True belonging is an instinctual need and is one of life’s sweetest pleasures. Where do you belong? Is it your hometown, your neighborhood, your parish? Did you belong to the popular group in high school? Or perhaps you were on the winning team that one glorious season in childhood?
Maybe your sense of belonging came from your messy but loving family. Perhaps you work hard now to create a warm, delightful home for your family to belong. Being part of a group bigger than oneself confirms how valuable we are, and it also shows us how lucky we are. We know that larger than us is this force for good that can withstand anything.
For years we can live nestled in the certainty of our group. The bonds strengthen as a member of our tribe support us through the hard times and share a laugh and a drink with us during the good times. Admittedly, nothing creates stronger bonds than a common enemy. Whether that enemy is an opposing team or another country, fighting that enemy, makes us appreciate who we are even more.
What happens though, when the enemy is not the problem? What if the problem is within us? Our boss, our mentor, our family member, our political party, our pastor, our government, our police, our judicial system, our senator, our coach, or our buddy?
Where does loyalty end and “group think” begin? Hence, the problem of the day. More than ever, we are forced to reckon with this dilemma. What do we do when one incident casts a dark shadow over all of the years of warmth and goodness? In psychology, we call the discomfort of this situation cognitive dissonance. When we are faced with new information that contradicts what we know to be true, it causes discomfort. We might feel anxious, confused or frightened. Our choices at this point are to ignore/minimize the impact of the new information or alter our beliefs. Obviously, the most difficult choice is the latter.
By altering our beliefs, we jeopardize that cozy sense of belonging. Sometimes by altering our beliefs, we take the risk that our life will never be the same. There are names for people who chose to mess with the group: whistle-blowers, traitors or outliers. Sometimes they’re called rebels, and occasionally, they’re known as heroes. Either way, it seems like a lot of work.
Every day in the news, the complications seem to pile up as the standards of what is considered acceptable behavior for men and woman shifts at a break-neck speed. What was largely accepted in the workplace, suddenly is seen as harassment or abusive. The knee-jerk response may be to cling to our old beliefs and simpler times. That would be comforting.
We see our civic and religious institutions challenged as well. We understand that when abuse occurs, we owe it to the victims, and we owe it to ourselves to weed it out. Sometimes it is hard to see that in the end, our group will be stronger. It can feel like a threat to all that we hold dear. It’s painful. That darn cognitive dissonance! One way to ease the discomfort is to fight back, point fingers, minimize or deny. It may be impossible to see that group-think is the problem and that unquestionable loyalty is dangerous. The enemy is us. It may take a long time (if ever) to recognize that it can be heroic to speak out.
In our personal lives, most of us have been balancing the middle ground. We hold steadfast to our sense of belonging, but we are willing to speak our truth when asked. Unfortunately, (or not) rarely do folks actually ask opinions. We tend to know by now where the people in our lives stand on most issues. We resolve our dissonance by living in this space between adherence to our truth and respect for others. We might have unfollowed a few friends, but we’re more than happy to say hello to them when we run into them at the grocery store or at a family gathering. We recognize that none of us are all good and none of us are all bad. We try to get along even as we vote in opposition.
Some days are harder than others, and anger or sadness prompts us to speak out. The more difficult task at that moment is to be curious, ask questions, suspend judgment and try to understand each other. Ideally, we can trust that our group can survive a challenge. The answers can bring more discomfort and actually bring growth. The growth might be a change of perspective within the group, or it can be a shift by one member away from the group. Either way can be fine.
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and bestselling author, speaks to these concepts beautifully in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Her understanding is that the more authentic we are, the more we can attain truer belonging and connection to others. The trick is to act with integrity and respect those around us as well as ourselves.
I’m still learning how to do this. I am not willing to give up my posse, nor am I willing to ignore the truth of what I see in the world. I’m finding a path that is different. It is imperfect, but it is authentic. At times I am able to revel in the long shared history I have with those in my group. Other times, I mourn the changes that have occurred. Even though the world seemed simpler and safer when I shared the beliefs of those around me, I am grateful for the wisdom that has come from the new understanding that is available to me now.