Who am I and where do I belong? On radical life transformation and the disruption of belonging

Apr 13, 2021



I don’t care what Maslow says.


Belonging is a human requirement best suited for the bottom tier of the hierarchy of needs, right alongside food and shelter and safety.


(In fact, Maslow’s hierarchy has come into some question, being as it was created by a white male by observing the values and ways of being of an Indigenous culture.  It’s being questioned whether we might take a more non-linear, complexity-oriented perspective on the hierarchy, and many are positing that our needs arise and are met in a much less linear fashion).


From the minute we are born, we are hard-wired to act on behalf of our belonging.  Actually, while we’re questioning the theories of dead white dudes, let’s throw Darwin into the mix:  modern science is showing us that moreso than the “survival of the fittest,” most earthly creatures are far more invested in the survival of the group, and in connection and communication over competition.

Think of what we do to achieve belonging:  as a baby we learn quickly to respond to our mothers’ facial cues, assuring the boost of oxytocin in her body that cements our connection and ensures our protection.  As a teenager we change our appearances or behaviours so that we can “fit in” to our desired social groups (Brene Brown distinguishes a difference between true belonging and fitting in, where the latter requires you to change yourself in some way to achieve what might feel like belonging, but isn’t true belonging, which is about being loved and accepted for just being you).


Whenever we go through a radical transformation, the often very personal, intimate shift we make in our lives doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  We exist within an ecosystem of institutions and roles and social structures and communities, and when we change, we must find out how we now fit into those institutions and roles and social structures and communities – or not.


In short, we must find out where we belong now that we are different.


The first time I noticed this phenomenon was when I was writing Project Body Love, and then doing workshops and leading groups of women who were also embarking on their own version of Project Body Love.  I began to realize how hard it is to choose not to diet or not to speak disparagingly about your body in a world where that is the norm.  During my own journey, all of a sudden I found that there were a whole host of conversations and groups of people that I could no longer relate to because I was no longer interested in changing myself, practically allergic to words like “paleo” and “keto,” and not able to commiserate about the various sports injuries I had incurred through overexercise.  I felt unmoored.  I had changed, my identity had changed, my values had changed, and with it, my sense of belonging had changed.  If I’m being honest, I found myself tempted more than once to slip into that old skin again just so that I could feel the sense of kinship and mutual understanding I craved.

And so it is that your sense of belonging doesn’t just shift when you’ve changed the physical circumstances of where you live or work:  it extends to the communities of people you gravitate toward because of who you are, and how you’re seen and heard and witnessed by those people.


Toko-pa Turner, author of the profoundly wise and beautiful book Belonging, writes:


“Every separation you make from a person or place that cannot meet you where you stand is a step towards your community of true belonging.  Not everyone will share your values, but in the act of turning away from those who don’t, you are also turning towards those that do.”


This is so very true, but I think there’s also a more important form of belonging that occurs when you must turn away from a place or a group to which you once belonged: it’s a belonging to yourself.  It’s a commitment to the person you’re becoming that is so deep that you will risk one of the most important human requirements – belonging – in order to belong more fully to who you are and what matters most to you.


May you find your way home – both to yourself and to the people who can embrace you in your becoming.