The Paradox of Belonging

First Published: January 2022 by Nextions LLC

There is a simple way to know if you feel like you belong somewhere: you don’t think about belonging at all when you are there.

That’s the paradox of belonging. You only think about belonging when you feel like you don’t belong. And if you feel like you belong you most likely have no idea that there are those around you who also don’t feel like they belong and work hard to belong every day.

I was having drinks with a good friend in December, and he patiently listened to me curse the coronavirus — yet again! — for causing me to cancel a vacation that I had been looking forward to for months. In an attempt to cheer me up, he reinvited me to the New Year’s Eve party that he and a couple of his friends were planning. “You said no before because you were going to be out of town but now that you are stuck here, you can be there, right?” I hesitated. He sensed the hesitation and said, “I know you won’t know everyone there, but I cannot imagine that there is anyone in the world that you can’t get along with.”

Of course, I can get along with anyone…well, anyone that I want to get along with, but getting along with people in a space and belonging in that space are two different things. When you belong somewhere, no one actually cares if you can get along with people or not. Your ability to get along with people only comes into play when you don’t belong somewhere. Think of someone in your family or in your group of friends who is cranky, or mean, or just disagreeable. They may not get along with others, but no one questions if they belong or not.

As I considered my friend’s invitation, I thought about his friends. They were great, and individually, they were kind, interesting, and fun. But, when they got together as a group, there was an insularity to their group dynamic that they didn’t always notice. There was a subtle but clear undercurrent of who “belonged” and who was a “guest.” Every guest was lovingly invited and treated with gracious friendship, but even the best experience as a guest doesn’t automatically translate to a sense of belonging.

It takes work to belong. And, it takes time.

I wanted to hang out with my friend on New Year’s Eve, but that’s not the night I wanted to work to get along with people. I wanted to be somewhere on New Year’s Eve — be with the people — whom I belonged with, where I could be tired, or cranky, or quiet without worrying about getting along with anyone. I wanted to just be myself, whoever she was that night.

When I explained this to him, he was initially offended that I felt I would have to “work” to be around him and his friends. But, as we talked about it, he thought about examples in his life where he felt the pressure to be on his best behavior instead of just being himself. He had never considered that even the most wanted and welcomed guests would still feel like…guests. And, when you are a guest, you feel temporary — welcomed, but not quite at home.

Sometimes, guests may transition out of guestiness and feel right at home, but it isn’t immediate, no matter how earnestly they are welcomed.Sometimes, it may take too much work to belong, and someone may opt-out of a context completely. Other times, people may choose to opt-out selectively based on how they want to expend or reserve their energy.

Belonging takes time. It takes being included consistently over enough time where belonging becomes enough of a feeling to no longer have it be a thought.

When we work on inclusion in our workplaces, we are working to create spaces where people feel like they belong, where they don’t have to worry about working to get along and can just be. When someone, especially someone from an underrepresented group, leaves a workplace because they “just can’t do it anymore,” they are most likely not talking about doing the work itself. They are most likely talking about the work to belong. Inclusion is critical, but it’s not enough. It’s a pit stop on the way to belonging, and belonging is what keeps people around for the long term.

The paradox of belonging is that if you don’t think about belonging — with your friends, in your family, on your team, in your workplace — it’s because you already feel it. But, there are people around you who are thinking about it because they don’t feel it.

The paradox of belonging is that the people who don’t think about belonging are the people who can make the work to belong less arduous for those who do have to think about it.

If you aren’t thinking about belonging, make the effort to be welcoming and inclusive of others consistently. And repeat daily. Belonging is a long game.If you are thinking about belonging, know that it will take time, no matter how welcoming and inclusive people are, and give yourself a break from the work as you need to. Belonging is a distance sport, not a sprint.

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Arin N. Reeves

a fierce advocate for justice, a geeky catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity & a firm believer that most rules were meant to be broken