I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and it’s led me to a revelation. I love Brown’s work as a researcher, how she explicates our inner emotional landscapes and describes how our inner needs drive us. I don’t always agree 100% with her definitions, but she always gives me something to think about.
Anyway, Atlas of the Heart is an attempt to map and define the emotions that drive nearly all our actions and relationships. And in the chapter I listened to today, she talks about the concept of belonging.
Belonging, to paraphrase, is the act of being known and accepted by your community and being given a place within it. This is not Brown’s definition exactly, but it’s the main idea. It is a basic need, right above food and shelter on Maslow’s hierarchy. People will do almost anything to meet this need, and I was no different. I am no different.
Throughout my life, I have wanted, I have needed to belong to the people in my life: my family, the community I grew up in, a romantic partner, to my children, my church, I wanted to belong so, so badly. Maybe it was because I was an only child. I wanted people.
But there was a problem. There was a truth about myself that I wasn’t facing, a truth that if I spoke it aloud, I knew it would destroy all of my relationships, leaving me utterly alone. A truth that would see me rejected by everyone I knew and loved.
So, I forced it down. I tried to pretend it wasn’t true. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I married a woman. I adopted children. I lived the kind of life that I had been raised to live, the kind of life I’d always believed I was supposed to want. And part of me did want it. I wanted to belong, and I was going to belong at any cost.
But I wasn’t really belonging. I was fitting in, and that is not the same thing. Because that truth I wasn’t facing? It was still true, not matter how much I tried to deny that to myself. And it only grew more intense over time. It was an ember sitting in the tinder of my heart, ready to burn the entire place down. And I knew that if I let it, I would be destroyed. I would be utterly alone. So, all along, the sense of belonging I had worked so hard for was false. It was conditional. Three words, spoken out loud, and the life I’d built for myself would vanish.
When you really belong, you have a sense of security about your life. I had no security. I couldn’t really belong to my family, or my kids, or my wife. I wasn’t really letting them know me. None of this was anyone’s fault but my own. I didn’t give them the chance.
And over time, it became too much. My marriage couldn’t bear the weight of my self-deception, and my deception of her. The mask I had so carefully built dropped and shattered. I spoke the three words and braced for everything good in my life to be taken away, which was, after all, only what I deserved.
Only … it didn’t happen. Yes, my marriage ended, but I found myself in a much happier place, able to speak the truth about myself. I was able to share my whole self with my parents, and my kids. What I’d been doing had been deeply unfair to them, assuming a rejection that wasn’t coming. I hadn’t ever given them the chance to accept the real me.
And when I did, when I spoke those three words? My world didn’t fall apart. It came together. The first thing my mother said was she loved me. I spoke the words, and instead of being rejected, I was accepted. Then the same things happened with my kids. They were actually grateful to understand the reason for the distance I’d always kept between us, grateful that I was finally ready to let them fully into my life.
So, these days I live my life with a deep sense of belonging. There are no more truths I’m hiding. I’m no longer living in fear of my secrets being exposed. I fully belong to my family, to my friends, to the community I have made myself a part of.
Now, I’m not certain it would have gone so well if I’d said those words when I was 19 instead of 46. We are living in a different world than the world I grew up in, and my parents are different people than they were then. And also, I regret the years I lost, but I do not regret my marriage, because that was the path that led to my children.
But I am glad that I can say I finally know I belong.
So, if I have any advice, it’s this: give the people you love a chance to know you, the real you. You will never belong if you don’t let yourself be known. Maybe it’s a risk. It felt like a risk to me when I did it. And maybe your people will need more time to catch up than mind did. If they do, give them that time. Don’t live a lie because you’re afraid you have no choice. Allow yourself to be loved, allow yourself to be known.
Allow yourself to belong.