that strategy. The core belief derived from this experience is that who I am is not enough to belong; I have to be something else or different. Remember, changing inaccurate core beliefs is the key to healing.
2. Seeking Approval
Seeking approval is also a survival strategy. This often results from an insecure attachment to one’s caretaker. As infants, we look to our caretakers for a sense of safety and security. If we do not get the safety and security from our caretakers, we will continue looking for it in others.
3. Presenting our Authentic Selves
The third barrier to belonging is our inability to present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Let me start by saying that this is also a challenge for those who have not experienced trauma, but for the trauma survivor, it is doubly challenging.
Many of us who have experienced childhood trauma are not aware of who our authentic self is. After processing many of my childhood trauma memories, I have experienced a bit of an identity crisis because my identity was tied to my trauma. Often trauma survivors allow their trauma to define them. I was prepared for the pain associated with processing my traumatic memories, but I was not ready for the emptiness associated with not knowing who I was outside of my trauma. I felt really lost at first. Taking the time to discover my authentic self has been well worth the investment.
The other reason it is doubly challenging for trauma survivors to present their authentic selves to the world is that it has never been safe to “show up” as our authentic selves. Imagine stepping out of the armor you have worn all your life and walking on stage in front of a large audience with nothing but your birthday suit. That is how it feels. We have no idea whether our authentic selves will be received or rejected.
Finally, we come to the topic of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance and self-compassion are two of the most challenging practices required for healing and growth. For me, self-acceptance contains a spiritual component to it. Practicing and cultivating self-acceptance for me is about taking stock of who I am. Acknowledging that God has designed me just the way I am, and he doesn’t make junk. My God loves wonderful variety. If you don’t believe that, look around at all the different trees and animals. I don’t believe in evolution; I believe in an Intelligent Designer. His acceptance of me led to my own self-acceptance.
Cultivating Belonging as a Trauma Survivor
This will probably not be popular and may be hard to hear, but cultivating belonging is an “inside job.” Dr. Brown has said it so eloquently in her definition above, “our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
The journey towards self-acceptance is a slow, rocky journey. The journey begins when we draw on the courage that helped us survive our trauma to help us look inward at who we are now…warts and all. We are all perfectly imperfect. When we can look inward without judgment, we discover the authentic self that God designed us to be.
If we don’t like what we see inside, we have the freedom to change it. We don’t need to ask anyone for permission. As adults, we choose how we want to show up in the world. We will probably have to do some excavating to dig up the core beliefs that keep us chained to our past trauma. This is the hard work of trauma recovery, but you can do it. You have already done the hard work of surviving your trauma; this is about changing our habitual thinking patterns.
As we gradually and intentionally cultivate our level of self-acceptance, we also cultivate our sense of belonging. As Dr. Brown said, we belong to our Creator and ourselves.
No one can help us feel a sense of belonging except ourselves. It is an inside job. If you don’t feel like you belong anywhere, you are in good company. Stop looking outward for someone else to “fix it,” and start looking inward to assess the changes you want to make. Practice being you, and you can experience true belonging.
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness, p. 40).
Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (p. 25–27). Hazelden Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Believer. Leader. Learner. Advocate. Writer. Speaker. Coach. Mentor. Triathlete. Encourager. Survivor.
Most of all, I am a fellow traveler on the rocky road called, Trauma Recovery. My mission is to minimize the effects of trauma for survivors in the workplace.