I have been contemplating the drive to belong. It is one of the most essential drives in human nature, very tied with the attachments we do (or do not) form as infants. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did the earliest work on attachment theory, which is about the bonding of infants with their caregiver(s). The idea is that the strong, secure attachments formed in the early years of life lay a good foundation for that person to form intimate, trusting, and emotionally secure relationships in adulthood. Tied in with that is also the formation of feelings of good self-worth and the ability to trust others. The more secure your attachment as a child, the more emotionally stable you are later in life. You believe you are a worthy individual, and while you desire relationships with others, you are not driven to seek reassurance from others.
Human infants take longer to mature than most animals, so “belonging” to an older person or group of people is necessary for survival. Hence, this drive to belong is also an evolutionary development. It is hardwired into our brains. But like many other behavioral elements of our brains, it can be influenced by our environment. If we have been able to form secure attachments as an infant and small child, we expect we will also be able to belong to the groups around us. If we have not been able to form secure attachments, that drive for attachment will never quite be fulfilled. There will be a much stronger need to belong.
All sorts of relationships and groups are candidates for “belonging.” There are the potential mates and friends in our lives, our family, schools, neighborhoods, clubs, social organizations, ethnic groups, cultures, socio-economic groups, political groups, spiritual groups, sports groups/fans, workplaces, gaming guilds, and the list goes on and on. Belonging is such a pervasive part of human nature, that the loner is often mistrusted, or seen as dangerous. Loners tend to be the outliers in a Bell Curve, where most of humanity is grouped in the middle. 🙂 But this is a Bell Curve with two tails — on one end we have the well-adjusted loners, and on the other we have those who are maladjusted. It is my guess that the well-adjusted loners are the ones who had secure attachment as children, and now prefer being alone more often than not. Perhaps they are more sensitive individuals, who would rather avoid the turmoil of groups of humanity. However, on the other end we have the maladjusted loners, the ones who are uncomfortable with being alone, but have never quite been able to belong. My guess is that these are the ones who were not able to form attachments as infants and small children, so they never learned to trust, or to even believe they were worthy of belonging. These are the ones who give loners a bad name — who project their anger on others with bombs and shootings. Feelings of rejection may also lead to substance abuse.
The drive to belong is particularly intense in the 13- to 27-year-old range. This may have something to do with puberty and the evolutionary drive to continue humanity, but that is a guess. However, it leaves people in that age range more vulnerable to not-belonging. A lot of suicides in that group occur because people have faced rejection and not been able to handle it. There is a website called It Gets Better that is specifically geared toward LGBTQ kids who have faced bullying; a quick web search will show others that deal with bullying in general. Nevertheless, remembering that it generally does get better as you get past that age range is important, no matter which group is doing the excluding.
How do we help kids and adults deal with the feeling of not belonging? The best beginning is to help children grow up with a secure attachment to their caregiver(s). I have written before about how parenting is the most important job any person can have ( here ). I feel strongly about that. If a child has not experienced a secure attachment by the time they are seven years old, or if that attachment is disrupted by death or abandonment, it is apt to be something they will deal with the rest of their lives. How about adults who are already dealing with feelings of rejection? I sincerely wish I had an easy answer for that one; hundreds of books have been written on the subject, and I still haven’t found one with the magic answer. However, the most fruitful ones I’ve come across usually deal with the concept of acknowledging what happened to you, and then trying to parent that wounded inner child. For some people a spiritual approach also works, with recognizing that Deity loves and accepts you, and then learning to love and accept yourself. It is a personal search, and each person’s path is apt to be slightly different.
Ultimately, I think we need to learn to love and accept ourselves, even if we have no problem with belonging. If you are comfortable with who you are and are generally in a positive frame of mind, you will always be “at home,” even when you are by yourself.