Tag Archives: belonging

Community and identity

The person who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of them is on a trajectory that will likely result in them behaving in selfish and antisocial ways. The person whose sense of self is defined by what one person thinks of them is quite likely in an abusive situation. Somewhere in between these two points lies mental health and social functionality.

Humans are social creatures. We grow up in contexts that shape us, one way or another. We define ourselves through our work, family and social roles. We find out who we are in no small part because of how other people respond to us. The feedback we get will inform our sense of self worth and our sense of social identity and belonging – or not belonging.

How your identity relates to your community may have everything to do with finding the right spaces to be in. It is so important to have somewhere to fit, people to connect with and a sense of belonging and involvement. Life without that is lonely, and the absence of community connection can really undermine self esteem and a sense of self. Most of us do not do well as lone wolves. It’s worth noting that lone wolves do not tend to do well as lone wolves either.

On the other side there’s the question of how much we sacrifice to fit in. How much do we need to mute ourselves to be socially acceptable? How much must be cut off, compromised, hidden or denied so a person can have a place in a community? Arguably if this stops you from being a menace, it may be a good thing! But if what you have to hide is your authentic sexual identity, your not being neuro-typical, or some other vital and intrinsic thing, the price of community is high. Many spaces don’t even recognise the barriers they put up to prevent authentic engagement by people who are not ‘normal’.

What kind of spaces do we create and hold for other people? How much room do we give them? What pressures might we create to have other people stay in line with our beliefs and expectations? How much room is there for difference? What differences are genuinely intolerable? It’s worth asking of your Druid communities, your family spaces, work spaces and social spaces. It’s worth asking what we can do to actively include those who are unkindly excluded, and what we do to deal with people who do not fit in.

Matters of belonging and learning to trust

I’m not good at trusting people. It’s not especially irrational; I’ve had my trust betrayed in some serious ways, in the past. I also suffer from anxiety (although nothing like as much as I used to). One of the things I’ve learned this week, from a fellow sufferer, is the way anxiety distorts perceptions. It’s easier to see when looking at someone else, and of course usually anxiety is only seen from the inside.

We learn patterns of behaviour. We learn what’s normal from how other people treat us, and we start learning this from our first breath. Things that are well-meant can have unhelpful consequences. One of the refrains of my childhood was being told not to show off, not to draw attention to myself. I worry every time I try to promote my work, that I’m acting out, showing off, behaving inappropriately. I have to fight my way past it on a regular basis. I know it’s there, and it’s one of the easier ones, not least because I’ve been blessed with so much positive feedback about my work that I know there’s plenty of you, dear generous blog readers, who are interested.

Still, dealing with people, I find it hard to imagine that I’m acceptable. It’s very easy for people to say in all innocence things that will cause me to take a step back. I infer that I’m too much, too difficult, too enthusiastic, imposing – I’ve heard these things so many times through my life that it’s easy to hear them when they aren’t quite what was meant.

What it means in practice is that to feel easy and secure in a situation, I need a fair amount of positive feedback. I need to know where I fit, and that I fit, and that I am welcome. Recent years have brought me a number of critically important spaces where I feel I  belong. There’s my marriage, for a start. The Contemplative Druid group has been a welcoming, patient, affirming space where I’ve felt able to speak honestly, and have had chance to tackle some of my body contact issues. I feel a sense of belonging with OBOD, although that’s all through the ether and somewhat more ephemeral. I feel a deep sense of belonging at Moon Books, where the affirmation that my work is valued has been ongoing, and I take considerable joy in helping and supporting other authors. I’m starting to feel a sense of belonging with Druid Camp too (it’s taken me nearly three years). This week I’ve realised that Stroud Short Stories is also going to be one of those spaces for me.

One of the hardest things for me, is to trust people to find me acceptable. It makes me hesitant around relationships of all shapes and sizes. I stay still when perhaps I could step forward. When in doubt, what I hear in my head are the voices of the people who explicitly rejected me in the past, for being too much trouble. But there are people who have been patient with me, and just kept giving me reasons to keep trusting them, to keep talking, to stay. People who are generous with their affirmations make worlds of difference. Thank you.

