There’s a big difference between fitting in and belonging. Unfortunately, as we all try to meet our basic human need for the latter, some mistakenly pursue the former, at a significant cost to their well-being.
Fortunately, as I’ll explain here, you have a barometer that tells you the difference. You just have to pay attention to it.
Belonging and Fitting In Defined
Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
Brené Brown’s pair of definitions, from her book The Gifts of Imperfection, gets to the heart of the matter. Virtually everyone who looks at this distinction (here’s another nicely written take) comes to the same core conclusion: fitting in requires compromise on the part of the self, often at the cost of the self, whereas true belonging is unconditional acceptance of the whole self. Fitting in focuses on the external and disregards the internal. It requires you to adjust your external self to suit the environment—the proverbial square peg and the round hole. It encourages disregard, or even rejection, of the inner self. Belonging, on the other hand, prioritizes the inner self. It allows you space to adjust your external environment to suit your internal needs.
Fitting in requires compromise on the part of the self, often at the cost of the self, whereas true belonging is unconditional acceptance of the whole self.
Synonyms for fitting in include adapting, acculturating, blending in, and becoming like.
Synonyms for belonging include having a place, acceptance, integration, union, and rapport.
There’s one more term I’ll need to define to explore the difference between these two things, and that’s simulacrum. A simulacrum is a likeness or imitation of a thing, but with a sense of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original, according to Wikipedia.
Fitting in is a simulacrum of belonging. It’s something like it, but inferior, without certain key qualities of the real thing.
The Basic Human Need to Belong
So why do people settle for a simulacrum? Simple: because belonging is a basic human need that can also be hard to meet.
This need is common to many animal species. An animal apart from its herd—picture a wildebeest or an antelope, for instance—becomes easier prey to other species. A helpless human child that doesn’t have an adult to attach to and to attend to its needs grows up (if it even survives that long) fearful, potentially sickly, and less able to form healthy, sustainable relationships that encourage differentiation and individuation.
A human who does develop a deep sense of belonging, however, will be able to regulate her nervous system consistently. If she maintains this belonging throughout her lifespan, it will enable her to be well in mind, body, and in spirit, providing her the space to strive and optimize her innate capabilities. The modern science of epigenetics suggests the benefits of belonging—or the harms of missing it—even become coded in our genes. The impact of belonging or not extends beyond our generation.
How My Environment Helped Me
I was one of the fortunate ones myself. I was raised in a Jewish community with parents who gave me enough presence. I also received excellent mirroring from adults who weren’t my parents. While my quirks and peculiarities (which my best friend and I called “being weird”) would have made me a target for bullies in some circumstances, my community allowed me the space to value my quirks for what I decided they were, rather than for what some external source told me they were. In other words, I was encouraged to trust myself and my perceptions. I therefore had no need to create protective padding between my inner and outer selves. I could explore questions of identity without needing to make them concrete and brittle, the way some people do to fit in. And so I could steer clear of simulacra and hold out for the original.
In fact, this was such a solid framework that I managed to make it to the ripe old age of 46 without experiencing the perils that push many to pursue a mere simulacrum of belonging. When I did face those perils, I was able to use my internal experience to sense that some pressure in the environment had changed. In other words, because I experienced belonging in my formative years, I knew how to read my barometer.
How Simulacra Affect Your Body
I was fortunate, but many of my clients were not. They never learned to read their own barometer—to sense the difference in pressure between the real stuff and the fake stuff. For them, the first question is this: how do I tell the difference?
The answer is that you use your full body.
To illustrate, let me use another metaphor, this time from my education as a nutrition coach. Consider a type of cell called an estrogen receptor. These are groups of proteins found inside cells which are activated by the hormone estrogen. Once activated, these receptors influence many bodily functions and, optimally, create ease and well-being in the body. In this metaphor, the estrogen molecule itself represents belonging.
