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The Belonging Dilemma

Posted by Ken Gilbert on March 17, 2021

64008A77 14B3 4F26 ADF1 B021F9641940 1 201 aRecently, I was preparing for an Evoke Parent Support Group, stumbling through different topics looking for something that spoke to me (it may or may not have been at the last minute). I finally arrived at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, something I have looked at dozens of times, and discussed with both parents and clients on numerous occasions. One of the things I appreciate about the world of mental health is that I can look at something many times and still have a new takeaway. I was struck in that moment of preparation by Maslow’s understanding of our need to belong. Maslow posits that our love and belonging needs come just after our need for things like food, water, and safety. Our need for belonging even comes before our need for things like self-esteem, recognition, and freedom. The gravity of the need was truly apparent to me in that moment.


Most of the clients that I work with tend to have two critical, related aspects in common. The first is that they have an unmet need of belonging and connection. The second, is that the vulnerability and intimacy it takes to build meaningful connections is often frightening, triggering, or in some way intolerable. So the clients I often work with find themselves feeling stuck and unfulfilled. They want to connect, but often fear what it takes to do so. This makes up the belonging dilemma: Do I risk exposing myself to the painful emotions (often informed by previous relational experiences) of rejection or abandonment in order to connect? Or do I deny my fundamental needs and try to move through life with incongruence?

One of the things I love about the wilderness process is that it gives us the opportunity to have new, reparative relational experiences that can actually rewire our brains. The hope is that our clients can have experiences that challenge and reframe our previous wiring. If we are offered emotionally safe containers when we are ready, we can re-learn what it feels like to be safe in a relational context.

It seems the belonging dilemma has become exacerbated during a challenging year navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. I have noticed in my own life just how much I can take for granted my sense of belonging and connection (especially as an introvert). As things continued to lock-down, I found myself more and more symptomatic of things like anxiety. I think that I understand now the symptoms arose as a result of disconnection--lacking my usual relationships that filled my cup and brought a sense of purpose. Many of the young people I work with have acknowledged this as well. The pandemic increased their awareness of how necessary belonging and connection are when confronted by their absence. When we then cannot meet the need in a particular way, we often settle for less complete ways of meeting the need (i.e., substance use, acting out behaviors, and other forms of compulsion).

In my eyes the work is clear and challenging. Finding our people, allowing ourselves to be open, and seeking out richness in relationships helps to satiate our need for belonging. I think the more we are able to feel safe within a therapeutic context, the more willing we become to take important risks that expand our comfort zone and allow us to move more toward what we ultimately want. Finally, I think about my own experience in 12-step support and therapy a lot and share it with my clients. The greatest therapy and 12-step experiences I’ve had are the ones that prioritize our ability to relate to one other. When we are able to relate, we are able to feel that coveted sense of belonging that we are all desperately in search of.



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