An integral part of feeling human is that sense of belongingness. We are innately programmed to want to belong to something/someone beyond ourselves. At the core of belongingness are acceptance, support, and protection.
Prolonged lack of belongingness may lead to a feeling of loneliness and chronic low self-esteem. Without that feeling one feels like driftwood, floating hopelessness. Our need to feel anchored is critical to our feeling connected with the world at large. The need to belong has at its core our need for attachment. Both are inextricably interlinked.
The years post my mother’s death I felt anchorless. The cocoon of safety that I took for granted died with her. After the initial few days of mourning, everyone went back to their lives. And it was at this time when the reality of her death sunk in, I felt truly alone. No one really had time for me or was really interested. I was more an afterthought/unpleasant obligation rather than ‘my mother’s darling.’
Gnawing Hole Of Emptiness
That pervasive feeling of ‘being no one to nobody’ gnawed at my soul. The feeling of not belonging was such a visceral part of my existence since my mother died. I felt disconnected and worthless. I also felt so angry, rageful, jealous that no one could empathically attune to ME. Rather than having unrealistic expectations from me.
The worst part of being unwanted as a child is your existence feels meaningless.
Only recently that gnawing hole of emptiness is slowly filling up and I am deeply grateful. That felt feeling of being whole and protected is something I will never take for granted.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for belongingness is an intrinsic part of our survival system. Besides food and safety, we need to be part of a group to survive in the world.
A sense of belonging is more than just being acquainted with other people. At its core is reciprocal acceptance, attention, and support from members of the group. It is more of ‘we have each other’s backs.’ Without this two-way acceptance, the relationship is exploitative and unsatisfying.
To me, belongingness means I can call that person, ask for something without feeling small even though my request may be declined. Make deals without feeling bad, someone who accepts me and does not judge me. Someone who validates me, and who I can lean on. While I simultaneously return the favor as and when needed. It is the feeling of utter comfort of being who we are without putting on different masks.
Lack Of Belongingness
Research has shown that lack of belongingness leads to higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol which detrimentally affects our immune system. Additionally, it leads to feelings of loneliness which amps up our anxiety, and depression.
Without a sense of belonging, we feel lost and alone. The world feels like a scary place to be in, especially when we are children. It is critical for a child’s well-being that parents/ caregivers make him/her feel loved and accepted.
Unfortunately, many parents are busy or preoccupied or simply lack empathy to tune in and truly understand their children. Failing to be attuned to a child’s deepest longings leads to a sense of disconnection and misattunement.
Our brain is profoundly impacted when we feel excluded. There is only so long can we live with this feeling of disconnect. The pandemic and the work from home culture have taken a toll on our social relationships. Inevitably, our mental and physical health are adversely affected.
Betrayal And Not Belonging
Losing my mother at 11, was life-altering. Forever my life was split into 2 parts, before her death, and after her death. The warm loving bubble that encased me until then burst. I felt unprotected and vulnerable. My abusive father went full-on mental most of the time.
The pain of my mother’s death was exacerbated by the utter shock of having to deal with the Jekyll-Hyde behavior of some extended family.
Before my mother’s death, they were caring and considerate. Or were they pretending? I will never know. Maybe the Hawthorne effect was in action. Science has proven that people behave better when they know they are watched.
Overnight, from being the most benevolent grandmother in the world, I had to deal with cold/rejecting crone. She who was always asking us to eat food at her place when my mother was alive, suddenly did not have any food when I begged her to give me something to eat.
Uncle Mean who was not so mean when my mother was alive turned into an obnoxious jerk. Always making fun of my clothes and body. Furthermore, he’d bring food items for his kids and give my grandmother specific instructions to give these items only to his kids. Yet, I was supposed to babysit his toddlers.
Being the good girl who wanted to go to heaven, I did my best to suppress my angry, rageful feelings and be kind to these kids. Forty years later I am still struggling with the aftermath of being the unpaid maidservant while they are living successful lives.
Life can be so unfair.
The Rage Of Being Not Acknowledged
The lack of empathy, support, meanness, and covert abuse left me confused. My mind was a churning cauldron of chaotic thoughts and feelings. All the negative emotions of the spectrum boiled within me. And for years I kept it all bottled up and suppressed.
