The Power of Belonging

How much does a sense of belonging affect your mental health? What should you expect from your therapist to support that?

Written by Melissa Gilmore (updated May 2023)

4 min read

a group of friends standing on a hill top
a group of friends standing on a hill top

A sense of belonging is a feeling of being accepted or valued as the person we are, or for the traits that we have. It helps us to feel recognised and liked. It prevents us from feeling lonely. Yet, the power of belonging does not get the recognition it deserves regarding its impact on our mental health.

Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ (1943) is one theory to help us understand what we need to become our optimal selves. Although this theory doesn’t take into account reflexive behaviour, individual opinion, or cultural and social differences, it can be a useful theory for understanding what many people need to become the best version of themselves. At the foundation, we require the basic physiological needs of food, water, warmth, rest; followed by the need to feel safe and secure. Next, comes our psychological needs, which is where our sense of belonging comes in. This is the part where we may seek intimate relationships, friendships, communities - to fulfil our need for belonging and love. Without it, our mental health can suffer. Without it, we can lack of a sense of identity, validation and connection, which can lead to low self-esteem and lack of confidence. If we do not have our psychological needs met, then self-fulfilment may be difficult to reach.

It can be beneficial to look at our identification in terms of the groups we believe represents us, who we can relate to, things/activities that we have in common with others and then, appreciate how this makes us feel. Perhaps you are a parent, a dedicated football fan, a dog owner, an avid reader or maybe your career is an important part of you. All these identities and groups can give us feelings of self-worth and value.

Take this example from a new parent: Imagine going to a parent-baby group and talking about the difficult, sleepless nights you’ve been experiencing. It turns out, that you are not the only one going through this and your experience and openness is met with nods of understanding and words of support. The resultant feeling is powerful: I’m not alone; it’s not just me; they understand what I’m going through. That one session, can give you the sense of belonging that helps you to feel valued and understood, enabling you to strive towards the best version of you.

We can achieve this sense of belonging in different ways, including identifying with a particular gender or nationality; being part of a religious/spiritual group; or having characteristics in common with others. You can be in many categories or a few, but the sense of belonging feels the same.

However, there is sadly the issue that those who do not ‘fit in’, are considered not worthy or too different to be valued. ‘Othering’ is a modern term to an age-old problem of discriminating, marginalising or pre-judging others based on differences. These differences could be socio-economic, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender and many more. Whilst belonging is a feeling of inclusion and acceptance, othering is the opposite - with the equally powerful, but negative feelings that derive from exclusion and non-acceptance. It creates an us-versus-them scenario that can be very destructive to social cohesion and individual mental health.

One obvious and clear example can be found in Football. Dedicated supporters of a football team can form a connection to their club over many years – following them match after match, season after season. These fans enjoy the camaraderie and the shared passion, whilst celebrating the successes together and supporting each other in defeat. This togetherness can be uplifting and involve a variety of intense emotions. As wonderful as this can be, there is sometimes a darker side that appears in competitive matches, especially at the bigger occasions of the World Cup or the UEFA European Championship. Othering can become malignant and threatening as some individuals may use words, gestures and sometimes violence to enforce the us-vs-them rhetoric. The opposing team are seen as less-than, or inferior, instead of worthy competitors. In some instances, fans may even turn on their own players if they make a mistake, which in turn causes the resultant effects of othering for the players – even if they were supported moments before. So, how can we enjoy the benefits of belonging without incorporating othering?

Hypnotherapists, counsellors, psychotherapists and other helping professionals, who have studied and utilised counselling skills, will be familiar with Carl Rogers’ Core Conditions of: Empathy, Congruence and Unconditional Positive Regard. These core conditions are considered to be attributes and attitudes of the therapist that can help the client achieve therapeutic change by feeling heard, understood and not judged. These same conditions can be used by the general public to decrease the incidence of othering, whilst benefitting from a sense of belonging.

Using empathy, when one is with individuals, groups, communities or nationalities who are different, means that you put yourself in their shoes and see the world from their point of view. So, for example, you can be a Catholic and still look at the world through the eyes of a Buddhist, especially if you get to know more about their beliefs. Being congruent means that you are being genuine, open and authentic allowing clients or people in general to see that you are not being ‘fake’ or ‘two-faced’. Finally, when therapists show unconditional positive regard, it means that they are not being judgemental and they are accepting and valuing the client as they are, which can also be used by the general public to enhance social cohesion and mental health. Therefore, the core conditions of counselling skills can be used in everyday life to helps individuals and groups feel accepted and valued as they are, in this world that we live in.

To conclude, the power of belonging should not be underestimated, as it brings such positive feelings and experiences to us on an individual, group and global level. In order to maintain any moral belonging without negative consequences, othering can be avoided by putting ourselves in the shoes of those who differ, and accept each person as they are. In helping professions, we can lead by example and we can look at and understand what an impact belonging and othering has on our clients and the world in general. This is one way that we can improve mental health for all – whoever we are..

References: Maslow, A. (1943): ‘The Theory of Human Motivation’ in the journal ‘Psychological Review 50 pp 370–96; Rogers, C. (1952): Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory.

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