Popular as early as the 1950s, coming-of-age films such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Clueless,” and more recently, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved” have a ubiquitous motif of psychological, moral, and spiritual growth. Most pivot on an individual finding a sense of belonging as they transition from youth to adulthood. However, the ingrained need to belong is not only reserved for the young.
As I discussed in my last column, love and belonging are essential components of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that motivates human behavior. Carl Rogers, a founder of the humanistic approach in psychology, also thought that personal growth requires genuine acceptance and empathy from others. Researchers have found that those who do not have a sense of belonging may be more prone to depression, social anxiety, and overall loneliness. Humans need to love and be loved by others, whether familial, platonic, or romantic.
But what happens when the need to fit in or find love and belong becomes overwhelming?
In the late 1800s, French sociologist Émile Durkheim put forth the idea of the collective consciousness, which occurs when a group of humans recognizes their commonalities and begins to think and act as a single living unit. While humans are not as bug-brained as bees, we do frequently partake in one variation of this hive mindset by forming groups called cliques. In cliques, individuals share common interests, values, status, or lifestyles and exclude others, going as far as making it impossible for outsiders to join the group.
Sounds like a bad synopsis of the movie “Mean Girls” from 2004? Unfortunately, the practice does not conclude when teenagers graduate from high school. Adults of all genders can engage in a clique culture that breeds gossip, rumors, and private insults to others with an aim at strengthening the clique member’s bond.
Although it is easy to condemn individuals in cliques that we may not fit into, it is important to recognize the utility of these groups. Gossip, in particular, has an evolutionary purpose. The gossip theory as it relates to language evolution is our ability to form connections and alliances with other people to help keep our families and ourselves safe.
Sharing a juicy tidbit about how Dave in accounting cheated on Barbara in marketing may be your form of prosocial gossip to help your friend steer clear of Dave and any impending heartbreak. However, as the idiom goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Using gossip and rumors for personal self-interest or gain is a slippery slope away from the Jedi path to the Sith.
Sometimes it feels that there is very little within our power to change our situations, particularly if you are navigating cliques or lacking a sense of belonging at work, within your relationships, or at school. As we are not all blessed with the ability to be social chameleons, able to fit into a variety of different groups of people, you may find yourself at a new juncture feeling the weight of exclusion. That is OK and very normal.
When looking for a stronger sense of connection and belonging, start with self-reflection. Being honest and aware of what is important to you can help you find ways to link with other like-minded people. You may have an affinity for knitting, geocaching, or trainspotting; in the age of the internet, you will find someone or someones who share your predilections no matter how unique. Join classes or groups within your community, or take the initiative and start the monthly haiku club!
Community and belonging are integral to optimal functioning, even if you are an introvert or fancy yourself a lone wolf. Your community can be as small as three or as large as one hundred; the bottom line is that you must have it. Be less like Snake Plissken in “Escape from L.A.” and more like Disney’s Hercules — go the distance to find where you belong. When you do find where you belong, be mindful not to alienate others; remember how lonely it can be to be Snake.