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Why “Fitting In” Is Different Than Belonging

 
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The push to conform and mask who we are can be difficult to fight because belonging is an extremely powerful and deep-seated driver for all of us. As social beings, we crave the need to not only be part of a tribe but to feel part of it. The tribe you want to belong to may be your family, cultural community, circle of friends, neighborhood, social networks, classmates, colleagues, professional associations, volunteer organizations, and those with whom you share pastimes.

Through belonging, we experience feelings of acceptance, love, connection, meaning, purpose, inclusion, kinship, and more. But belonging actually isn’t about fitting in, which some of us mistakenly believe it to be—it’s about being accepted for who we are.

In Brené Brown’s important book on vulnerability, The Gifts of Imperfection, she shares her insights on the significance of belonging, which she defines as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us.” She notes that “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

As Brown eloquently highlights, we are inclined to alter our behavior to become whoever we need to be in order to fit in and be accepted into a tribe. Our desire to belong may cause us to perform so that we can better access the experiences and feelings that come with membership in a tribe. The challenge is that, when we perform in order to belong, we’re not accepted based on who we truly are. It’s a false sense of belonging, which causes us to feel continued pressure to conform and mask—because if we don’t, our membership in the tribe may be threatened.

And this difference between fitting in and belonging strikes at the heart of the Authenticity Principle: the Performing Self is about fitting in because you feel that you have to change your behavior or mask who you are in order to be accepted by others, while the Authentic Self and the Adapted Self are about belonging because you’ve chosen to behave in such a way that reflects your authenticity and needs, and others have accepted you on the basis of this truth.

In practicing authenticity and fulfilling your related desire to belong to a range of social tribes, it’s essential that you have a clear understanding of

  • why you seek membership in a particular tribe,
  • to what extent you are able to be your Authentic Self and Adapted Self in order to belong in that tribe, and
  • the negative impact of performing.

Key message here: never let fitting in take the place of true belonging.

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This post is an excerpt from chapter 4 of The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead. Learn more about the book here.