Do you ever catch yourself asking the question, “Do I belong here?” The “here” can be anywhere from: your school, your community, an organization, a group of friends, or even your own family. Every human being wants to feel like they belong. This is not simply a desire we have. A sense of belonging is actually considered a basic human need from a psychological perspective.
We think we can obtain this sense of belonging by gaining approval from others. However, other people cannot provide us a feeling of belonging regardless of what they say or do. A true sense of belonging can only come from within us. I wish I knew this growing up.
My parents were immigrants from Vietnam so they came to America with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They provided the best they could for my sisters and me, but we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. It was apparent to me when I started going to school. The clothes I wore looked different from what everyone else was wearing. I wore colored cotton pants that were hand-me-downs from my older sister. It seems trivial now to think that my clothes made me feel insecure, but it did. All of my classmates wore jeans and nicer clothes. I definitely felt like I stood out but not in a good way.
It was difficult not knowing any English until I started kindergarten. I was also only one of two Asians in my entire class for all of elementary school. I remembered other kids at the bus stop made fun of us simply for being Asian. At the time, it made me think that the Asian race was somehow inferior to other races. In retrospect, I see how a feeling of inferiority at such a young age made me not want to stand out and to not speak up unless spoken to. Being called out for being different felt horrible.
My family moved towards the end of my 6th grade year. It was difficult starting a new school with only a month left of the school year. Everyone knew each other. Everyone had friends. I dreaded lunchtime and recess because I didn’t have anyone to sit with or play with. Because I didn’t think I fit in anywhere, I was very shy and didn’t make friends easily throughout middle and high school.
I remember wishing I could be more confident and outgoing during that stage of my life. I desperately wanted to just fit in with everyone else. I didn’t realize everyone else was wanting the same thing too. As I got older, I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin, but was still reserved with people I didn’t know.
During the summer before my freshman year of college, I was so excited to soon be on my own. I had very strict parents who did not allow us to do a lot of things. College was supposed to be my fresh start. I would have freedom and can be a new and better version of myself. But of course, that is not how life played out. I experienced my first manic episode during this time from all the stress and excitement. I had no idea I was manic. I just thought life was moving at a very fast pace and the irrational thoughts in my mind were reality.
I woke up in the hospital and was told I have manic depressive disorder, which was what bipolar disorder was referred to at that time. I thought my life was over. I didn’t want to have something else that made me different. I did not want to acknowledge I was bipolar because I felt ashamed and thought something was wrong with me. I thought if I really had a mental illness that was incurable, I would never belong in this world.
I was devastated to have to come back to live with my parents when I was released from the hospital. My psychiatrist said I needed to wait at least a semester before it would be safe for me to start college and be on my own. I gained over 25 pounds from the medication and from eating to get over my depression. It was one of the worst times of my life. I hated and blamed myself for the predicament I was in. I was angry at the world and that made me a difficult person to be around. I did not appreciate my family enough for their support even though they were just trying to figure things out along with me.
When I started my first semester of college, it felt like 6th grade and starting a new middle school all over again. But this time, my self-esteem was extremely low from the weight gain and my face was filled with acne. I didn’t want to see anyone because I felt really ugly. I also thought I had the words “I am bipolar” written on my forehead. I lived with my older sister and another roommate and had very little interactions with anyone else other than going to my classes.
Life did slowly get a little easier over time. I spent a lot of time alone reading self-help books. I also fell in love with running. I loved that running allowed me to be with my thoughts and helped me lose the weight I gained. I guess you can say that I was trying to fix myself on the inside and outside so I can like myself more and possibly for others to like me as well. I did a lot of work on my personal growth over the years to discover who I was. It was gradual but I finally accepted who I was and realized it was okay for me to be myself with all of my flaws.
The feeling of belonging came and went throughout different times of my life. What I didn’t realize is that once you have a sense of belonging, it is not something you can hold on to for the rest of time. It comes and goes in different situations and with different people. The need for belonging is hard to explain and many of us don’t even acknowledge we have it. Deep down we all just want to feel seen and believe that we matter.
Looking back now, as ironic as it sounds, it was my bipolar diagnosis that was the one major driving force that helped me find my sense of belonging. It drove me to do all the work on myself. The adversities I had to overcome from my mental illness allowed me to love and appreciate people from all walks of life. That is the gift living with a mental illness has provided me, to always look for the good in others. Because in order to be accepted, you have to accept others.
It was not until I recognized that I belonged to myself first and foremost, that I was able to feel a true sense of belonging. I found that when you are comfortable with your own identity and true to who you are, there is no need to fit in.
I recently learned from Brene Brown that fitting in is actually the opposite of belonging. In order to fit in, you have to change who you are to be accepted. Brene explains, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
If you ever feel like you don’t belong, just remember these few things. You are more than good enough. You are perfect in all your imperfections. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You don't need anyone else's approval but your own.
When you are able to feel that sense of belonging that only you can give yourself, you can then be your authentic self in this world. This will attract the people who love you for who you really are. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? To be loved and accepted for who we really are?