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The difference between belonging and fitting in.

A friend recently shared a video with me of Brene Brown talking about this subject.  I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Brene Brown, but on this topic I think she was spot on.

A lot of my clients talk about trying to fit in, whether they call it that or not.  As Brene says, fitting in is about modifying yourself to meet the expectations of others.  Things to say or not say, things to do or not do, things to think or not think.  The underlying message is ‘I’m not quite right here, so I need to change’.  Effort is inherent in that concept.

As with all things, sometimes there’s some validity to that view.  If you’re in a hostile environment, or just somewhere that the consequences of not fitting in will be really undesirable, then making some modifications is sensible.  It’s a good survival mechanism until you can get out of there.  But too often we then voluntarily put ourselves back in that situation again, time after time.   Sometimes we call these situations ‘work’ and ‘family gatherings’.

The next stage on from this is when we assume that any situation is going to be hostile and require us to make changes to ‘fit in’.  Now we’re in the realms of lack of confidence and social anxiety.  ‘If I’m myself, I won’t be accepted.  I need to make sure I behave like everyone else, but I might get it wrong and then it will be dreadful.’ 

Part of the reason we do this is because we’re hard wired on a biological level to make sure we get included in the group.  The part of our brains that worries about this stuff evolved when we were all still living in caves, and in those days exclusion from the group almost certainly threatened your survival.  Naturally you wouldn’t want to do that.  So inclusion is still really, really important to us.  As a result we’re very good at picking up on when our companions don’t seem to like us. 

When we’re children we don’t get a lot of choices about our environments and the people we socialise with; it tends to be limited to our families and to other people whose parents had sex at the same sort of time as our own parents and who live in the same area – in other words, local people our age.  We call this ‘developing social skills’ and that’s what it is, of course; but because we don’t get a lot of choice about who we develop those skills with, we very often end up learning how to ‘fit in’.   Or more seriously, that we don’t ‘fit in’ and that’s bad.  

The problem with this is that it reinforces that fundamental message that we’re not ok as we are.   Our parents are usually major influences in this department.   Even the best, most understanding parents will probably occasionally say something like ‘Why are you so naughty?’.   Other phrases from my clients’ childhoods include ‘you’re such a disappointment’ and ‘you really should know better’.  As we get older our choices of music, clothes, activities and companions offer more and more opportunities to reinforce the idea that we’re flawed in some way.  You like to lie in at the weekend?  You’re lazy.  You like staying in and playing games?  You’re anti-social.  You’re always out with your friends?   You’re selfish; you think your friends are more important than your family.  (Which of course they are, and why wouldn’t they be?  They’re probably a lot less critical).

So by the time we reach adulthood we’ve probably learned either how to force other people to behave as if they like us, or how to modify ourselves in the hope we’ll hit on the magic formula that means other people will choose to like us.   We’ve often got to the point when we automatically assume that our natural self isn’t good enough, so we either worry terribly about getting into new social situations or avoid it altogether.  When we are in a group we’re very focused on what negative thoughts the other members might be having about us, ignoring the fact that they’ve chosen to be around us in the first place and therefore probably think we have some redeeming features. 

The fact is that if we don’t feel comfortable with the people around us, that’s not because there’s something wrong with us – it’s because we’re in the wrong group.  As adults we have choices about the groups we’re in, even if one of them is called ‘family’.  So if you’re in the wrong group, you can choose to leave it.  There are very few hard rules about the groups you can be in, although we like to make rules up.  One of my clients is in their 20s but feels more comfortable with older people; however enough people have told them that’s ‘weird’ that they now think it’s a sign there’s something wrong with them.

Here's the thing.   There are around 7 billion people on this planet, so the chances are that at least a few of them will like you and you them.  Due to culture and societal norms, you probably won’t have to travel all that far to find them.   Once you find them, you’ll know they’re ‘your people’ – it will be all relaxed and pleasurable.   You might even say ‘I belong here’.   Now there’s no need to try to fit in – you do it automatically, because you are the proverbial round peg in a round hole that’s just the right size.

We often think that belonging is the result of effective efforts to fit in, but it isn’t.  Belonging is the opposite of fitting in.  You don’t have to try to belong, it just happens.  In fact if you’re trying too hard to fit in, you will eliminate the possibility of belonging.   How can you, when you’re not being yourself?  Another thing we’re hard-wired to do is to dislike insincerity. Inherent in the concept of belonging is that of it being acceptable to be you.

This is why my goal with clients is to help them be comfortable with themselves, whoever that is.  They might achieve that by making some changes to themselves, but very often it happens just through the process of realising they’re ok as they are.  Once they know that, they can stop trying so hard to fit in and easily find places where they belong. 


Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at or via her website at

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