The Simple Trick to Finding True Belonging This Year


Photo Credit: Bigstock (sidarta)

On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed was transformed.

For an hour or two, politics went away and people focused on what is, underneath it all, most important to all of us. Suddenly, at midnight, my feed was filled with images of family and friends gathered together, releasing one year and welcoming a new one—people marking the passage of time by remembering what is most valuable to each of us: belonging.

We all just want a place to belong.

Life is almost that simple. We all just want a place we can call home—a place of belonging where a few people know who we truly are and cherish us because of that rather than in spite of that. We all want to love and be loved and, in doing so, to become more fully human. After all, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”

We all just want a place to belong.

Of course, what we want is simple, but getting what we want doesn’t seem simple at all. Relationships are fraught with conflict and tension and disappointment and disillusionment. What’s the trick to finding at least one safe place to truly belong?

It’s the trick of the coffee mug and the gym shoes.

One morning last summer, the day dawned as beautifully as a day can dawn, and I wanted to do two things: I wanted to go for a walk, and I wanted to drink a cup of coffee. A perfect cup of coffee. In my favorite coffee cup. But there wouldn’t be time to do both before the kids awoke. So, I decided, I would need to take my cup of coffee along for the walk. Which is when I thought:

But what if someone sees me walking around with a coffee cup?

People don’t do that. On the go, they put their coffee in something with a lid—a fancy Starbucks double-walled thermal tumbler or a practical Seven Eleven plastic beast. They don’t walk through the neighborhood with a fragile ceramic cup.

I was thirty-nine years old, and I actually had that thought.

Then, a few months later, my son Quinn bought a new pair of gym shoes. He chose his favorite colors—bright red and neon green. He swore they made him run faster and jump higher and, when he put them on, his smile was brighter than his shoes.

Then he wore them to school.

When he came home, he said his shoes didn’t fit right, he stashed them in a drawer, and he dragged out a pair of dilapidated sneakers with twice-replaced shoelaces. We didn’t find out until later that two kids in his third-grade class had made a phobic slur about his shoes.

We overcomplicate the simplicity of belonging by racing to the middle.

We take the truest, most unique, most beautiful, most loveable parts of us, and we hide them away. We think that to fit in we must avoid standing out. We think that to belong we must be alike. This rush to belong by being similar almost always sets in by middle school, which is why most adolescents listen to the same pop music, wear the same styles, and parrot the same phrases. Of course, if someone makes you feel ashamed of your shoes, this rush to hide your truest self can begin as early as third grade. And if the little one inside of you still feels a bit of that shame, it can continue all the way into adulthood—all the way into an early morning walk around the block.

We complicate the simplicity of belonging by trying to be like everyone else, instead of simply being who we were created to be.

But you know what? I was created to like my coffee just so, and I was created to crave early morning walks in nature and in solitude. So, I poured my coffee in my ceramic cup, and I set out into the neighborhood.

And you know what? Quinn was created to love the color red and swooshes in neon green. So, I told him the way to find friends isn’t to be like everyone else; the way to find friends is to like himself enough to actually be who he is, shoes and all. So, he got the shoes out of the drawer and he put them back on.

As I rounded a street corner in our neighborhood, a man walked toward me. He’s a friendly guy, someone I’ve enjoyed talking to from time to time. We chatted briefly, and then he looked at my coffee cup. He told me he’d never seen anyone go for a walk with coffee like that before.

I told him he’d never seen anyone like me before.

And the day Quinn started wearing his shoes again an older kid in the neighborhood texted us a picture of his own gym shoes. They were red and neon green. He told Quinn his shoes were cool and he would look like The Flash when he runs. Quinn flashed a smile from ear-to-ear.

The secret to finding belonging is simple: first find yourself, then embrace yourself, and then reveal yourself—no matter how odd, offbeat, or quirky that revelation might be. The people who love the true you that is revealed are the people you belong to.

This is not an easy trick, but it is a simple one.

Indeed, it’s a simplicity worth celebrating.

On the eve of a new year.

Or the dawn of any new day.


