What is Belonging?

People with a sense of security and belonging are stabilized for learning, creating, innovating. A group of wonderfully cared for, confident individuals will generate great ideas. — John Sweeney

Belonging - And How It Is Understood

To belong is a human need so fundamental, it’s considered to be on par with our motivation for food

There are many different ways that a sense of belonging has an impact on our lives. Even Fleeting glances from strangers can have a profound impact on how at home we feel in a community or place, and we can experience a strong sense of Connection within the workplace or a social sphere. - But meeting our deepest needs, (if we are not disadvantaged by isolating circumstances), is our relationship with that one, or those few in our immediate circle to whom we would turn to for our very Survival, if needed. This level of individual belonging might be the deepest we experience.

At birth we experience the greatest dependency and intensity of belonging, and in this formative time we develop Attachment styles which Shape our later relationships. If the early care we receive is good enough, it teaches us as we grow how to gradually depend on and belong - to ourselves. When belonging is complicated early on, we are faced with the challenge of learning how to belong, as adults, to ourselves and to others. This learning often takes place in our most intimate relationships as we Encounter these attachment styles up close, and renegotiate them to meet the needs of the new bond. Both a universally momentous struggle, and potential most enriching reward. 

In the broader sense, belonging can occur in large groups, often in such a gradually-evolving and day-to-day way that we don’t recognise it. This broad but powerful belongingness can include belonging to a Geographical spaceNationality or Group of nations, Ethnicity, expression of Sexual identity or a complex Intersection of multiple aspects of a person’s life and identity. For large groups we see the difficulties of disrupted belonging and displacement by Forces of war, Climate change, Economic disparity and Social stigma.

Early experiences of belonging can also have an impact on how we learn in larger, more diffuse groups as well as in intimate relationships. For example, Insecure attachment styles have been linked with Perfectionistic tendencies. These kinds of diffuse belongings are vital to our thriving as we grow older, develop more of a sense of ‘self’, establish our place in the world, and continue to learn, alone and with others. 

Belonging is like the ground we walk. It holds our Connection to a place - ‘horizontally’ through the gravitational, stabilising (or ‘grounding’) forces of deep connection with a precious few, and ‘vertically’ as we are subsequently able to risk interacting and belonging in more diffuse relationships across the wider sphere. 

Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be
. ― Brené Brown

A sense of belonging is not only vital for living and learning, but has broad benefits to it; something explored further Here

How does belonging affect learning?

The necessity of belonging and its power to shape our learning starts in infancy by providing security to explore the world and expand our experiences. As adults, it’s about how much we feel we belong as part of a ‘learning community’ — at work or at home, or in our wider social network, where conditions of belonging improve Learning and performance. It includes the confidence that comes with knowing there are people you Learn well with, and to whom you can turn when you need guidance, support and encouragement.

Effective learners acknowledge that other people play an important role in their learning, though these types of relationships may vary (They may be weak ties or strong ties for example). They are able to form trust, and make use of others as resources, partners, team-workers and as sources of emotional support, without becoming dependent upon them. They know that effective learning may also require times of studying or learning alone.

The contrast to a sense of belonging is being isolated, split-off or lonely. Less effective learners are likely either to find it more difficult to relate to others on their learning journeys or to have found themselves in an environment where they feel out of place and unsupported.

Can belonging be bad? 

When is belonging potentially unhelpful? Although it is basically not only vital, but good to belong, there are some powerful dynamics that can occur in tightly knit human groups which aren’t always beneficial. (You can read about some related group effects in Sense making and Collaboration). 

Social scientists have long observed how we can Fulfil the expectations of others without even realising it - whether this is in raising our performance, or obstructing it.

Our need to belong can cause a very self-conscious crafting of the way we Present ourselves, especially online, which can have a variety of consequences for self esteem. Loneliness can also be induced by Phone obsession and online connectivity which can itself be motivated by a strong desire to belong. This can cause a negatively self-fulfilling cycle of unbelonging, if our very need to belong is not adequately met in human form. 

Barriers to Belonging

For most of us there will be times of feeling less like we belong, and less able to learn as a result.

What stops you feeling like you belong? It might be down to circumstances, difficulties in relationships, or perhaps an isolating lack of resources. Below are some of the common barriers to belonging, which may have an impact on our learning. 

  • Circumstances which can decrease a sense of belonging to learning relationships might be those which take time away from our usual networks, like the birth of a child, an illness, or a new job with a long commute.

Or it might be a change to a wider group which ruptures our sense of belonging to it and renders it no longer relevant to the direction our learning is going. For example, a political party gains a new leader whose policies we dislike, our favourite pub changes hands, or through world events we begin to consider belonging to our own nationality through a new lens.

Learning itself can cause shifts in where and how we belong as we evolve and change, and as a result we might struggle to find a new sense of belonging which reflects our new sense of understanding. 

  • Difficulties in relationships can occur if we have an innate tendency feel like we don’t belong. It might be related to Formative childhood experiences of rejection or loss. When this is a factor - it can be difficult to feel like we belong at times, even in the most accommodating or approachable of groups. Some of the ways we naturally find to compensate for feeling ‘out of place’, can inadvertently isolate us further from sources of connection and learning, potentially leading to a vicious cycle of un-belonging.

Perhaps the difficulties come from others, too. For minority groups, Stigma, Self stigma, and Cultural barriers can have a very detrimental effect on belonging. Or maybe there’s just one person in the team at work who we feel doesn’t like us, and this has changed what used to be a sense of belonging in that network. 

  • The resources to connect and belong to a learning community might take the form of time, money, access to culture or geography - for example, being in a bustling urban space as opposed to an isolated rural one. 

The relationship between these resources - particularly as they are managed by people in a community, is sometimes called ‘Social capital’. The movement of social capital is generally seen as a positive way of building diversity and community, but There are disadvantages too. For example, if you are born into a traditional, white privileged family for example, it is more likely that you will find a path to sources of learning through education, and you are likely to find it much easier.

Or if you don’t have a car or access to good public transport and there isn’t a thriving learning community in your area, you will not have equal access to these resources. 

Developing belonging

Don’t worry! This list might feel disheartening, but there are ways to Improve your sense of belonging and make the most of the resources you have available to you in your community. Further along this learning journey we have put together various strategies that you might find helpful as you progress through your learning journey. We call them ‘pathways’. 

Your Learning Journal

Something highly recommended as you’re travelling this journey, is keeping a journal. Whether a paper journal, a scrapbook or a virtual space to record your thoughts and experiences chronologically; this provides a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression, prompt and remind yourself of important learning, and track your progress as you look back on it. This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or pathways you encounter here, but it may also include much of your own ad-libbing and anything else that is helpful to you.

You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind on the use of your journal; but this can take whatever form you like. 


Go Deeper

Next Step

Why is Belonging Important?