“No man is an island”.

This proverb was first coined in the 17th Century by the poet John Donne (who, incidentally, also created the phrase “ask not for whom the bell tolls” in the same 80-word poem). It has stood the test of time for one, simple reason.

It’s true.

Belonging – our sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves is vital for our wellbeing.

Not convinced?

Think of a child in the playground watching everyone else play football from the sidelines.

The loneliness they feel hurts.

The same applies to us as adults at work, at home, and in the wider community. The emotional pain that we feel when we’re excluded sits in the same place in our brain as the physical pain of being hurt.

Ultimately, a sense of belonging makes us feel safe. When we feel safe, we’re able to perform at our best.

Of course, the reverse is true as well. When we don’t feel like we belong, we’re on edge, and it doesn’t take much to trigger us.

The bottom line is, almost every relationship problem (at home, work, or elsewhere) can be examined and resolved through the lens of belonging.

Here’s why:

Belonging overview

Despite our status as the world’s apex predators, human beings have a herd (or community) mentality.

These community bonds contribute to our sense of identity. And, crucially, they ensure that we feel included; that we matter.

However, a feeling of belonging isn’t something we can rely on others to create for us. Not only do we have to be proactive in dropping our shield and armour to allow others in, but we must also get curious about the people around us. This is because all relationships (professional and personal) are a two-way street. If we remain closed off and on guard, it’s only natural that people will respond in kind.

Once we have our sense of belonging, whether that’s with our team at work, a social club, family, or friendship group, we have found our “safe place”.

This “safe place” is vital because the stresses and strains of the day all stimulate our sympathetic nervous system – the so-called fight, flight, or freeze responses. Each of these puts tremendous strain on our body. Now, these stresses are a normal part of everyday life, and they’re usually no big deal. This is because when we retreat to that safe place where we know we belong, our parasympathetic nervous system (rest, digest, relax) takes over.

Problems arise when we don’t have that place. Just like strained muscles need time, space, and rest to heal, so too does a strained nervous system – lest we begin to suffer from chronic stress. If we don’t feel as though we belong anywhere, we get stuck “on” and the body doesn’t know how to handle that. Everything becomes a threat, and our minds focus on what we need to do to resolve that threat. And it’s this that disconnects us from our internal sense of, “I’m OK”.

Belonging at home

It goes without saying that belonging in the family setting is critical for mental wellbeing.

This all starts in childhood.

Once a child’s basic physical needs for food and shelter are met, their two fundamental emotional needs are to feel a sense of belonging and significance.

Belonging in the family context means to feel connected to the people who matter the most – parents and siblings.  Much of the emotional connection your child needs comes from the positive attention that they get from you.

The “Attention Bucket” illustrates this perfectly.

When you proactively fill the attention bucket with positive attention, you meet your child’s need for emotional connection and reinforce the sense of belonging within the family constellation.

To feel a sense of significance, the child needs to perceive themselves as capable. They need to make a meaningful contribution to the family and be able to exercise an age-appropriate need for autonomy and power positively.

Human beings are born with free will and are hard-wired to be independent. Consequently, we need to have some sense of control over our world. When we don’t feel this way, we act out. For instance, an infant will fight back if they feel restrained, a toddler will stamp their foot and say “I do”, and an irritated teenager will roll their eyes. 

Our job is to give our kids the positive power they crave while keeping the negative behaviours at bay. When we create this environment, we set the scene for them to grow into happy, healthy, thriving adults.

Belonging at work

For the avoidance of doubt, belonging is not about “fitting in” or “performing”.

Why?

If we try too hard to conform and please everyone, it’s impossible to show our real selves. If we’re not being authentic, we’re conforming; not belonging. Sure, we might feel a little better superficially, but the powerful parasympathetic healing process only works when we know deep down that we truly belong.

But how do we know if we’re conforming to workplace expectations or belonging?

Ask yourself this:

Do you feel like you’re acting in a way that feels unnatural?

If you do, chances are you’re trying to conform.

If you feel like you’re trying to conform, it’s worth getting curious and trying to figure out why this is the case.

If you’re not in a management role, your line manager should probably be your first port of call. Speak to them about your concerns – after all, it’s in their interest to put you at ease and offer you advice on how to bring your best self.

If you’re managing a team or managing managers, you’re perfectly positioned to influence the culture in your team. Get your people involved because if you’re feeling like a conformist, they’ll likely feel the same way. Gather the information you need to build a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels valued and respected for who they are.

Foster a sense of belonging and significance, at home and at work

Look hard enough, and you’ll see the ins and outs of almost every relational hiccup stem from an absence of belonging.

If we don’t feel like we belong, we don’t feel safe to exercise the positive power that lies deep within every one of us. And if we can’t do that, it’s nigh-on impossible to stay calm and resourceful.

So, lower your guard and get curious. If you feel like you’re conforming rather than belonging – reach out to someone who has the power to make a difference (or lead the change yourself if that person is you). Because, if you’re feeling it, the chances are everyone else is too!

A psychologically safe workplace where everyone feels seen, heard, and appreciated is the key to a productive, positive environment.

Regular check-ins, led by managers create that sense of belonging we all crave at work.

The best place for this?

Your performance management process.

Learn how I can help you craft a performance management process that makes your people the priority here.