Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging

  • January 31 2018

A culture of “fitting in” has damaged our society. True belonging will transform it.

This is Part I in the series on Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness

The desire for belonging is a fundamental, and perhaps our most basic human need.

Brene argues that the definition of true belonging is the belonging we feel toward ourselves, not to any particular group. The desire to “fit in” to a group is in opposition to true belonging.

“Fitting In” is Toxic

How many times have you thought: “If I could just change THIS about myself, I’d be worthy of love and acceptance.”

On a micro level, the desire to fit in leads us to change our ideology, sacrifice our values, and alter our appearance. On the macro level, the desire to fit in drives tribalism, stifles free expression, and leads us to our current political crossroads. And what an ugly crossroads it is.

When I served in the US Army, it was during the military’s  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The compromise policy allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to enlist so long as they remained quiet about their orientation. Superiors weren’t supposed to inquire about their subordinate’s sexuality, but I was asked. Point blank. Several times. And I had to lie to stay in. I was obviously not as good at this subterfuge as I thought!

I concealed my identity as a gay man for a long time. In return, I got to be a part of the greatest fighting force in the world, and was validated as a male and a warrior in ways I had never experienced before. I got to fit in.

But every time I chose fitting in over true belonging, I felt a sliver of my soul shaved away.

In the Gifts of Imperfection, Brene writes that “Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” Keep in mind that this finding emerged from thousands of pieces of data.

So belonging is achieved internally, not given by others. The more we accept ourselves for who we are, and have compassion for our (real but more often perceived) shortcomings, the greater access we gain to this sense of belonging.

Pain is Driving the Bus: Fear is the Navigator

Brene began her research six months before the terrorist attacks of September 11th. She has watched Americans walk around with a “thin film of terror” wrapped around ourselves. Pain will not be denied, and we suffered greatly. That level of trauma and loss can be easily fed into a monstrous fear that it will happen again.

The fear we are no longer safe.

The fear that we are under constant attack from an enemy who walks among us and wants to destroy our way of life.

The fear that we have very little control over what happens in our lives.

This fear is what has allowed us to dehumanize people.

Now we are dehumanizing our fellow Americans.

Heavy stuff. It’s a lot to sit with, I know. We feel a desperate need to undo, to change course. We must find our way back to a sense of normalcy and decency. It will not be comfortable, or easy. But it is vital we begin this work, immediately.

How do we begin to heal our country?

Brene has a strategy in four parts. I review these strategies in the remaining posts in this series:

Part II: People are Hard to Hate Close Up: Move In

Part III: Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil

Part IV: Hold Hands. With Strangers coming soon

Part V: Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart coming soon

And don’t forget to check out my introduction to Brene Brown’s book:

Braving the Wilderness: Introduction

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