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May 10, 2022

Belonging Vs. Fitting In – #MTtalk Roundup

Sonia Harris


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©@ Getty Images/wildpixel
Sonia D. Harris, Mind Tools Coach/Moderator

Where did I belong? Growing up, I got good grades and didn't cause trouble. Like 90 percent of the students, I didn't drive to school, I rode the yellow school bus. I was not part of the "in" crowd, cliques or "cool" kids.

Neither was I one of the kids who wore spiked hair and chains, or embraced the goth look. I did not become a teenage parent.

Outsider, Not an Outcast

Though I didn't share this with others, I know I said to myself that I wanted to fit in sometimes. It was more that I wanted to stand out less while following an archaic church rule limiting my clothing options. The kids just accepted this "religious" restriction and didn't tease me.

Now that I'm an adult, I believe my actual desire was to belong. If I had been able to participate in more social activities with my peers, the opportunity might have been there.

"The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it."

Amanda Gorman (U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate and activist)

The third level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs discusses the need for belonging. Once we reach this level as human beings, we start focusing externally and addressing our needs with others – including the need to "be part of something."

Where Do I Belong?

I was in age-appropriate clubs and choirs at school and church in my teenage years. I belonged to those groups, so I paid my monthly dues. I chose those groups because I enjoyed learning about computers, singing, competing in mock trial, and performing community service.

Since I was active in clubs and organizations in high school, I looked forward to finding something at college. During my first year, I attended the "First Look Fair," the Fall outdoor exhibit where students could learn about campus clubs and organizations at a one-stop shop.

Tables and chairs lined the sidewalks of McKeldin Mall, a beautiful, grassy quad at the center of the campus with diagonal sidewalks. I walked up and down the many aisles, collecting handouts, playing table-attracting games, and left my contact details to get more information for several student groups.

I Found Where I Belong

My freshman and sophomore terms were part-time, so my whole college experience was nine years instead of four or five. Since I worked part-time and lived off-campus, I could occasionally participate in a few extra-curricular campus activities. Later, as a full-time student, I was able to spend more time on or near campus.

My university had a student organization for practically everything from A to Z: cultural, academic, religious, sports, hobbies, and more! One group I joined was an advocate for commuting students. Other organizations I joined were business-related or cultural.

When considering a sorority, the only one that resonated with me was the one I'd never heard of, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. The colors also grabbed my attention, so I headed for their table to speak with members about the organization. They invited me to other events, and I joined their interest group.

As the eldest of three children, it felt good to interact with women who would become my big sisters one day. It felt right being there as I was. I didn't have to change my personality, and they didn't suggest that I should.

Before joining, I noticed that people treated members of fraternities and sororities more favorably. I was not a member of the largest sorority chapter on campus, but I enjoyed moving up the "social ladder of respect" by being an active member of a Greek-lettered organization!

I also had to work mindfully to maintain my identity as "Sonia," so that non-members wouldn't only refer to me as "the SGRho."

If I had joined a different sorority under our national umbrella organization, I would have had to downplay or chip away parts of myself to be accepted. A 5cm circle will fit perfectly into a 5cm square, but not the other way around.

Belonging Vs. Fitting In

During our recent #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed the difference between fitting in and belonging. Here are the questions we asked, and a selection of the responses, including some of my own:

Q1. Why do we have a need to fit in? Are all of us insecure?

@Mind_Tools We try to fit in because we don't want to feel "left out." We want to feel socially accepted.

@SarahH_MT Needing to belong is a deep-rooted human need that goes back to our early days and our innate drive to survive. We might not consciously feel insecure but the need for security with others is embedded in our unconscious.

@HloniphileDlam7 Life is about interconnections. If that is broken at any point, life becomes kind of meaningless. Isolation breeds insecurities.

Q2. What are some of the things people do to fit in?

@ZalkaB I think there are many different ways that people manifest/demonstrate that. What I find disheartening is when people trying to fit in lose their sense of selves, self-respect, roots, origins, and even feel the need to deny their identities.

@SoniaH_MT Some things people do to fit in (and gain acceptance) include: purchasing new clothes, offering to pay for a group meal, drinking or smoking when they normally wouldn't, and adjusting their accent, dialect, or language.