Enter a group of artificial hormones called estrogen mimickers, which you might know as phytoestrogens and xenoestrogens. These are substances that behave similarly to estrogen, with chemical structures that are substantially similar but not the same. Their similarity to estrogen means that they can bind to estrogen receptors—and when they do, they can be quite disruptive.
Your Body Rejects the Fake Stuff
In this metaphor, estrogen mimickers are simulacra of estrogen in the same way that fitting in is a simulacrum for belonging. Unfortunately, because estrogen mimickers are everywhere in our environment, many people have never experienced true wellness. As a result, they learn to live in a state of chronic incoherence we call illness. Only when we are able to create environments for ourselves that are low in mimickers can we begin to come into wellness. It’s only when we banish the simulacra that we recognize the impact of these compounds on our system. And once we’ve experienced true wellness—coherence—we can begin to hone our capacity to notice the shift into incoherence.
But here’s the thing: even if ninety percent of the structural makeup of the estrogen mimicker is the same as the real thing, that ten percent difference causes dissonance. Similarly, when we work to fit in, ninety percent of the experience—the part that’s most obvious to us on the surface—looks great. It looks like we expect belonging to look. But the ten percent that doesn’t fit makes all the difference to the nervous system.
Identifying the Subtle Signals of Dysregulation
When I began my certification in Nutrition at the now-defunct Natural Health Consultants Institute here in Montreal, I was exposed to a number of nutritional paradigms. At that time, I did a six month experiment in vegetarianism. Soy, with its high concentration of phytoestrogens, was a big part of my vegetarian diet, and I consumed more than my fair share.
My menstrual cycles, which had always been relatively peaceful before, began to express themselves with a new, uncomfortable energy. Instead of being just slightly moody on the days leading up to my period, I became irritated and edgy. My body felt invaded, overtaken by something foreign. The feelings were subtle, but I was used to smooth period experiences—and I’d been taught what to pay attention to when it came to my body and its nutritional signals. I was therefore prepared to notice the subtle signals that something was off—the ten percent incompatibility that affected how I related outwardly to the world. When I removed soy from my diet, my body returned to a state of regulation, in which everything in my body belonged.
My body felt invaded, overtaken by something foreign. The feelings were subtle, but I’d been taught what to pay attention to when it came to my body and its nutritional signals. I was therefore prepared to notice the subtle signals that something was off.
What Does Belonging Feel Like?
So what does it feel like, in the body, when we experience belonging?
It feels like wellness. It feels like stillness. It feels like calm regulation.
You feel calm because, when you belong, you have space to observe the world around you before choosing how you want to engage with it, instead of fearing stepping out of line. You have the time to examine options before choosing the one that is best for you, instead of deferring to the crowd. You have the freedom to change your mind and change course.
When you belong, you feel calm because you have the space to observe the world around you before choosing how you want to engage with it, instead of fearing stepping out of line.
True belonging feels calm, solid, stable, grounded, light, and regulated. It’s many notes playing in harmony, resulting in a melody that communicates the state of the internal environment. Your body experiences fitting in, however, the way an audience experiences an orchestra with a poorly tuned violin. Just one instrument’s dissonance throws the whole performance off.
The Disappearance of Dissonance
Belonging can also feel like the absence of anxiety, agitation, depression, focus issues, and digestive troubles. For some, the disappearance of symptoms we’ve been dealing with for most of our lives will be the most telling signal. You notice the violin that’s out of tune—and you notice, gratefully, when it goes away and harmony prevails.
People become aware of this dissonance in a variety of ways, such as personal experiences, imagined experiences (along the lines of what Dabrowski called “what ought to be”), guided practices, or therapy. However you notice it, the next step is the same: you must feel in your body what it is to truly belong. Once you have felt that, you have what you need to orient back to that experience. In this way, your body is your compass. You must use it regularly and with intention.
From this point of awareness, you can begin to reject the simulacrum in favour of the real thing. With enough practice, you’ll eventually do it unconsciously. Because once you’ve recognized the simulacrum for what it is, you won’t want to tolerate it anymore.