No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
John Donne (17c English poet)
Belonging (to a group) is quite ubiquitous, so whether you have a strong sense of belonging, or it doesn’t matter to you, or you feel isolated and excluded, it is well worth taking a closer look. We will consider the pros and cons of groups, group requirements, and what helps to be accepted by a group, but let’s start with categories that a sense of belonging is usually associated with.
The categories of belonging
Although we are separate individuals to some extent, we all also belong to some groups. Groups can consist of only a few people (as in the case of a family or a team) or be very large (e.g. a nation). You don’t need to know each member of the group you are part of and, obviously, the members do not need to be in physical proximity (especially if we have in mind virtual groups). The sense of belonging can be defined by several categories:
- Physical (e.g. race, nation, gender, lineage, age): you do not choose these groups but were, so to speak, born into them.
- Social (religion, family, country, culture): membership of these groups is induced by your surroundings, usually in childhood.
- Self-determined (e.g. partners, friends, professional groups, clubs, social networks): groups are chosen on the basis of personal preferences, shared interests and mutual acceptance.
- Transcendent: being a part of humanity, a sense of connection with the whole world and even beyond (often experienced in nature, but it is not confined to nature).
In reality there is not a clear distinction between these categories. For example, belonging to a club or even one’ s partner may be socially determined, or belonging to a religion may be a personal choice. Still, it is worth considering which category matters to you most and if groups that are important to you are mainly from that category. Would you like to change anything in this respect?
Pros and cons of groups
Belonging to a group obviously has some advantages but it may also have some disadvantages. Here are some examples:
- Being in a group increases one’s sense of security (you feel safer when you are part of something larger than yourself).
- Groups can increase productivity (more can be done in groups than individually – think about building a house, for example).
- They reduce the risk of errors.
- Being part of a group may decrease dependence on individuals (because there are others), as well as on the larger society (as you rely on your group instead).
Shared responsibility is common in groups, which can be good or bad. It can increase motivation (e.g. you are more likely to stick with exercising if in a group). But it can also decrease motivation to act. Take the so-called ‘bystander effect’: people are more likely to respond, and more quickly, to an emergency if they are alone than with others(1) (this is because, when others are around, they believe that somebody else will take responsibility). So if you have a heart attack, it is better when there are fewer people around than more!
- The group can limit individual freedom and lead to conformity.
- It is more inert and slow, and often operates at the level of the lowest common denominator.
- If you focus too much on a group that you belong to, the rest of the world may be alienated and even perceived as hostile, which makes you more susceptible to group control (this is why it is always good to maintain some outside contacts with a wider social framework – just in case).
- The ‘in group-out-group’ mentality: groups normally promote a sense of belonging, but in some cases groups can have the opposite effect and create a feeling of exclusion (for non- members as well as some members).
Self preservation and optimal functioning is not only a prerogative for individuals but for groups too. Knowing what groups need in this respect can help you fit in well:
- A common purpose: to be accepted, you need to recognise what keeps the group together, which may not always be what it seems (e.g. people may gather in the church for primarily social rather than religious reasons; or go fishing to have fun rather than to catch the fish).
- Boundaries: a group wouldn’t be a group if it didn’t have some boundaries, so it is important to be aware and respect them, especially if new to the group.
- Organisation deals with where, when, what and who. The last point requires finding your place or role within the group.
- Participation: groups rely on the contribution of its members (in one way or another), so how much you will get from a group depends to a large extent on how much you invest in it.
- Non-dependence on an individual: a group that depends on an individual does not last long, so nobody should make herself (or be made by others) irreplaceable.
- Cohesion means that group members share a common ground. This is not to say that conformity is necessary. Individual differences are okay, as long as they do not interfere with the effective functioning of the group.
- Commonly accepted norms: every group has implicit or explicit norms (e.g. rules, customs, bylaws) that enable its functioning. Although they can be sometimes transgressed, groups have a tendency towards self-preservation; so if a margin of abuse is surpassed, it will sooner or later turn against the perpetrators. Some norms may be perceived as imperfect, unfair, or an infringement on one’s freedom, but if the group has managed to survive, not all of its norms can be bad.
- Ability to adapt: although the members are usually expected to accept the norms, any group needs to adapt and evolve, so there is always some room for those who want to make a change or improvement.
Joining a new group
It is noted that those individuals who are accepted ‘observe the group to understand what is going on before entering in, and then do something that shows they accept it; they wait to have their status in the group confirmed before taking initiative in suggesting what the group should do’ (2). Following these hints may maximise your chances, but is not a guarantee that you will be accepted. If you are not, remember that you can still do something in order to achieve a sense of belonging: consider first if you are rejected because of you or them. If it was you, try to make some personal changes; if it was the group (e.g. you are rejected because of your nationality, which you can’t change) be more flexible with your choice and turn to other groups, or form one yourself.
You and the group: choose a group you are interested in. Visualise or draw a symbol that best represents this group (e.g. a circle). Now consider where you feel you are in relation to that circle – near the centre, at the periphery, outside? Draw a little star where you see yourself. Are you happy there? If not, draw a dot where you would like to be and consider how you can get there. If there is nothing you can do, examine why this is the case, and consider if there are any alternative groups you can join.
Irrespective of the group we are part of (friends, colleagues, a sports team), we want to matter. The less we feel that we matter, the stronger that urge is. And when that urge is strong, we tend to push (by, for example, pestering our friends or colleagues). The trouble is that the more we push, the more others pull away, reducing our sense that we matter even further. To break this vicious circle, you may need to go through the cold turkey of mattering: don’t let the group take you for granted but do your best so that you really matter (ask yourself ‘how can I contribute?’); and, just as importantly, don’t seek validation – let it come to you.
(1) Latane, B. and Darley, J. (1968) ‘Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 10 (3), p.215-221.
(2) Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, p.124.