‘The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in.’
This blog is amplifying the words of Brené Brown and relating it to my personal experience of trying to fit in rather than belonging and what I have learnt from this process, I’ve provided links to some of her key talks if you would like to find out more.
It’s scary isn’t it? To truly be yourself, it’s like a societal act of rebellion and yet will be the most liberating thing you can do for yourself. It’s really sad that we assume the act of belonging is something we negotiate with groups we want to belong to.
I remember when I came out, firstly it was a hugely courageous thing to do in 2001, and I thought the hardest battle was over. I had said the words out loud that I was indeed queer. I thought just saying the words to my friends and family was the hard part. It wasn’t. Being me was the hard part. I had struggled for many years to try and belong, well, I thought I was trying to belong, but actually I was trying to fit in.
I tried to deny what I felt inside. It was bringing me so much pain, so much disconnection and when I finally said those brave words, I thought that would be the end. It wasn’t.
I started going to gay clubs, I was allowed to go because I had said those words out loud, ‘I am gay’. I was finally going to be with my tribe, the place where I belonged. But I stood in the queue to Vibes (a local Bristol gay club way back in 2002) and I felt like a fraud; I felt incredibly uncomfortable as I was worried what the people in the cars driving by, or the people crossing the road thought of me. I was more than aware that standing in that queue was displaying my difference.
When I got to the front of that line, I was met with: ‘Are you gay? Because this is a gay club.’ Clearly in gay world, the act of coming out and being incredibly brave was not good enough to get you into the local LGBTI nightclub. I was not gay enough for the gays. So how did I combat this? After fighting for years to finally be me… to finally hang with my tribe? To finally belong?
Well… I cut off all my hair and I bought the dykiest clothes I could find. Aha! At last, I belong. No more being asked at the door and challenged on my right to be with my tribe by the heterosexual doorman deciding just how gay I was. No, no, past Corina (no idea why I have suddenly gone third person, probably to remove myself from the uncomfortableness of how sheep like I was) you are merely fitting in… AGAIN!
Then after many years of still not fully accepting myself, despite saying those words out loud, I got myself a girlfriend. A sure fix to prove to the world just how queer I am. Another way to prove to society that my love is as worthy as yours because I have finally found it.
The truth is that it took a long time to truly belong in certain groups. My difference is often pointed out once the gay is found out. It takes a long time to gain acceptance and an even standing with your peers. How do you know when you have found it? Because you are no longer holding back parts of who you are for fear of judgement.
I was incredibly lucky that my high school friends and my family, accepted me by not really making a big deal about it at all. It was a non event… except for the joke of how I came out… it didn’t make any difference, because I was still the same human. They felt incredibly honoured that I shared my true self with them, because to hear someones story is a privilege, we should always be honoured when someone chooses to share it with us because it is vulnerable and it is courageous.
‘We have built ideological bunkers. We are more likely now to live with, worship with, and go to school with people who are politically and ideologically likeminded. These connections are counterfeit. It’s not real connection.’
Also, with all due respect to my friends and family, being yourself shouldn’t be a privilege to the majority, it should be a human right.
If we, as a society, want to increase belonging, it requires a great deal of discomfort, as you have to get in touch with empathy, which is an incredibly vulnerable place to be. Those in positions of privilege need to get in touch with courage and love to truly embrace the minorities, because to feel another persons struggle, to have uncomfortable conversations, to feel someone else pain, and allow them to be their whole selves, requires empathy of the highest order. Comfort is a privilege, and to lean into the discomfort of something that is different to you is uncomfortable.
‘Most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process slowly and paradoxically adapting the behaviour of the people we’re fighting. Either way, the choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid, and lonely.’
I started feeling like me again, by growing my hair, by wearing the clothes that I like, by talking to people on a deeper level and by no longer holding back pieces of who I am.
As a person who is naturally introverted and taught themselves to be extroverted, I love being in my safe haven of home. But as I get older, I realise how much happier I am when I am connected to other humans. I mean genuinely connected. Genuinely experiencing another humans pain and joy, true connection – not discussing the weather or how crap Donald Trump is – talking about life, what motivates a person, what scares a person and getting in the trenches with them… that is true connection.
The most important thing I have learnt, is that I believe it is absolutely essential that every child growing up feels like they belong on this planet, and to enable that I have to help create a society that allows that. So when someone says something that upsets me deeply, or that clashes with my own values and beliefs – I never stoop to dehumanising them. This is incredibly hard, and I am not perfect, but I try to exemplify this as much as I can.
‘Dehumanising is a ‘subtle’ process and it starts with language.’
‘(On social media) we see people on the left and right using dehumanising language about each other like that. And it is terrifying.’
‘We must never tolerate dehumanisation – the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.’
We may talk about the PC brigade, but we exist for a reason, and that reason is to remind people that language matters. The language we use is a subtle sign of what does and doesn’t belong. Your words are powerful, so use them wisely and question yourself constantly… ‘if I said this phrase in front of [insert name of minority group here] would they be hurt?’ If the answer is yes, do not say it.
We are on the cusp of history, there is political unrest, there is more and more scientific evidence on the irreversible damage we are causing to our planet, and we have a choice… we can argue and protect our views, or we can listen to each other. We can be truly courageous and vulnerable, and listen without judgement. We are not moving away from each other at speed because of politics and beliefs, we are racing away from each other through fear. Fear stems from ignorance of wanting to stay in your comfort zone.
A life well lived was never lived in fear and comfort. Your life begins when you get uncomfortable, vulnerable and courageous. To be a moment in history that is remembered, we need to connect, to connect we need to show empathy, accept difference and we need to allow psychological safety for belonging. Connection brings about innovation, creativity and invention… this is how we will overturn political unrest and reverse the damage we have caused to our planet. Together we can achieve so much more and survive longer than we are currently predicted to.
Further Brené Brown watching/reading: