Our Need to Belong
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 16, 2021
Our wellness—our flourishing life—depends on healthy connections that fulfill our need to belong
My four-year old grandson sadly confided that the kids at his new school wouldn't play with him. I consoled that if he gave it a little time, they would see what a wonderful boy he was and would invite him to play with them. Over the following weeks, he made a few friends and school became a joy. Our need to belong powerfully influences our lives. Acceptance flavors ordinary experiences with the zest of security.
Evolutionary Foundations for Belonging
Ada Lampert, senior lecturer in Evolutionary Psychology at the Ruppin Institute wrote, "the mammalian mothers were the first in evolution to feel concern about others, and they set the cradle for the evolution of love, the dependence of every individual on proximity, belonging, being cuddled" (1997, p. 23).
Life long needs for belonging are set early in life. We have a biological predisposition to crave warmth and security from others. A child's first moments outside of the womb are softly wrapped in the arms of a mother, where the infant is lovingly embraced. Here the child begins their lifelong pursuit to belong. The journey typically travels through both comforting and chaotic attachments.
The need to belong is burned deep into our cells. We yearn for love and crave accepting inclusion. Lampert explains that "throughout evolution, love, first as touch and then as a rich cluster of loving behaviors, has become a need, and even a prerequisite, for physiological and psychological well-being" (Lampert, 1997, p. 23).
"A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong."
When Needs to Belong are Not Met
Unfortunately, life being the way it is, many of us suffer long droughts, lacking the living waters of attentive others. We shrivel, parched by the loneliness. Rejection and loneliness impact all areas of our lives. We suffer physical illness, cognitive decline, and emotional disorders. When our needs to belong are thwarted, we pay a heavy price.
Brené Brown eloquently wrote, "when those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick."
Roy Braumeister and Mark Leary explain that "if Belongingness is indeed a fundamental need, then aversive reactions to loss of belongingness should go beyond negative affect and include some types of pathology" (1995, p. 500).
Belonging is a biological emotional need to be accepted. We are driven for inclusion in groups, families, and intimate relationships. Lack of fulfillment of this primary need has a wide reaching impact on our wellness.
Interconnected and Interdependent
Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine explain in the book True Belonging that "not only are we similar in the most basic ways, beginning with our DNA, but we all live our lives in a constantly unfolding present moment—where we are deeply interconnected and interdependent, relying literally breath-by-breath upon physical, emotional, and social exchanges and networks for our very existence and for the fabric of our lives" (2011, location 102).
Daniel Seigel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest that our whole idea of self is an illusion. We are so completely interconnected and interdependent with others that the boundary of where our mind ends and the mind of others begins is fuzzy.
Seigel explains further, "as we are also profoundly connected to others in an ever-changing and interdependent web of social relationships, we can also say that the 'self' is not a singular noun, but rather is a plural verb. We are not just an isolated, separate self, but an ever-emerging process of 'selfing' linked with other evolving selves over time" (2020, location 4838).
Mauricio Carvallo and Shira Gabriel in their paper on belonging suggest that early hominids would not have survived the harsh environments without the "formation and maintenance of social bonds." They continue, "presumably, the survival value of interdependence has evolved into a set of internal mechanisms that propel human beings into social groups (2006).
Baumeister and Leary expand on this, "mechanisms predispose all humans to relate to others, to experience affective distress when social relationships are denied or dissolved, and to experience pleasure or positive affect from social contact and relatedness (1995).
Belonging is a Priority
"Trying to ease the pain of loneliness and working to satisfy our need to belong often take precedence over other goals, leading people to renounce immediate gratification and self-interest in order to find better and broader long-term outcomes" (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2009, location 3411).
Self-determination theory proposes that our need for connection is a primary force motivating behavior.
See Self Determination Theory for more on this topic
The drive for acceptance creates such a powerful force that we often integrate defensive mechanisms to shield our fragile sense of self from fears of rejection.
We still pursue other goals, however, many pursuits occur only after the need to belong has been fulfilled.
Balancing Independent Goals without Harming Close Relationships
Murray, Holmes and Collins suggest we have an internal regulation system to gauge risks while still pursuing the goal of belonging. “The central assumption of the model is that negotiating interdependent life requires a cognitive, affective, and behavioral regulatory system for resolving the conflict between the goals of self-protection and relationship promotion.” The goal of this system is to optimize safety in our relationship environment. They explain this evaluative system is dynamic, constantly balancing risk and reward (2006).
