A Simple Shift in How We Define Belonging Creates a Massive Shift for Our Mental Wellbeing

How Do We Define Belonging? 

We’d just returned to SeaTac airport from Tampa Florida, where we each led a keynote conversession at Encounter 360. After exchanging heartfelt words of appreciation for each other’s Conversession, we hugged, the kind of hug that shares the gratitude for being so glad to have met the other. And then Andy said this, “I want to thank you… for the first time in my life, I feel I have the power to create my own belonging.” The beautiful thing is, he wasn’t all dramatic. It was that he said it from a contented place in comfortable self-power. I felt awe from, and joy for him.

You’ll never know how deeply you may touch somebody’s life. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to get to, like when walking out the airport doors.

The first thing that flashed through my head was, I’m so glad you got there! You see, in my perfect world, everybody would believe in their ability to belong, in self, and with others. A few moments later, I realized my Encounter 360 Conversession on reimagining belonging gave my audience a space of agency for themselves, in self-belonging. It worked! Phew! It gave them a way past the popular or conventional view of belonging that, unfortunately, limits one’s own agency to belong.

Our mental wellbeing in the workplace seems to be in a pretty rough place, and I think it’s because of messed up belonging. Burnout, anxiety, and depression appear to be at record levels, according to Forbes. A McKinsey study found that 51% don’t feel they belong. And what’s rather interesting, is a Deloitte study has belonging being reported as one of the most important human capital issues. So, there’s easily enough awareness. But not much change. Could it be our functional definition of belonging is the problem?

Maybe it’s because we’ve made belonging a transactional receive-mode thing, instead of relational. And not only that, the framing of the way that we think of it is this, if I don’t get these four things, I don’t belong.

The Problem: Our Popular Definition of Belonging

Before moving on to how we might redefine belonging, let me introduce you to a neuroscientist, Kelly McGonigal, and her findings on when stress negatively impacts our well-being. You could be surprised.

Kelly McGonigal studied how the way we perceive stress can make it harmful, or, helpful to us. Harmful, if we believe there’s nothing we can do about it, but helpful if we believe we can.

And there’s another interesting aspect that she uncovered that relates to oxytocin. She found that when you're connected in a caring way (belonging) and you perceive the stress as a healthy challenge, you actually get a positive bump in your oxytocin levels. And, the stress that would’ve killed you, when combined with the oxytocin actually makes you stronger.

And, on a wellness aside, here’s what you physically get from that oxytocin, in addition to increased pro-social emotional abilities:

  • cardiovascular protection
  • an anti-inflammatory response
  • relaxed blood vessels
  • your heart rebuilds faster than it degrades under stressed performance

Sounds pretty healthy doesn’t it? Our bodies have a built-in mechanism for stress resilience. Our wiring for belonging is a self-regenerating relational neurochemical mechanism.

McGonigal’s work lends us a clue as to why the current model of belonging might be undermining our current belonging efforts right from the start. We have no agency in the institutional or conventional model, as we experience stress while pursuing belonging.

Here’s the popular/institutional definition of belonging from Cornell University.

Cornell University-

Belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of (1) acceptance, (2) inclusion, and (3) identity for a member of a certain group. It is when an individual can bring their (4) authentic self to work.

This standard, or institutional understanding is a receive-mode-only model. If I get these four things… then I belong.

A sense of (1) acceptance, (2) inclusion, (3) identity, (4) being your authentic self to work (AIIA)

So, if you don’t get these four things, you don’t belong? This definition creates a box where the stress of being in a belonged state is unwinnable as it’s out of our agency, and thus the stress becomes harmful. From this frame, your state of belonging is a passive harmful place when you don’t fit in.

Further, it creates an emotional barrier to doing the very reachouts that your own oxytocin is calling for. Because you believe it’s out of your ability to get it, this inhibits you further and limits your source of oxytocin and serotonin, the other person. We’ve got to be in positive human connection to generate oxytocin. Here’s a link to a list of seven belonging lead measures that lead to positive human connection.

That you belong when you get these four things is a rather powerless frame that limits our neurobiology as we attempt to create our belonging. Unfortunately, it’s the dominant model. While it’s always brought up and referred to with good intent, it accidentally omits our agency in the definition.

The story we tell ourselves, and sometimes the story we’re given, that we tell ourselves, is the story we live.

Our words matter, and our story shifts with the omission of our own agency. We’ve been promoting a story of what it takes to belong that disempowers us from creating it for ourselves and in our companies. And McGonagle is correct, it’s making some people’s pursuit of belonging even a bit more harmful. (Gotta think more on this one.) The more you run into a brick wall, especially after running into a brick wall, the more damage you’re doing to yourself.

Ironically, we’ve been given a model for belonging that sets us up to be powerless in affecting our own belonging.

  1. It’s a one-way, passive receive mode, a must-get affirmation transactional model
  2. It leaves us with a self-narrative that says we only belong with someone who gives us these four things
  3. Yet, those four things aren’t necessarily indicative of belonging
  4. Ultimately, this leaves us chronically stressed on the bad side of a fit-in stress

For bullet 3, I want to offer this caveat. You can have all 4 of these things and not belong, a sense of (1) acceptance, (2) inclusion, (3) identity, and (4) being your authentic self to work. And, you can have the absence of those four things and still deeply belong.

