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To fit in or belong...?

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

A couple of months ago I found myself unexpectedly having a bit of a 'heart to heart' conversation with my oldest niece. I had just finished a CPD course around social media, young people and wellbeing and I was curious to hear her perspective on what it is like to be a teenager in the digital age. We ended up talking about various platforms, the challenges of living with grown ups who are not necessarily as digitally literate as their children, and the difficulties of finding a safe space to escape the constant 'noise' from online connections to feel able to 'switch off' and just to be 'present' in any moment.

We reached a natural pause in the conversation and my niece looked at me with a wistful look in her eye (not that I am exactly sure that either she or I really know what that means), and came out with a sentence that instantly felt important and meaningful to me...

"You see Aunty Jane, all us teenagers really want to do is fit in".

At the time I remember feeling that there was something really significant about these words and thinking how insightful an observation my niece had made. After reflecting for a moment, I wondered out loud whether actually, this wasn't just an exclusive desire for teenagers. Rather there was something in all of us, regardless of our age, that simply drives us to want to 'fit in'.

This question has stayed with me since, and that coffee shop moment has become almost a constant niggle at the back of my mind as I have contemplated the challenge of 'fitting in' ever since. I have looked back at my own life experiences, from school through to work through to play, and thought about whether I have ever really felt like I 'fitted in' and if so, where those places were...I have also thought about the places I know that I didn't ever really 'fit in'. Perhaps more meaningfully, for me at least, my attention then turned to thinking about the places I did 'fit in' and reflecting on why that might have been and what was going on that meant I felt like this.

Over the past couple of weeks in particular, I have had so many different thoughts circling around my head and so many different theories springing to mind. Thinking back to my previous blog on learning, I was well and truly living with learning as a process! It felt like every conversation I had, every mentoring session, every article I read, every workshop I observed or facilitated, was helping me to reflect on my questions and slowly make sense of my thoughts. I knew there was something I was searching for to help me find some sort of answer, or learning outcome, I just had to trust that I would reach it in my own time.

So what have I concluded?

Well, thanks to a little nudge from Brene Brown and her work on shame and vulnerability, I revisited my own PhD research and particularly the fourth theme of 'nurturing environments' that I constructed from my narrative data. I remembered that all of the effective leaders interviewed for my study highlighted the significance for them of experiencing environments where they felt safe and that it was 'OK to be me'. They all talked about happy and safe places where they felt encouraged and empowered to learn and grow; places where they were challenged, trusted and afforded freedom to explore, yet knowing they had support if they needed.

They also all recalled (often with great fondness and appreciation) places where they felt they had thrived; places where they felt that they belonged and were welcomed for 'being me'. These places were all different, including communities, families, sports teams or work departments, but all shared the common thread that they were safe, supportive and successful environments where everyone worked positively for, and supported each other.

For me, then, whilst we might all think that 'all we want to do is fit in', I prefer to believe that what we are actually striving for are places where we 'belong'. To belong somewhere means, as Brene Brown suggests on the quote above, that we are accepted for who we are and feel comfortable in being ourselves. Our environment welcomes us for who we are and embraces our 'uniqueness'; this feels like a positive, nurturing place to be. In contrast, to 'fit in' arguably requires us to adapt or change something about ourselves in order to match our surrounding environment or culture. Whilst I accept that there are times when we will need to adopt this 'chameleon' like approach as we have to be aware and conscious of accepted practice, culture and custom on some occasions; largely this need to 'fit in' feels like a more challenging and compromising place to exist.

So. To fit in or belong...? That is today's question. We will, no doubt, all have our own answers and interpretations and I feel that this subject is one I will revisit over and over. Right now, belonging feels like the more enticing option for me...although I am not really sure that I have yet found this place. Equally, to belong implies that you have clarity on who you are and what is important to you, so perhaps from a teenage perspective, fitting in is the 'safest' option until you really discover who you are and what really matters.

Curious...? Get in touch and we can chat over coffee!

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