Q3. Do you remember a time when you desperately tried to fit in, but just couldn't? Why didn't you fit in?

@Yolande_MT I found it hard to fit in at a workplace where foul language, drinking and dishonesty were the order of the day. I tried fitting in without compromising my values. It didn't work. I left after 3 months.

As a child I had to dress according to my parents' religion and I wasn't allowed to go to school dances, movie theatres, play sport etc. It's difficult to fit in when you're set up to be a social outcast.

@SoniaH_MT No, I don't desperately try fitting in anywhere. I probably could've played on my high school softball team but I didn't entertain the option of trying out, due to not wanting to explain or adhere to an archaic (and really inapplicable) "religious" limitation.

If I were going to stand out on my team, I would've preferred that it be for my talent, not what I was wearing. I wouldn't have needed that extra and unnecessary attention (and distraction).

Q4. Have you ever tried to fit in only to realize this was a mistake? What happened?

@SarahH_MT There was one organization where I tried so hard to deliver exactly what the CEO wanted and I compromised what I thought was right to please him. He rejected my work and I was devastated. I later realized I should have stuck to my values and principles.

@Dwyka_Consult I tried very hard to fit in with other students when I first went to university. I realized that it was a mistake when I literally had to escape from a drunken student's apartment. I just didn't have the street smarts I needed – and it made me a target.

Q5. What's the difference between fitting in and belonging?

@MikeB_MT When I fit in, I have a place. When I belong, I've found my place. Belonging is more of a holistic feeling.

@ThiamMeka2Gogue Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.

Q6. Why is it important to feel you belong rather than just fit in?

@AnuMeera2024 Belonging is "to be." It's natural, effortless and fulfilling – not necessarily with some agenda behind it. Fitting in is [to] act with some effort and some agenda, even if it is simply to find acceptance with your friends or colleagues.

@Yolande_MT Fitting in takes a lot of work and energy. Belonging allows you to spend that same work and energy on things that matter.

Q7. Are there places/teams/situations where you fit in, but prefer not to belong? Please explain.

@Midgie_MT I can think of one workplace where I wanted to keep my personal distance from people. Although I fit in with the team and others, I had a "fear" that any personal information might be used against me. So I refrained from connecting.

@Mind_Tools In a workplace, you might fit in because of a certain skill set or affiliation, but you don't want/need a deeper connection than that.

Q8. Which factors most help people to feel that they belong when working online?

@JKatzaman People online feel they belong when they engage and find mutual respect.

@Mind_Tools If you show a genuine interest in people and actively reach out to them (rather than just reach out because work requires it) it can help them feel they belong.

Q9. What can you do within yourself to help feel you belong?

@MikeB_MT Having a strong sense of self and continually working on this. Identifying goals and the realities of where you are and where you want to be. Being awake and available to people around you who may want to help or may need your help in belonging.

@ZalkaB Be open and honest with yourself about your values and beliefs. Invest yourself and your energy where it aligns with your convictions, your energy, and your whole self. And trust your gut feelings. I think with belonging, it needs to resonate with us on many different levels.

Q10. What would you want a team or organization to do to help you and others feel you belong there?

@MarkC_Avgi A team or organization must not only tell you that you are welcome and belong there but show you through their actions that you are welcome, valued and respected for who you are, as a person, not just as someone they work with.

@Midgie_MT Make space to just listen to each other. Make space to review corporate values, objectives and goals.

To read all the tweets, see the Wakelet collection of this chat here.

Coming Up in Our Next #MTtalk

Whether you feel you fit in or truly belong in a workplace may have an impact on the way you perceive feedback. In our Twitter poll this week, we'd like to know how you generally feel about the feedback you receive at work.

Useful Resources About Belonging Vs. Fitting In

To help you think more about belonging vs. fitting in, we've compiled a list of resources for you to browse. (Please note, to see some of these resources in full, you need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member.)

What Are Cultural Fit and Cultural Add?

Successful Inductions

Job Crafting

Impostor Syndrome

Belbin's Team Roles

Team Charters

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