I can tell you, from my own personal experience, that I have not been (1) accepted, for being my (4) authentic self. Was warned about getting un- (2) included, and told to get back in the game here with us, or I’m out, my personal (3) identity in the tribe was about to be rejected. And I was implored to get back to rightness with the company tribe. I still belonged despite not getting affirmed in those four areas. And it would be my choice, whether I continued to belong.

The Shift: Re-define Belonging as You Feel, Own, and Care for Them, AND, They for You

At Encounter 360, I offered Belonging Reimagined. One that puts each of us in the driver's seat of our own belonging, and our company's. Shifting the power from just us receiving whether or not we belong, to choosing, creating, and inviting another to belong with us. From this re-defined version, our stress from when we don’t belong can be healthy instead of harmful, and help us to get into real belonging.

Try shifting your definition of belonging to this…

Belonging, it’s a state of being, in relationship with others:

When you feel, own, and care for them, in their successes, dreams, and failures. And, they feel, own, and care for you in yours. It’s a two-way relational street.

It’s a two-way street of feeling for yourself and them, owning your life and theirs, and, caring for yourself and them. And they do the same with you. If you prefer today’s typical business emotional intelligence language, it’s mutual- empathy (feeling), accountability (owning), and compassion (caring for).

Belonging requires all three - Feel, Own, and Care for

There’s a hollowness that we all know, that comes when any of the three: feel, own, or care for, aren’t genuine, or, are missing.

  • Without the Feel, (empathy) we question whether or not we're really theirs, when they say, "You're my friend... or my employee..." We question the "why" of their care for us.
  • Without Own, (accountability) we're stuck with the nagging doubt of if their expressed feelings for us are true. We doubt if their care for us is actually for us.
  • Without Care for, (compassion) we disbelieve in the genuineness of their expressed feelings and their claim that we are each other’s. All talk, no walk.

But, when you have all three, look out, you get a company of resilient people that’ll find a way for each other.

You know you belong, because first, YOU feel, own, and care for them, AND second, THEY also feel, own, and care for you. If it's just them, you're getting affirmation, and yeah, that feels good. If it's just you, you're probably just fitting in, or in codependency.

Notice the order.

  1. The first qualifier is, “When you feel, own, and care for them…” (starts with you)
  2. AND (not, so that)… I guess the “AND” could be seen as a third qualifier, it’s not transactional.
  3. The second qualifier is they feel, own, and care for you in yours…”

Notice also, the context.

“In each other’s successes, dreams, and failures.” It’s in the good times, the aspirations, and the bad times. This is what falls in line with our tribal neurobiology. We’re designed to be indispensable to our tribe.

I love Angela Theisen’s take on belonging being fundamental to how we organize ourselves.

“The sense of belonging is fundamental to the way humankind organizes itself. If it was unimportant, we would live solitary lives only coming together for procreation then quickly kicking the children out of our lives as soon as they could walk. We would have no families, communities or organized government.”

We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health. The social ties that accompany a sense of belonging are a protective factor helping manage stress and other behavioral issues. When we feel we have support and are not alone, we are more resilient, often coping more effectively with difficult times in our lives. Coping well with hardships decreases the physical and mental effects of these situations. (Mayo Clinic Health System)

It’s a relational model of bidirectional power that starts with you. Each one of us has agency. You get to shift into the driver’s seat of your own belonging. You’re not of the tablet victim to circumstance, nor are you an unfortunate victim.

When we define belonging this way, we get a frame for living out a new belief where our belonging is also in our power to create. So that even in the stress during the formation of belonging, we actually can get stronger.

Here’s a belonging practice to move your head in your heart into your own efficacy to create your own belonging.

  1. Remember a time when you: felt, owned, and cared for somebody in their successes dreams, and failures, who also feels, owns, and cares for you in yours.
    (Do not tell of a time when you had a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity, and could be authentic. - Play along with me here)
  2. Meet up with someone, in person or over Zoom, and share that story with them.
  3. Afterward, take note of how you’re feeling inside.
  4. Now, that person who you felt, owned, and cared for… Invite them out for coffee, or beer, or call them, or text them- and thank them for feeling, owning, and caring for you.

A quick summary of belonging wellness benefits:

  1. Less burnout, anxiety, and depression
  2. Higher resilience
  3. Oxytocin neural/emotional benefits
  4. Empathy
  5. Cooperation
  6. Generosity
  7. Interpersonal trust
  8. Social motivation
  9. Altruism
  10. Emotional recognition
  11. Gaze and focus & eyes face
  12. Oxytocin physical benefits
  13. Cardiovascular protection
  14. An anti-inflammatory response
  15. Relaxed blood vessels
  16. Your heart rebuilds faster than it degrades under stressed performance
  17. Bonus! And yes, there are also even more benefits with belonging sustained serotonin levels too!
  18. Repeat fewer errors
  19. Faster learning
  20. Calmness under pressure
  21. Higher recall during high cognitive load
  22. Clearer decision-making
  23. Increased adaptability

I wonder what would happen to the rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, heart attacks, strokes, autoimmune diseases, etc., if we had more belonging of the feel, own, and care for type?

Give this definition a try. Make the shift. I bet you’ll find your emotional and physical wellness moving upward with your belonging.