Updated: Sep 2, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between belonging and how we define ourselves. I, like everyone, have gone through long stretches of time when I didn’t feel especially grounded in myself, or anything for that matter. I hate feeling untethered - like I don’t know where I belong or where I’m supposed to be. It’s unnerving.
Growing up I rarely felt a total sense of belonging anywhere. I always had a sense of “otherness.” I was part, but separate. I’d see the way my friends belonged to their church groups, sports teams, cliques, large families, and I always felt a pang of envy. It’s not that I didn’t have close friends, family that loved me, or activities I was deeply involved with. I had all of that. But that all encompassing, fierce sense of belonging these other folks seemed to have, I didn’t.
A part by separate.
As I got older and realized my life wasn’t panning out in any kind of traditional way, this need to belong only grew more intense. But, how? How was I to find a place where I felt any true sense of belonging when I was still struggling to fully understand and define myself?
Somewhere along the way I started asking myself,
“How do I belong to me?”
"How can I move through the world as myself, for myself, without anyone else telling me who I’m supposed to be?”
If you want to answer this question honestly, and you want to live as the truest, most authentic version of yourself, you have to be able to tolerate the discomfort of other people not understanding you. You have to be able to tolerate not always meeting societal expectations.
You have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of your own truth.
We are not taught to embrace discomfort. We’re taught to fix it. We’re taught to move around it as fast as humanly possible in order to get back to comfort. But it is often in the discomfort that we find the most profound answers to the questions we’ve been asking about ourselves.
So, what defines me?
I could say one of the things that defines me is my sexuality, but it’s not.
My openness to embrace my sexuality in a world that would prefer I not, is what defines me.
I was afraid to speak out about my mental health and chronic health conditions for a long time because I was afraid of people using them to define me. I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid if I used my platform to bring awareness to my conditions, I might run the risk of them starting to define me. But, my health conditions don’t define me. My ability to speak out about them, to understand I don’t have total control over them, to use my voice to help advocate for myself and others - defines me.
I love the fact that I don’t have to be what anyone expects. That’s the real sweet spot. That’s the “I don’t give any fucks” magic. For a while, I was the girl with a shaved head, tattoos, and extensive LuLuLemon collection. Didn’t give a fuck.
I love quality music and also terrible music. I love stuffed animals and house plants. My favorite color is black, and also unicorn shit and alpacas make me smile. I cuss like a sailor and giggle like a 4-year-old. I save worms from the sidewalk and run screaming from large flying insects. I am kind, and also fiercely protective of what I believe is morally correct - which may render me “unkind” if someone is treating someone like shit and needs to be checked. I regularly stop and take pictures of the sky. I find human nature both intensely disappointing and equally fascinating. I am a recovering perfectionist and control freak.
Not all of these things are personality traits. What they are, are examples of all the things I’ve learned to embrace and love about myself on my journey to belonging to myself. Because what I’ve learned is that there’s nowhere and no one more important for me to belong than to myself.
I don’t identify with being a fiercely proud American, or even with being fiercely proud of my heritage. Why would I? I didn’t choose any of that. I don’t subscribe to any religion that I use to define myself or my moral compass. I am the captain of this ship. I choose where my values lie and what I’m going to do to make sure I'm living and acting in integrity.
So, what are "personality traits," anyway?
The “Big 5” Personality traits or the “OCEAN” model are -
These are further broken down into sliding scales. But of course there are LOADS of other personality traits we all use to define ourselves.
I define myself by my openness, my courage and determination, my compassion and goofiness, my exuberance and adventurous spirit, my strength and ability to be vulnerable, and my wholeheartedness.
The more grounded I’ve become in myself, the more I’ve been able to show up for the things and people I value most - including myself. I can belong to others, because I belong to me first. I can feel grounded in my relationships because I am grounded in my relationship with myself.
This is what works for me.
There are many ways to exist. I won’t sit here and say you have to learn to belong to yourself in order to belong anywhere else, that’s simply not true. Loads of people feel a sense of belonging and frankly have very little insight into who they really are. That works for them. It didn’t work for me.
If you know it doesn’t work for you either, my challenge for you is this - Sit with the discomfort that comes with the question, “
How do you define yourself without the influence of external forces?”
If you took away your church, country, sports teams, even parenthood and whatever other external things you’ve used to define yourself, who are you?