What is belonging and how can we feel it?

February 14th, 2020

This article is the compilation of our learnings from 9 global dinners held in 2020.

This month, we hosted dinners on the topic of “Belonging” in 9 cities around the world. From Amsterdam to Toronto, Oklahoma to Caracas, as women we are united in our core need to feel like we truly belong. Belonging is as primal as it gets — it goes hand and hand with safety, freedom and connection. When we have it, we can experience love, and when we don’t, we feel isolated and disconnected from everyone and everything.

And now our key takeaways…

Belonging is a core human need

It starts young. Feeling like we belong means feeling safe and seen, free to be who we are. Belonging builds the foundation for our sense of security and self-acceptance later on in life. Some were lucky enough to feel like they belonged within their family of origin, and others in the structures and systems of their upbringing (such as their church, school, sports teams, etc).

However, so many of the women around our tables grew up feeling like they did not belong. Whether due to neglect, abuse or outright rejection in their earliest years, so many women experienced a sense of isolation and separateness. For some, it was growing up in “untraditional” upbringings — whether that means moving across countries and continents, navigating multicultural families or growing up with sick parents. Feeling like we don’t belong means feeling separate, wrong, misunderstood — it means not feeling safe in our homes and our communities. 

When we feel we don’t belong we don’t believe we are worthy of belonging.

Regardless of how we grew up, we’ve all felt at one point what it feels like not to belong — and that is the very feeling that makes us crave belonging.

When we don’t feel like we belong, we feel…

Displaced, anxious, ashamed, lonely and insecure. It’s like we’re floating with nothing to anchor us down. And when we feel this way, many of us employ certain behaviors in an attempt to cope:

  • Control — We may try to control people or situations around us in order to feel a sense of security. But ultimately, this creates more anxiety and “neediness” that cannot be met.

  • Isolation — Because we feel such shame for not belonging, we may separate ourselves from others and hide away our pain. In the end, however, this creates more shame, and less belonging.

  • Sabotage — When we don’t feel worthy of belonging, we will oftentimes sabotage our relationships and connections in a masochistic attempt to prove ourselves right. This may represent a moment of control, but it ultimately leaves us more alienated and alone than ever before.

So we seek out a sense of belonging with others

We’re all looking for our “tribe” — the people (or person) with whom we feel our most authentic, energized, and honest. We describe the feeling of belonging as a “natural click,” a “synergy,” a sense that all of the sudden, “you glow.” When we feel we belong, we feel seen, heard, cared, safe and connected to others. We feel at home within ourselves. There is no need to “perform” belonging. You can let your guard down and be vulnerable enough so others can truly see you as you are.

The women around our tables have identified a few factors that create the fertile ground for feeling like they belong:

  • Non-judgmental spaces — In these spaces, we listen and ask questions, instead of making someone right or wrong. It creates the safety to share our innermost thoughts and ideas.

  • Paying attention — When we feel other people care and truly want to hear us and see us.

  • Acceptance — This is when we accept our full selves and feel compassion towards the things we do and say, even if it maybe wasn’t “right” or “perfect.”

Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

BUT, belonging with others is not a final destination

Many of us seek our sense of belonging from external sources — friends, partners, work, institutions, etc. Once it feels established, we attach our identity to that specific sense of belonging. These sources of belonging, however, will inevitably shift and change (e.g. we lose jobs, relationships end, our ideologies shift). When we realize that our relationship or community no longer represents our deepest values or desires, we start to wonder, where do I TRULY belong? Who am I really?

Ultimately, belonging is an inside job

For those who grew up without a core sense of belonging from their parents, they find themselves in a loop, constantly seeking their validation and approval without every actually receiving it. Many of these women have come to the realization that ultimately, a deep sense of belonging must come from within — because what you may get from the outside is uncertain, transient, or maybe not available at all. Belonging to oneself is essential — the more we connect with ourselves and listen to our bodies, the more we can connect to others. We need to accept and claim ALL of ourselves — our beauty, our messy, our awkward and our shameful — so that we can become who we are.

Cultural Nuance: Belonging in New York City

The struggle to belong is particularly challenging in a city as large and frenetic as NYC. Whether it’s like constant motion of the city, the long commutes on the dinky subway we take to and fro, or the unbelievably packed schedules of everyone you know — so many women in NYC are struggling with feelings of isolation and disconnection. How can New York women create belonging in what oftentimes feels like the loneliest city on earth?


  1. Notice what you do when you don’t feel like you belong. Do you control, isolate, or self-sabotage? Whatever it is, observe the behavior and try to offer a bit of compassion to yourself — your are worthy of belonging.

  2. How can you foster a deeper sense of belonging with a community you care about? It often requires taking the plunge — being vulnerable in order to create intimacy. What small step can you take today?

Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our host Rebecca Roebber in Seattle, Alexandra Suarez in Puerto Rico, Alexandra Almaral in Amsterdam, Lisa Cox in Norman OK, Esther Mateo in Caracas and Dee de Lara in Toronto.

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