To know where I belong is to be able to put down the utter shit of the past, and let it go, and do something better, with people who want to be doing things with me.

To care, or not to care

All the way through my life there have been an abundance of people keen to tell me how difficult I am. Too sensitive. Too coldly logical. Too emotional. Too intense. I do too much and give too much and am just more than any reasonable person should be expected to cope with. Or I don’t do enough, am not patient and generous enough with them. I expect too much. They’re a regular feature and up until recently I’ve mostly agreed with them. I am difficult, and generally not worth the effort, and the only way to function is by hiding most of who and how I am, trying hard to fit in, and apologising for being as I am when I can’t hide it.

Back in March of this year, I started to realise that any kind of ‘belonging’ based on crushing my own nature was never going to let me feel like I truly belong. Since then I’ve been looking a lot harder at my network of relationships and thinking about what works for me and what doesn’t. Here are some things I have noticed.

One sided unconditional giving and loving can feel noble and heroic, but it does very little beyond that. As I get less interested in martyring myself for other people, I start to see the value of love reciprocated and returned. However stumbling and awkward it might be sometimes – because we’re all awkward and messy in our own ways – care returned is a precious thing. It’s possible to give far more to people who give back, the exchanges are meaningful. Unrequited attachments can be a strange form of self involvement, with ideas about the ‘beloved’ being held as more important than the unresponsive reality. It’s a silly game that allows me to stay warm and open to people who are only interested in using me.

Where there is real care, all manner of things are possible. Of course there are bumps, because life is challenging, people are imperfect communicators and we’re all dealing with our own fears and beliefs at the same time. But where there is care, overcoming those bumps is more important than pride and ego. Where the other person truly matters, working through the occasional issues also matters, and there can be no sweeping it under the carpet, demanding it be fine when it isn’t, or emotionally manipulating the other person into accepting their discomfort.

If someone else is suffering, I will try and alleviate that by whatever means make sense. That doesn’t oblige me to humour the people who like and manufacture drama. I don’t have to participate in other people’s dramas if I don’t want to. And mostly, I don’t want to.

I routinely under-estimate my own strength and resilience. I think about everything a lot, I can be really thrown by other people’s unconsidered actions, and I tend to take the things people do carelessly as a measure of where I am with them. There are two things I need to work on here. One is to recognise that everyone, me included, is fallible and that it’s ok for me and anyone else to get things wrong now and then, and that it does not necessarily mean anything much if that happens. However, people who keep getting the same things wrong it’s much more worth being wary about. I can be gentler with other people, and with myself if I recognise that messing up is not a measure of care. I also recognise that on the whole I do better with people who know themselves, act consciously and move deliberately through the world. People who know why they did and said whatever it was and can talk about it if needs be. Obliviousness is not a quality I find useful in other people.

I recognise that a lot of the ‘problems’ I have in relating to other people have a lot to do with how harshly I judge myself. The assumption that I don’t fit and won’t be accepted often colours how I interact with people. I’ve listened too much to the people who wanted to hurt me and put me down, and not enough to the kinder, friendlier voices, because that fitted my story about myself. I can change that. I can be more open to people I enjoy being around and walk away with a shrug and a sense of no great loss from anyone who finds me terribly difficult. I am not obliged to appease the people who don’t like me, and that’s a very liberating line of thought.

Questions of Belonging

A few days ago I blogged from a state of despair about issues of tribe. It elicited some incredibly helpful comments. Thank you all of you who shared and inspired me. On the same day, I read Naomi’s blog about how we handle difference and exclusion in Paganism. I spent time wondering if I inadvertently exclude anyone, and if so, what to do about it. I realised I probably won’t know unless someone comes back and tells me, at which point I would hope to have opportunity to put it right. All too often, people are excluded because they are asked to fit in with whatever is ‘normal’, and no room is made for difference and quite often, that turns out to be important.