P.S. My new book Loveable is about belonging, the overlooked but essential ingredient in all true belonging, and how cultivating belonging can help us to come fully alive in totally unexpected ways. Loveable is now available for pre-order and, for a limited time, when you order Loveable, you will get a free bonus—The Year of Listening, Loving, and Living—a second full-length book I’ve written as a practical companion to Loveable. You can click here to find out more.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

25 thoughts on “The Simple Trick to Finding True Belonging This Year

  1. Belonging. It is the core of all philosophy and religion and also seems to be the most acute argument against anyone for any reason. Either you’re in, or your out. Even the “ultimate” questions of Who am I, where am I from, and where am I going, all boil down to where do I belong. I feel like I have a personal sense of belonging that satisfies my soul, but when others who stride outside of the boundaries that make up my core beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, I don’t understand them and it frustrates me and I feel off balance. I find it most helpful to consider what might be the core for others, what their family pictures might be like (sort of a Facebook feed in my mind) and once I can connect with the fact that they might love someone and someone might love them, I can start to think how I might at least appreciate them as fellow humans and then consider them more like brothers and sisters in the great plan of happiness that I know about within my own core. I don’t agree with folks on stuff a lot of the time but I do find myself pleasantly surprised when others become real to me through eyes of belonging.

    • “I don’t agree with folks on stuff a lot of the time but I do find myself pleasantly surprised when others become real to me through eyes of belonging.” Dang. That might be the wisest thing I read all week. Thank you for your intentionality in loving people and for sharing it with us!

  2. That is the recipe.
    Which I follow, because I became quite unhappy when trying to follow the usual styles. Let at least me be happy with me, if nobody else will.

    But as I match with few people (being a logical thinker AND rather smart AND I am not created as an amiable being – that takes effort if I have the energy), the sting of the dislikes or non-communicado’s still outweighs the nice feeling from the people I found to match. Do you know of a recipe for that, too?

    • Oh, an amiable being is not so genetic as much as it could be training you may have missed out on. You can teach yourself, if you want… there’s books, and asking the people you do have to help. Asking for help is actually the hard part :).

      • Ditto this. And since I have to get used to plugging my book, I’ll practice here. One of the themes of my book is that in order to fully engage our search for belonging, we must fully embrace ourselves, for exactly the reason you describe above: though we are worthy, not everyone will treat us so, and we have to begin to believe it in our bones so it remains our truth, even when others try to take that truth away from us. 900 words isn’t enough space to unpack all of that, but I hope 240 pages will be! 🙂

  3. Happy Wednesday
    For the record, Quinn has excellent taste in shoe colors.
    How counterintuitive; the way to connect with others is to 1st connect to myself. No wonder we’re so confused 😛

  4. How strange it is that we misconstrue the price of belonging to be sameness, dulling of our unique flare, and a mundanity that is not only inauthentic but painfully boring.

    We do need our people—the ones who can see us as we are and want us, quirks, prickly bits, and soft sides—because it is only through our connections that we truly become all that we are. But how amazing it is that we layer ourselves up with defenses and armor to appear safely bland for public, when it prevents our people from catching a glimpse of us.
    I’m glad you and your fast-footed kiddo decided to take what makes you happy out into the world so your people could spot you.

    • Shel, your comment reminds me that I reached out to some friends a couple of months ago apologizing for something I’d said the night before and one friend replied that everything that was said and done was done “within the cocoon of friendship.” It was one of the most comforting things anyone has ever said to me.

  5. This. This is perfect for this moment in my life. Thank you for how you labor to share these deep thoughts. Many times your words have been the light I needed.

  6. “The secret to finding belonging is simple: first find yourself, then embrace yourself, and then reveal yourself—no matter how odd, offbeat, or quirky that revelation might be. The people who love the true you that is revealed are the people you belong to.”
    Awesome, thanks for this post. <3

  7. Delightful! Our eleven-year-old poured my coffee one morning just as I was dashing into the shower. I couldn’t waste the sweetness of her serving me, nor did I have time drink it and get a quick drenching. So yes, I too enjoyed two wonderful things in an unusual way. Of course there was no risk of being seen by those in the outer world, but the inner one, me, and the close one, Salomé, both shared the same giggles at my seizing the best solution I could think of in the moment. We decided it was the busy mommy version of sitting in a jacuzzi with a fancy drink!
    It’s exciting that your book will soon be available. This piece reminds me that the story of our lives is read by the people around us, often quiet observers, who eventually invite us to be included in theirs. The coffee and the shoes are excellent examples of unpacking joy together and embracing that what we love is a beautiful reflection of who we are.

  8. “I told him he’d never seen anyone like me before.” that is a good answer! 🙂 There must be a reason for each of us being in this planet… if not, why aren´t we here? Our uniqueness is our contribution to the world.

  9. I’ve been working with this theme in both my personal life and purpose! I want to create arts programs in my community that address this!

  10. Thanks for putting this down in words. As a dad I sometimes forget that my kids are completely different people than me, and that I need to temper my expectations of who they should become, and instead lovingly accept who that are and who they will become.

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