The need to belong

By Elizabeth Hovde

“We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. 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.”

Brené Brown, researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work

I had a lot of windshield time on a drive home from Boise with my two young boys who found tablet-assisted “Clash of Clans” and back-seat movies far more desirable than playing word games and “Would you rather?” with me.

I got in one “Would you rather?” I asked, “Would you rather go to school naked or in a tutu?” They both chose tutu, after much deliberation. Good men. Since I wasn’t able to amuse myself with a cell phone or laptop and had no audio book, I decided to play a thinking game.

An article I read the night before mentioned the following exercise: Recall your three most treasured memories and your three worst ones. I picked my threes. I smiled, I wiped tears, I started creating an awesome soundtrack for the picks.

Elizabeth Hovde on Arizona;s Camelback Mountain

Elizabeth Hovde on Arizona;s Camelback Mountain

With hours of driving yet to go, I upped the exercise and spent some time looking for a common thread that weaved through this six-pack. There was one: belonging. A sense of belonging or the loss of it was present in all these memories, and in a whole bunch of others that didn’t make the cut. And it became even more clear to me that rocks do feel pain; and islands cry. Maybe that’s why they are surrounded by water. (Despite that song, I really was making a great soundtrack that the Simon and Garfunkel tune kept crowding.)

Belonging is among the most basic of human needs. We need to give and receive affection from others. We need to feel that we’re a part of something. We need to feel loved.

Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, believed the need to belong was such a major source of human motivation that it’s third on his list of five human needs, sitting only behind physiological and safety needs.

Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. According to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, all human beings need a certain quantity of regular and satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need results in unhealthy loneliness, mental distress and instability, says the research I did on the issue. I’d add anxiety to that listing.

Law enforcement professionals, support groups and psychologists talk about how much the desire to belong plays into gang membership. The Los Angeles Police Department writes, “To the majority of gang members, the gang functions as an extension of the family and may provide companionship lacking in the gang member’s home environment.” Belonging is often why members join.

It’s often why they won’t or can’t leave, even when their moral codes are compromised and they are being used. I’ve always found that fascinating; It gives me some understanding about the unthinkable.

A week after my windshield time back from Boise, I sat staring at a lake with a group of girls I’d been staring at that lake with for 15 years. During this year’s lake stare, it was clear I didn’t belong. My group of fun, close-knit and wonderful women had lives that stayed on a path mine didn’t. So had my family’s. So had my ex-husband’s family, who, after 20 years, was no longer mine.

I’m building new relationships. I probably need to find new lakes to stare at, so I don’t have Simon and Garfunkel making appearances in my head.

In a world in which my life’s landscape hardly resembles the one it did five years ago after a traumatic brain injury and a divorce, I’m glad I can at least see the boys in the back seat ignoring “Would you rather?”  They help keep me from falling apart and breaking, which I’d really rather not.

Dina Elizabeth Hovde writes columns for The Oregonian. She belongs two miles from the Columbia River in a home with her two sons.


Editor’s note: I met Elizabeth when I edited her columns as The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion editor and I’m glad that our professional relationship morphed into a personal friendship. I love that she writes with such honesty and humor about life’s setbacks and her own foibles.
Tomorrow: “To unfinished stories” by Tim Akimoff

13 thoughts on “The need to belong

  1. What a timely piece. Just having had heart surgery, my life has seemed like a thing I study. I never imagined I’d live this long, and it’s a strange landscape. Belonging seems like a finger print, the boundaries and rules of that are unique for everyone. Some people wander for a while, but they know when they have found where they belong. Some people belong in every room they walk into. I envy those people, but that’s not me. It seems like Maslow’s hierarchy is more like an escalator than a ladder. One need rises to the top, then disappears, then rises eventually to the top again. Loved seeing your face again. I always enjoy your writing. That’s where you belong. Your writing really touches people. You aren’t just talented, you’re genuine. You’re the real deal.

    • Completely humbled. Thanks, John. And thanks for perspective on a whole different level of this thought. Love thinking of the Maslow’s hierarchy as an escalator!!!

  2. Damn, John. You are a magician with words. You have a real talent for finding exactly the right words to express exactly what you mean. I love the escalator analogy. And I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Elizabeth as talented and genuine. She is the real deal — and so are you.

  3. I love your honesty. You express your feelings which so much authenticity. That takes a lot of courage. I have always had a huge need to belong and I have often sacrificed my needs to do that. As an immigrant in a rather white city, I tried to belong everywhere – with the local community with the Indian diaspora, with school volunteers, with other groups – never really succeeding much. I’ve watched obscure art films at a movie theater all by myself.
    Lately I have been following the teachings of the Law of Attraction – where the concept is everything is a vibration. There really is no constant “You” no person in your life as a whole. All we ever have is a moment in time. There’s a person, a feeling, a connection at a certain point in time whether it’s with a group, a baby, a friend, a job or a spouse.
    I often can’t relate to many structures from my past anymore. At a self-development conference in Seattle, I feel like I have been suddenly admitted into Hogwart’s after years with the Muggles. But the good news is that relationships (even failed ones) are eternal. You can enjoy the new situations, relationships you now have, but the connection you had with someone a long time ago is still real and valid. In your mind you can stay connected to that person in that moment and belong to that group. You can even be connected to someone or something separated by space or someone who is estranged. And then you discover that it doesn’t really matter anymore. You don’t care if you belong or not.
    Nicely Written!

    • Thank you! I can’t imagine being an immigrant or a minority and dealing with feelings of “belonging.” And I agree: We are constantly evolving and our various connections come and go — and yet remain. Thanks for chewing this with me.

  4. What a great essay that touched me on so many levels, so thank you for that. For me, personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that I “belonged” anywhere … that I simply did not fit into place among others. It’s been an odd feeling that’s probably driven by being introverted, always lonely even when not alone, a missing person in her own shoes. It all stems from family of origin losses that began early, I believe … or maybe it’s just how some of us are wired. Regardless, this is definitely an essay I will return to a few more times.

    With all your life changes over the last few years, I hope you belong to yourself, if nowhere else.

  5. I feel so fortunate reading your thoughts, Lynn. I never felt a lack of belonging for any extended period of time until recently. And I hate that some of you have had to feel it longer. I look at my two very different boys and see one struggle with belonging and one always feeling that he belongs. It makes me think it’s mostly how people are wired.
    And know I do feel like I belong to me and to my creator. After all, I do make perfect sense to me! 🙂
    Thanks again.

  6. Your writing is simply the best, Elizabeth. Year after year in VOA, I never fail to be moved by your honesty and vulnerability. You embody the beauty of Brene Brown’s wisdom–leading into your piece with her words was perfect. I too find myself reflecting on a daily basis how much I rely on the very presence of my daughters for both purpose and joy. The parent-child relationship historically was not always oddly imbalanced as it is both in my life and in our larger culture. Jennifer Senior’s “All Joy and No Fun” is quite insightful on this topic. Again, “Thank you”.

  7. E – your observation that you needed to find others to lake stare with is spot on. Over the last five-six years I’ve cultivated several new friend-bff’s (people I cycle with, my big-screen movie going group, my swim friends) and have marveled at the newness of each. I’m also lucky to have discovered George’s VOA community – and thoroughly appreciate you!

    • Thanks, Al!
      I miss working out with others. Cycle and swim friends have meant so much to me over the years! It’s awesome when your social life gets coupled with your workout one. And the beer always tastes better.

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