For my entire life, until this week, I have been operating under the mistaken belief that if I did a good enough job of fitting in and being useful, these things would ultimately lead to my having a sense of belonging. I’ve never really managed it on those terms, but the carrot dangling in front of me, out of reach, has kept me trying. If I could do better, ask for less, want less, give more, be more co-operative, be more flexible and generous… I want to be co-operative and useful, these things matter to me and are part of who I am, but when that becomes an exercise in hiding, crushing or cutting off bits of me, ignoring my own feelings and giving in a way that leaves me threadbare and exhausted, it doesn’t really work for me. It can work for the people benefiting from me, so there’s often encouragement to keep going.

I’ve started to see that the more sacrifices are made in order to fit in, the less it works in terms of belonging. What sense of belonging I have flows from the handful of relationships where I feel accepted. Where I am good enough already, and my oddities are allowed for. The places where, if my fragile mind and sore body aren’t working, I can expect care and compromise. The people who expect to negotiate, not to have it on their terms, who expect that what I want and need might not be exactly what they want and need. From there, we can work out something viable for all involved. The more able I am to bring my emotional responses, odd ideas, intensity, and fragility into a space, the more able I am to feel like I belong. The more masking I have to do to fit in, the less I feel like I belong.

I want to be useful. I want to be an asset to the people around me. I want to bring laughter and cake and good ideas, and support good projects and help other people flourish. This is not about belonging, this is about where I choose to stand. I want to pick my ground and my causes, and have the energy to see them through. I am realising that I am a very finite resource, and if I do not deploy carefully, I will burn out on people who want me to fit in, at the expense of doing the things I might have done well, and that’s just silly. I will be co-operative as much as I am able, but from here on in, that has to be a two sided process. I want to co-operate with people, not bend myself into awkward shapes for people who will not even try to meet me part way.

I need to feel cared for. That means if someone comes back and tells me why I shouldn’t have a problem, shouldn’t feel upset, shouldn’t expect any different… that’s a situation to back out of at speed. I don’t expect things to be smooth and easy, I get things wrong all the time and fully expect people in my life will make mistakes too. Getting it wrong is not a measure of anything. I am going to start expecting people to care enough to listen, to try and find, with me, viable ways forward when things go awry. Not an expectation of being accommodated in all ways, that would be equally unreasonable, but conversation, not a lecture about what I should be. ‘Should be’ is about fitting in, not about belonging.

Without willingness to exchange, listen, negotiate, explain and seek mutual understanding, it’s mostly about fitting in. I’ve had a good look at the few places I don’t feel defeated by how people react to me. Those I will be investing in heart and soul. From now, everything else either makes that grade, or doesn’t get much priority.

No place like home, and other stories

The stories we tell shape us as people and both inform and express the culture we belong to. Those stories aren’t always consciously held nor do we always stop to reflect on the implications of what we tell each other. From our earliest days, people tell us fairy stories full of ideas about what the world could be, and mostly isn’t. As a child I let go of happily ever after and poetic justice fairly early because it was so easy to see those things as unreal. There was one fairy story I held on to for a long time. Putting it down is hard.

It may seem odd to suggest Clive Barker as a writer of fairy stories, but for me, he always was. I came to him in my teens, and under the veneer of horror, found something I had until then been missing: Fairy stories for those who do not fit. Fairy stories for little monsters whose emotions, bodies and minds are not a tidy match for what’s around them. The greatest fairy story of all was of Midian. A home for monsters. A place for the magical, funny looking rejects where there could be home, community and companionship. Where being a little monster qualified you for entry.

I carried that story, and I believed in it as I believed in few others. As a possibility, and a metaphor. I hung on to the belief that somewhere out there was a place, or a tribe that would look at me and say ‘welcome home.’ A tribe that wanted me as I am, and that would be as horrified as I am by the idea of creating a fake shiny surface to fit in. A tribe of wild, open hearted people, not merely unafraid of things being serious and intense, but welcoming that, feeding on it, wanting and needing intensity and meaning as much as I do. A tribe where people think about things, and care, and don’t do as they’re told, and aren’t afraid of difference.

I thought, if it does not exist already, I will build it. I will find those people who dance to other music, and I will hold a space for them, and maybe if I hold that space, I too will be acceptable, I too will belong somewhere.

