An imperfect guide to belonging on earth
Today’s theory. All our suffering stems from one simple fear: the fear of being left out. All we really want is to feel we belong.
But as you may have noticed, feeling you belong in this world isn't easy - especially if you're a sensitive soul. And most of us get caught in the same sticky little trap:
We think that in order to be loved, we have to be special. And that's actually a recipe for more loneliness.
Let's look at what's going on here.
We try to fit in by standing out
Most of us want to be special in some way. Exceptional. Noteworthy.
Maybe we’re convinced we are special, and we’re just waiting for the world to figure it out. Or maybe we’re working towards something we think will make us special - fame, money, the perfect family, or enough followers on our dog’s Instagram account.
Why is being special such a deep yearning for so many of us?
There are the trendy explanations, that it’s an epidemic of a consumerist age, or the logical endpoint of Millennial culture. I think it’s far more long-standing.
I think it’s about belonging. If I'm special, people will like me more. They'll invite me to parties. They'll take me seriously. Wanting to be special is really just wanting to be worthy of love.
Paradoxically, we try to belong by standing out from the pack. But as you can imagine, this strategy has a few hidden pitfalls.
We want to be special, even if it makes us feel bad
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to be special. You can be exceptionally good at life. Perfect, and perfectly happy. Or you can be the opposite: perfectly screwed.
When the first one is not available (being perfectly happy) I often try out the second one (being perfectly screwed). It’s not necessarily something I do on purpose. Hands up if you’ve ever heard that Helpful Inner Voice piling on when life gets difficult:
Life: *sends something sucky your way*
Helpful Inner Voice: ‘This happened because *you* suck.’
What basic need is that Helpful Inner Voice trying to serve here? If I think of myself as exceptionally sucky, that gives me a certain special status. ‘Life is hard for everyone but for me it’s *really* hard.’
But what’s so great about being special if it makes me feel like crap? It comes back to this deep yearning to belong.
Whether I think of myself as perfect, or perfectly screwed, the hope is that this special status will give me the belonging I need. If I'm perfect, then people will like me and want to be around me. If I'm perfectly screwed, then people will take pity on me, and they will want to take care of me.
Except the reality is I'm neither of these two extremes, and chances are neither are you. The vast majority of us are somewhere in between. We are neither the best nor the worst.
There is good news here though. Being special is not the only way to find belonging. In fact, it can often be a barrier to finding your place in the world.
Being special gets in the way of belonging
There’s a documentary on Netflix called The Last Shaman, about a young guy named James who feels deeply depressed. In a desperate attempt to find a reason to live, he goes into the Amazon jungle for months on end. (I found this film buried deep in the archives, on my own slightly less adventurous quest for meaning on a Saturday night.)
In the climax to the film, James has a realisation that is a little unexpected. He’s spent years feeling like a piece of shit, convinced the world doesn’t need him, and yet this is the lightbulb moment that brings him his first glimpse of inner-peace:
So what’s going on here? If you already feel worthless, why would realising you’re not special be so uplifting?
I think it's more than just the pressure-release of not having to be perfect.
Even if your goal is to belong, being special is really about being different from everyone else. So it cuts you off from other people.
Being special means being in competition with others, and that’s a lonely place to be.
If you want to be the life of the party, you need everyone else to be be dull by comparison. If you want to be the one in your friend group who’s really kicking those career goals, it’s hard to get excited when your friends do well.
There is relief in the idea that you don’t have to compete just to belong. You don’t have to be the most charming person in the room to be worth inviting to the party. You don’t have to have your life all sorted out, but neither do you need to be a total fuck-up for people to care about you.
Finding where you belong can be *really* hard
In the documentary, James says he wants to be “part of something much bigger” than himself. So what does belonging look like, if it’s not about being special?
Ain’t that the question my friends. Ain't that the damn question.
I have no neat answers for you, just a few mangy thoughts that may or may not resonate.
The thing that may be most useful to know is: you’re not the only one who finds it hard to feel you belong on earth just as you are.
I showed this unfinished newsletter to Big Feels co-founder Honor, who promptly freaked out. She herself is currently partway through an Epic Trek Into the Internal Wilds of Unworthiness, and she said, it’s hard reading something that nails you so completely but doesn’t have a clear answer.
So over to her to finish off...
Honor and the Gaping Pit of Unbelonging
I spent three hours on the phone to my mum today, which is probably the longest conversation we’ve had in years. We were talking about my current panic station, which is all about not knowing where I fit, not knowing what I’m doing with my life, not knowing what to do next. I’ve just finished an 18-month project that took everything I had, and now I am feeling very lost.
The conversation was long and varied, as you can imagine. But my mum has seen me do this about every three years, for my whole life. She’s always been slightly perplexed by it, and today she asked me, ‘what do you think that’s all about?’
I told her it’s about this belonging thing. That I’ve always felt like I don’t really have a place in the world. In many ways I’ve rejected the normal ideas of place-making - I don’t have a normal job or workmates, I don’t have a big friend group, or kids.
I’ve always been equal parts rebellious and socially anxious, which has driven me away from those normal places. But now at 28, I feel stuck. I can’t be in them, but it’s painful to feel outside of them.
My big question right now is, what do you do from there?
Well, my panic brain has come up with two ports of call so far.
One, is just to acknowledge, with as much grace and kindness as you can muster, that it makes a lot of sense that it’s hard for us to feel we belong these days. The seasons of life are very different to when, say, my mum grew up. We move more, change jobs more, and we have these tiny computers in our pockets that open up a world of possibilities, anywhere but here. I feel old and tired saying this, but things ain’t like they used to be.
The second thing is, the trappings of belonging take time, and often concerted effort. And they’re not things that will win you prizes, they’re not things you can put on your résumé.
I saw a video the other day of Aussie political commentator Leigh Sales giving life advice. She said, when you think about changing the world, you should make your idea of “the world” really small. You should make it about changing the world for just the people you know, the people you come in contact with. The question becomes, how can you make that heavily-reduced version of the world slightly better?
She said it’s small things like, looking out for someone when they’re having a hard time. Or letting other people know that thing we’re all longing to hear: I see you, I take you seriously. You belong.
So, that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Tiny things. An impressively small list of impressively important things. We’ll see how I go. And if you’re reading this and you’ve been there before, my hat’s off to you my friend.
Much love from one pit of existential angst to another,