Photo: Danny Clark
As unique as we all are, an awful lot of us want the same things. We want to shake up our current less-than-fulfilling lives. We want to be happier, more loving, forgiving and connected with the people around us. So...we make decisions ("I'm going to hang out with happy people!"); we give ourselves lectures ("If you'd just stop feeling guilty, you'd able to do what you want); and we strive for markers of that accomplishment ("Just go to the completely intimidating party and meet one person!").
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, author of The Gifts of Imperfection and research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last 12 years figuring out what keeps us from the living—despite our best efforts—the kind of wholehearted, fully involved existences that we're trying to lead. It turns out that a lot of the assumptions we hold so dear and we believe will turn around everything are...well...just plain wrong.
1. Fitting In Is Not Belonging
There are so many terms we use every day whose meanings are gauzy, if not downright imprecise—which makes it hard to get your head around what's really going on in your life. For example, contrary to what most of us think: Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.
Many us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, (Take it from me: I'm an expert fitter-inner!) But we're not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking.
In my research, I've interviewed a lot of people who never fit in, who are what you might call "different": scientists, artists, thinkers. And if you drop down deep into their work and who they are, there is a tremendous amount of self-acceptance. Some of them have to scrap for it, like the rest of us, but most are like this neurophysicist I met who, essentially, told me, "My parents didn't care that I wasn't on the football team, and my parents didn't care that I was awkward and geeky. I was in a group of kids at school who translated books into the Klingon language. And my parents were like, ‘Awesome!' They took me to the Star Trek convention!" He got his sense of belonging from his parents' sense of belonging, and even if we don't get that from Mom and Dad, we have to create it for ourselves as adults—or we will always feel as if we're standing outside of the big human party.
The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you're enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. When we don't have that, we shape-shift and turn into chameleons; we hustle for the worthiness we already possess.
Next: Why guilt isn't bad for you