There is no Midian.

What I thought was a promising space turned into yet another social fail. Yet another wounding experience that sends me scurrying back into my hole, unable to cope with the light. This weekend, had I been able to fake an enthusiasm for sport, there are any number of places I could have shown up for camaraderie. I’d need to be ok about drunken shouting for that, and like Grendal, I find the drunken shouting difficult to take. Although it may be worth mentioning that I’ve never trashed anyone’s mead hall.

There is no Midian, and the fairy story that had given me hope is just another illusion and try as I might, I cannot make it real. I’m very tired this morning. All the other stories, I realise, have us as lone witch women deep in the forest, lone black knights. Outsiders who help insiders work out who they are, because they are not Other. Perhaps belonging is more meaningful if you can see the shadows of those who do not belong and know what is at stake if you do not conform to the requirements of the tribe. Look, act, dress and speak the part, uphold the same values and never question what they do. It’s not the case that if you act out, the wicked witch or the bogeyman will get you, it’s the case that if you fail to fit, that is who you become.

Being Grounded

It’s not always easy to see what is missing from your life or sense of self. Sometimes, absences are only properly visible if you know what presences look like. Since last summer I’ve had a bit of a journey with this one.

It started with my volunteering for OBOD. I’ve been a volunteer before, but I’ve never felt trusted in the way that I do now. I’ve never felt confidence before, that I was doing enough, giving enough, being a valuable enough part of the team, and there was always that feeling of being watched in anticipation of my messing something up. I think this has everything to do with the culture at OBOD, where there’s a careful vetting process, but a person who has been accepted and trusted to do their job, is then trusted. I find it a lot more functional, and makes for a far happier working space. If I messed up, there are structures that would catch this.

I’m in an emotionally secure relationship based on mutual trust and respect. There is no sense of conditionality, no need to bargain. A feeling of having a place to belong where I am welcome and wanted. Being in this landscape encourages me to feel rooted, in a way that I haven’t for a long time, too. Again, that sense of belonging and being welcome.

It’s not been a smooth ride in terms of friendships and communities, because I made some significant mistakes. However, having recognised those, I’ve learned a lot about my need for people who are able to accept and work around the things I struggle with. Friends who don’t keep me up late reliably, and who either don’t trigger distress in the first place, or respond to it with compassion, rather than telling me they can’t be bothered with walking on eggshells. If I am not worth making some effort for, it occurs to me, then there is no reason for me to stay.

I have an increasing sense of belonging to a tribe that is glad to have me as a member. There have been too many times in my life when I’ve felt like an imposition, when no matter how hard I worked or how much I gave, I felt like a second class participant, and was given to understand how generous people were in just putting up with me. There were people who told me how difficult I was, how demanding and unreasonable, such hard work for them. I was to be grateful for the sacrifices they made in order to accommodate me. There weren’t many of them, but they were all too often people with power and influence in my life. Not any more.

I eventually worked out that if someone finds me desperately difficult, depressingly hard work and that being around me is tantamount to martyrdom, then the answer is for me to step away from them. I do not need people who feel noble and self-sacrificing about putting up with me. What I want are people who like having me around, who trust and value me, enjoy my company, find me a good part of the mix. Where I have that, I get to feel welcome and like I belong, and increasingly that’s how things are working, not least because I’m no longer tolerating the other thing.

A person who is not valued and respected, cannot root properly in their community. None of us are perfect, all of us have shortcomings, weak spots, bad days… the person who is scapegoated for that, and constantly reminded of it no matter what there is to balance it up, always gets to feel like an outsider, an imposition. I am increasingly conscious of the direct link between not feeling valued, and not feeling any sense of belonging. It’s been there my whole life; an absence that has taken some identifying. Up until very recently, what I carried was a sense of just innately not being good enough somehow. Not a person who deserved a place. There are enough people in my life who have treated me otherwise, that I’ve become able to think about it differently, and to pick out the minority whose attitude left me feeling outside the tribe for so long. A rethink of who I am, where I fit, who my people are, and a lot to consider about how we treat each other and construct our communities.