Belonging: In-groups, Out-groups and Other-ness

'Stories in families are colossally important. Every family has stories: some funny, some proud, some embarrassing, some shameful. Knowing them is proof of belonging to the family.' ~ Salman RushdieClick To Tweet

A sense of belonging is one of those odd things that you don’t notice until it’s gone. In its absence, you feel it acutely, but when you have it, it’s very easy to take for granted.

I am travelling at the moment, for work. Without my family. I am missing my husband’s birthday, and it is the longest I have been away from him or my four year old son in, well, ever. 18,000 kilometres and the only time we have is the few hours when we’re all up – first thing in the morning, and in the early evening.

Belonging Swans Family

But this is not an article about being homesick. This is about a sense of belonging. And what has struck me is that London – where I was for the first three days of my trip – felt like home, just without my family and creature comforts. I’d never been to London before, yet I found it easy to navigate (even giving directions to ‘tourists’) and enjoyable to meander about. I walked about 39 kilometres in those three days (ironically the London Marathon was the day after I left) and I never once felt like an outsider – except possibly in the designer fashion department at Harrods when I happened to wonder into the Chanel boutique!

My ancestors are English and Scottish. So this probably makes sense. I look like I belong, I sound (kind-of) like I belong, I dress like I belong. The customs and practices are familiar to me. I know how to belong there. I know the stories.

But I was surprised.

On the other hand, I am writing this article in Prague, Czech Republic. I arrived late last night, and this morning I have walked 10 kilometres. I have seen much of the city’s beautiful architecture – including what I most wanted to see, Frank Gehry’s Dancing House.

It is a beautiful city. But it is not my city. I do not belong here. I don’t know the customs. I do not understand the food. They drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. I do not believe I have any Bohemian ancestry. This is not my place. I do not belong.

This is not because people aren’t perfectly nice – they are. The women in Starbucks (the only place open when I started meandering this morning) wrote my name with four love-hearts next to it on my cup.

It is not even because I don’t speak the language. Nearly everyone speaks some level of English. I have had no difficulty communicating with anyone.

Yet I feel a sense of ‘not-belonging-ness’ that is hard to put words to.

Why am I sharing this with you?

Two reasons.

Because I want you to overcome your fear and because I want you to develop compassion.

Overcome your fear of not belonging

'You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.' ~ Brene BrownClick To Tweet

In a recent article I wrote about rejection and why we fear it. In essence, we worry that we will be left to fend for ourselves, and that, without the support of our tribe, we will starve to death or be eaten by wild predators.

Belonging Struggle Ropes

In reality, this probably isn’t going to happen, unless the rejection involves evicting you from the jeep while on safari in Africa!

I have discovered, that even in the absence of my family and the customs and practices that I identify with, not belonging heightens the senses and slows down time. I have seen things and smelled things and heard things this morning that are new to me. My brain needs to take time to process them, and consequently time appears to pass more slowly.

I have also learned that I am resourceful, and resilient, and capable. As are you. Embrace it. Give yourself a chance to shine – to thrive – to overcome.

Because you will.

Not belonging deserves your compassion

'Our family were outsiders, and I've always had a sense of the outsider, the underdog, and a strong sense of justice towards people who are excluded.' ~ Andy SerkisClick To Tweet

In every country, in every community, there are people who feel this sense of ‘not belonging’ every day.

Belonging Underdog

For whatever reason – colonialisation, emigration, eviction, or even just a deep-seated sense of outsider-ness – there are people around you every day who feel this way.

If you live in a country with indigenous peoples – they may feel they belong to the land, but not to the society that colonialisation has imposed on them. The laws, the systems and the structures. The language and the customs. Look for ways to experience this other-ness and own your part in its perpetuation.

If you live in a place where a small community of people has sought refuge from their homeland, look for ways to help them build a new sense of belonging, while acknowledging and respecting their ennui. Invite them in. Help them understand. But don’t require them to assimilate.

If you know someone who feels like an outsider for any reason – maybe they are experiencing mental health problems, or have a disability. Maybe they are a victim of domestic violence or bullying. Be there for them without judgment. Offer an ear. Or a shoulder. Be ready to help if they ask for it, but understand that it cannot be imposed.

As a leader, be mindful that some people who work for you will not feel like they belong here. And yes, you may say they are free to choose to work somewhere else any time they please. But things aren’t always that simple. The sense of not-belonging may stem from one of the reasons listed above, or it may be a mis-match of values or culture. And for whatever reason, they may not have (or believe they have) the ability to choose something else right now. Consider whether the organisation could do better to accommodate them. Or at least support them.

Lastly be kind to yourself. You cannot fix everything. Sometimes you will feel deeply connected and secure. Other times you will feel disconnected and outside your comfort zone. Don’t expect it to be any other way. Live with it. Savour it. Learn from it.

Become stronger for it, if you can.


Hear me chatting with Hayley Collins

Hayley’s podcast is great, I strongly recommend you subscribe so you don’t miss a single one!

In Episode 25 she chats with me about what it means to be a Chief Executive – some of the things that people tell you but you don’t really understand until you’re alone in the hot-seat.

This is a side of me you won’t have seen, as I don’t talk much about my ‘day-job’ here on the Blog.


The First Time Manager’s Crash Course – Part Two

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More importantly, it’s for those who have just been – or are about to be – appointed to one of these roles and are a bit anxious about what is involved.

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