What was confounding to me then as they were kind to their own kids. Yet could be so utterly unkind to me. To a child, this meanness was very traumatizing. My only value was only how useful and helpful I could be.
I remember my grandmother telling me that she needed help to care for Uncle Mean’s kids, who was abroad at the time. ‘I cannot manage them’ she tugged at my heartstrings. And so feeling compassion, every day of my vacation time was spent caring for them. Once they left she was back to her silent/moody state. I no longer existed for her until she next needed me.
The worse part was she was able to switch the blow hot and cold button depending on who was around. At least if she had been consistent in her behavior, it would not have affected me so badly.
The worst part of being parentified is not being acknowledged for one’s contribution. It was always pay-back time for the intermittent kindness bestowed on me.
Interaction Without Caring
Many of us grow up not being valued for who we are. We are just accessories/props/slaves who have to fit into the system. Our needs and feelings are of no importance. After a long time of thwarted attempts at connecting with our family/caregivers, we succumb to despairing loneliness.
Misattunement to a child’s real needs and feelings can lead to a sense of being unseen and unheard. This invalidation of their true essence creates a deep chasm within their psyche. Not feeling part of your family of origin negatively affects your outside social relationships.
Lacking this internalized feeling of belonging we either become too needy or schizotypal. We don’t know how to maintain a balance between autonomy and connection. Every external interaction is confusing and unsatisfying.
If we don’t feel we belong in our family, the foundation of our existence, we will forever have a hard time finding our place in the world. Most of the time we are making ourselves small and hiding our real gifts only to be accepted.
The Pain Of Exclusion
The pain of exclusion cuts deeply within our core. Furthermore, in dysfunctional families, these were not one-time stray events, they were regular and often intentional.
A denial of your feelings, needs, and non-inclusion is deeply distressing. The message was – you are not one of us.
Ostracism directly threatens belongingness as it insidiously isolates a person from others, leaving them without social contact and support.
Exclusion leads to the alteration of one’s self-image. I know my self-esteem plummeted to the gutter within 2 years of my mother’s death.
From the day my mother died until recently I wasn’t able to catch a break. Aside from the major traumas, there were innumerable micro-traumas that cut out a large chunk of my soul.
Furthermore, feeling excluded from the family system can lead us to develop rejection sensitivity.
Lack Of Belongingness Leads To Rejection Sensitivity
Being rejected by your family teaches us that those closest to us are likely to hurt us and reject us. This subconscious message we carry with us into adulthood.
Fearing rejection in every relationship and hypervigilance became my default state. Forever scanning for signs of acceptance or non-acceptance.
This led to over-reactivity and defensive behavioral responses. That’s no way one can have a good relationship with anyone.
My brain was on alert, double-checking and my body was wound up in defensive protection.
I learned the best way to stave off any potential threat of rejection was by becoming a codependent fawner. If I pleased everyone, there is no way I will be rejected. Of course, that’s not true. I learned quite late, that ‘you cannot buy love’ people either like you or don’t and this has nothing to do with your intrinsic worth.
Two Blocks To Healing
One huge block to my healing process was being unable to acknowledge and accept my real feelings. Years of suppressing them and covering them up with meta-emotions. Pretending I was fine when I was really not okay.
Reading about other people’s trauma stories, listening to vlogs like the one below have been helpful in not feeling ashamed of having feelings. In addition, writing this blog has helped me put into words and express what I experienced. This has been immensely cathartic.
The other block was the deluded hopefulness that kept me stuck in expectations of better treatment. Hoping that I would be eventually accepted and understood by my family. However, I have had to slowly come to the conclusion that people don’t change. There will be no answers nor will there be any reconciliation or acceptance of wrongdoings.
Instead, I have to change myself – my thoughts, perceptions, and attachment.
To surrender the hope, meant I had to grieve for that little child who so desperately wanted to belong.
I have to mourn everything I was entitled to but never got, And I have to accept the sad bitter truth that the way it always will be is the way it always has been.
The Power Of Grief After Leaving The Narcissistic Family
State of Realization
I am reaching that state of realization that ‘there will never be…re-connecting or going back to the places/person that I ruminated about.
Ref: Silent rage: When being excluded and ignored leads to acts of aggression, vengeance, and/or self-harm
Strong At The Broken Places – Linda T Stanford