For some people, sometimes, the world can feel very lonely. Loneliness is created by much more than merely being alone. It is also a sense of not belonging, not feeling truly known by others, accepted, or unconditionally loved. This can happen as a result of struggling with a mental health condition, or when facing the stigma of battling an addiction. It can happen when we are going through a particularly challenging transition in our lives. It can happen when we don’t feel understood by the people around us, or don’t feel accepted for who we are.
We have talked about loneliness a lot over the past few years, especially as we better understand this loneliness epidemic that is driving poor health outcomes, early death, and increasing mental health conditions.
Almost everyone can relate to the feeling of not “fitting in” with a given circumstance, or the feelings of self-doubt or judgment that creep in from time to time.
When these are not isolated instances, when we can’t shake this feeling, and particularly for those who have had prolonged experiences of discrimination, bullying, or trauma, the feeling of not belonging can consume us and make it difficult to feel good enough as we are. The absence of belonging can also lead to other behaviors which, while intended to protect us by avoiding what is uncomfortable, can sometimes perpetuate the issue. A teenager might start to avoid social interactions due to the fear of not being accepted, leading to further social isolation and a deeper sense of loneliness. People often use alcohol or drugs to combat these feelings, which can lead to behaviors that push away our loved ones.
The thing that is the most valuable to us as humans, the desire to belong, is the one thing that also scares us the most. As individuals, we have choices about how we respond to our life experiences. Do we choose to avoid what might be painful? Do we keep engaging and reaching out for connection, despite the possibility of being hurt? But, equally important to how we manage this for ourselves is how we reach out to others who may be struggling.
Cultivating a sense of belonging through our relationships, through our community, is a powerful experience that drives our resiliency in the face of challenging times, provides a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, creates more opportunities to experience joy, and even improves overall physical health and longevity.
If we can do one thing for those around us, it is seeking to truly know the other person, without judgment, and reflect genuine appreciation for the unique human in front of you. The world may be filled with numerous examples of unwarranted judgment, unrealistic expectations, prejudice, and hatred, and some of the people we serve experience this reality every day. Be the person today that creates belonging for someone else. When you notice a co-worker bringing a unique strength to their work, tell them that you appreciate the impact they are having. Encourage your children to try new things, make mistakes, express who they are to others, and when they feel rejection, be there for them, validate their unique strengths, and let them know that they belong. Listen with interest when you meet someone new. Go out of your way to connect with the person in the back of the room.
Be curious, be open, be kind. You may not always get to see the powerful impact that your actions have in the lives of another, but sometimes, whether we know it or not, it can make all the difference.