Belonging. A core yearning of the human soul.
In 2008, while researching for my graduate studies, I learned about Self-Determination Theory. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan explain that one of the main reasons why human beings do what they do is because of a desire for a relatedness. This same concept of relatedness can be understood as belonging. We do things or don’t do things because of an innate need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and feel connected to other human beings.
This research fascinated me for two different reasons. First, it resonated so deeply and personally with me in relation to the joys and struggles I faced in my own life. I wanted to engage in the situations and be with the people with whom I felt connection and belonging. On the other hand, I procrastinated, avoided, and didn’t feel good in circumstances and relationships that triggered insecurities, fears, and disconnection. The research findings and tenets of the theory described me so well. The second reason I was fascinated is because the research showed that this was a near-universal experience for other human beings. I thought something was just weird about me. I didn’t realize the commonality in our joint humanity of needing to belong and be loved for who we are.
Even with this understanding, this belongingness can often be elusive. In a social-media-saturated society, we often don’t see the whole picture of people. We just see the highlights reel… the part that is well-polished… the perfect part that will make other people want to be our friend. Right?
Recently, I heard Don Markland, founder CEO of Accountability Now in Florida, USA, share the following insight:
Years ago my wife and I were able to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We got to see works of art by the greatest painters the world has ever known. At one time we got to see Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night. I love his work. As we were there looking at these paintings, we were listening to a guide, and the guide said to us, “Lean in. You can tell that the painting is authentic because you can notice the cracks in the paint. It’s the cracks in the paint that make it genuine.” Notice what that means. The cracks, the imperfections, prove that the painting is real. The same thing could be said with all of us. None of us are perfect. All of us have our own cracks in our paint, but it is the cracks in the paint that make us authentic. It’s the cracks in the paint, it’s the cracks in who we are that make us real.
It’s the cracks that make us real.
We have an innate need to be known and belong authentically.
Those two truths together set up a very vulnerable proposition. In order to truly belong, we must show up in our wholeness and humanity, with our strengths and our weaknesses, our gold stars and our cracks. Then, we must be seen and accepted in our wholeness and humanity.
That shouldn’t be so complicated, and yet, if I am going to be vulnerable and authentic here, I have to admit that vulnerability and authenticity can be very challenging. It is a little bit scary to trust that others will see and love me that way AND to trust that I can be the kind of person to love and accept other human beings in their wholeness. In the end, there may be ways that we each believe we are different from others, and that those differences will exclude us from belonging.
That fear is exactly why a podcast featuring Suzette Halterman, certified relationship and couples coach, broadened my perspective and eased my anxiety so much. In the discussion, Suzette explains to the host, Richard Ostler, a theory of relationship development. She described it in terms of a Venn diagram where two circles, or two individuals, overlap and share many things in common. Then when individual growth and relationship shifts happen, those circles move apart. If the individuals can only find connection and belonging because of our overlap, or the similarities, then the relationship can be endangered. However, if the individuals learn to communicate and develop through it, they can have connection and belonging in their differences and not just their similarities. In this stage of development, relationships can become deeper and stronger than they ever could when based solely on overlapping similarities.
What a beautiful perspective! Belongingness can thrive even amidst differences. Belongingness can thrive as we grow and change. Belongingness can thrive as we show up in our humanness and see and honor the humanness of our fellow humans. It’s our cracks that make us real, and learning to show up and love others as they show up in their real humanness is what will unite us all.
See van Gogh’s work up close… zoom in to see the cracks!