The balancing of self and others creates the dynamic and complex challenges of intimacy. We can't be completely self serving, chasing our wants and needs (narcissistic); nor can we be completely self sacrificing, failing to establish healthy protecting boundaries (co-dependent). Successful relationships and personal flourishing rely on fulfilling belonging needs without losing the integrity of self.
See Living with Integrity for more on this topic
Satisfying the Need to Belong
Since belonging is a fundamental need, it stimulates goal directed activity to be satisfied. Like all internal motivating drives, we are driven by the need to react but often respond with ineffective behaviors. Relationship fears and anxieties may force those we need away, ruining opportunities to fulfill our basic desires of acceptance.
Baumeister and Leary propose that the need to belong has two main features:
Frequent Personal Contacts
The first feature is frequent personal human contact. We need shared experiences, warm embraces, and personal acceptance. These interactions fuel our existence and feed our souls.
Security of Continued Fulfillment
The second feature is security of continued belonging need fulfillment. When full of anxiety over the whether or not a partner will continue to fulfill our needs, we constantly grasp for more. The momentary joys of connection are lost in worries over tomorrow.
The basic foundation of relationship trust rests on the affirmative answer to the question, "will you be there for me tomorrow" (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).
See Building Trust for more on this topic
Belongingness and Loneliness
The painful opposite of belongingness is loneliness. When our need to belong is thwarted we experience loneliness.
Loneliness is a state of mind. It is not necessarily about being alone but feeling alone and isolated.
Since loneliness is a state of mind, it relies on subjective interpretations of belonging. We can be in a healthy relationship or wandering through a crowd and still feel lonely.
See Alone and Lonely Together for more on this topic
Let me clarify. Our state of mind is not independent of circumstances. Reality and subjective experience are associated but not identical. States of mind can diverge from experience in traumatic and wonderful fashion.
If we experience loving acceptance, it is far easier to feel belongingness. If we are repeatedly rejected and rebuffed, it is more likely we will feel lonely. There are exceptions to rules—especially when our rascal mind is involved.
Self hatred may prevent acceptance of love when it is present. Dominating narcissistic tendencies may blur rejections. The twisting of reality to fit pre-conceived ideas may soften pain or prevent healing.
Improving Our Sense of Belonging
Like most psychological improvements, the answers our seldom straight forward. Yet, we can improve, expanding our wellness and enjoying life a little more.
For most, we need to work both on states of mind and quality of relationships. Superficial relationships will not do, nor will trickery of mind, attempting to deceive legitimate biological drives.
Practice relationship skills, seek guidance, and reflect on successful and failed interactions. We don't need dozens of relationships to fulfill the need for belonging, just a few quality connections.
Improving perception is a little more challenging. Patterns of thought and tone of perception is burned into our cognitions, littered with faulty beliefs, and emotional relics. Yet, we can get better. We can front out rogue and mischievous thoughts that destroy the quality of our relationships. The often involves outside help from a close friend our professional experienced therapist.
Sometimes, successful development arrives with luck. A person enters our lives and breaks down the barriers, penetrating the protective walls and provides the warmth and belonging we need.
"The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging."
My grandson's journey of acceptance and rejection has just begun. My journey of belonging continues, full of anxieties and joys. My grandson will face many new challenges, establishing relationships in new schools, jobs, and social worlds. My belonging challenges are different. I must prevent established relationships from slipping, keeping connections alive and energizing. For both of us, our conscious effort to belonging is critical—our wellness depends on it.
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Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
Brantley, J., Millstine, W. (2011). True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect with Others, and Cultivate Happiness. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition
Cacioppo, J. T., Patrick, W. (2009). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.
Carvallo, M., & Gabriel, S. (2006). No Man Is an Island: The Need to Belong and Dismissing Avoidant Attachment Style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), 697-709.
Lampert, A. (1997). The Evolution of Love. Praeger; First Edition
Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Collins, N. (2006). Optimizing Assurance: The Risk Regulation System in Relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 641-666.
Siegel, D. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.