By DrLibbyNugent, Apr 15 2021 03:34PM
"We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life."
“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.”
These are lines from an essay written by Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old Yale graduate on her experiences at Yale university. She died in a car accident not long after it was published.
To me the opposite of loneliness is the rather elusive feeling of belonging: the experience of connection to or solidarity with a particular group, identity or collective (Halse, 2018). There is something innate about our need to belong and the feeling of yearning, or to ‘be- in- longing for’, that takes hold of us so strongly when the need to belong is not met.
I have felt the yearning to belong at many points in my life - however I think it was somewhat at a febrile peak when applying for training to become a clinical psychologist. There was a consuming pull to get on to/ to belong to a clinical psychology training, any clinical psychology training. As an aspiring psychologist, I felt I had mined into some kind of secret social seam filled with diamonds and gems of people, people who were wise, kind and thoughtful - who seemed to know what was important, and knew what was normal. As someone who had no idea about what was normal, this felt extraordinary.
After several years of trying, thanks be to the gods and a reserve list, I got on. Similar to as Keegan describes, my experience of clinical psychology training was one full of ‘tiny circles’ that were “pulled” around me: Training cohorts, work teams, specialism faculties, social media groups, reflective circles, supervision spaces and ranting friends. These tiny groups that made me feel I could be part of something bigger - if only I could keep my act together. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t community - it was a sharing of experience and a feeling that this group we were joining was somehow defining and doing something important in the world. Whilst I doubt anyone felt an explicit sense of individual identification and belonging to training there was a sense that as a group we represented something meaningful, the group was part of something bigger, the group belonged. The lack of individual belonging whilst being part of a special group - a group that we think does deserve its success - can inflate a feeling of imposter syndrome. So that even when we have evidence of our accomplishments, individual group members remain convinced that they need to keep trying harder to follow group rules to fit in.
During training the feeling of the specialness of clinical psychology, its necessity and belonging in society, felt everywhere and I loved being around it. I didn’t quite know how to grab hold of it and make me part of it too, but I had a sense that if I could just stay close to it for long enough (and in the presence of these people) it might rub off onto me and stick. When I reflect on my experiences of training I recall repeatedly in lectures being told, if something is too difficult you can leave the room - now I suspect this might also include ‘you can turn off your camera’. We were encouraged to be mindful of ourselves, and to hold in mind the feelings of others before we speak. These statements at the time felt wise and generous, maybe because they were so familiar to me. Sometimes it was expressed that we need to be able to manage difficult conversations and practice not getting overwhelmed: clinical psychology training is not therapy and if you need this then you should seek this out privately. I’m not sure if it was ever said please try and stay, bring yourself and your bodies responses, we will all help each other get through this.
The cultural message was hidden but clear if you are in distress then that is private and what is necessary for the acceptance into this professional identity is to keep personal reactions and feelings away in order to keep your professional mask on. This I think was done with the intention of offering both compassion and privacy to the trainee and also in service of instruction on how to behave when acting as the container for others; no-one wants to encourage a therapist that prioritises their own feelings over the patient. Which is important except the pace of learning and changing contexts was so intense and relentless when was there time for processing?
There is a difference between acting or performing emotional containment and actually being a container for others. Importantly, how can anyone know the difference and discern between the two if they have never experienced it? When you don’t know the difference between performance of containment and actually being a container, then there can be a blurring of narratives: a thinking that boundaries are equivalent to rules. This can then lead to a lack of meaning making when events (such as overwhelm or distress) occur at the borders of professional versus personal identities: there can be a lack of discernment between encouraging self-respect through privacy and a passing on/colluding with shame. Instead there is a pressure for the group to be seen to know the right rule to follow and inevitably scapegoat someone when they prove we do not.
"Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible." - Carl Jung
When thinking about belonging I returned to a favourite film I first saw as a teenager: Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn. This story is based on a novella written by Capote. As an awkward teenager I resonated with the yearning expressed by the main character Holly Golightly, in her search for a place to belong; for a sense of kinship and love and also how this search is constantly tempered by Holly's difficulty to trust and her need for independence. She navigates her situation in the world by offering herself as what Capote describes as an ‘American Geisha’ in her social group. Geisha have long embodied the height of refinement and they are undoubtedly custodians of Japanese culture and traditions.
Culture is “like the air we breathe, it is both in us and all around us” (Hofstede, 1991).
In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s story we see a culture of wealth, social status, and a striving to belong. Holly is consumed by the idea of wealth and status, as evidenced by the fact that she goes to Tiffany’s—a jewellery shop famous for its diamonds—when she’s feeling down, finding that the shop gives her a feeling of calm. I wanted to be Holly, she made the feeling of loneliness look so glamorous and desirable. The film elicited in me the same pattern of striving to belong through special status and wealth - that somehow if only I could be more like Audrey Hepburn. Whilst I had little interest in real diamonds, I certainly felt that if I could just get close to people who shared my values and truly knew what’s important in life (like helping others) that I might be able to find a place to belong and I too could be transformed into something sparkly and valuable.
When I think about the story some more, what is tragic about Holly’s preoccupation with Tiffany’s is that she feels as if her actual life is not good enough when she compares it to what Tiffany's shop represents. As such she doesn’t bother to properly furnish her home or name her cat - she doesn’t feel as if her current life contains the happiness she’s looking for, so she doesn’t want to claim it as her reality. She says she would finally do this if she could find “a real-life place” that made her feel like she feels when she’s at Tiffany’s. This suggests that Holly’s attraction to Tiffany’s is directly linked to her unhappiness, though she never quite admits that she’s dissatisfied with her life. All the same, it’s obvious that her trips to Tiffany’s are attempts to feel something that she thinks is sorely missing from her actual existence.
Interestingly, the type of wealth that Tiffanys symbolizes and Holly idolises is in sync with the life Holly already leads, since she has successfully become a popular and respected “girl-about-New York” who is an integral part of the city’s high society. Holly significantly contributes and curates the group culture that she simultaneously does not quite feel that she belongs in. Accordingly, viewers can see that Holly yearns for something deeper than the supposed happiness that comes along with superficial wealth and status.
Indeed, what Tiffany’s represents to Holly isn’t just status and wealth, but a sense of belonging. Although she socialises with the city’s elite, she herself doesn’t come from a wealthy background. Ironically the more she denies and hides her past, acting in a way that reinforces and tragically validates her feeling of shame, the less she feels able to be a part of the group she so desperately aspires to be in. If Holly could be a customer at Tiffany’s in her own right, it seems, she might feel like she actually belongs in her life.
All we have to do now
Is take these lies and make them true somehow
All we have to see
Is that I don't belong to you
And you don't belong to me
George Michael - Freedom
Abraham Maslow famously defined a hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is often portrayed as a pyramid, with what is described as the basic needs of food, house etc at the base and more complex needs such as spirituality near the peak. The need for love and belonging lie at the center of the pyramid as part of a social needs description. While Maslow suggested that these needs were less important than physical safety, he believed that the need for belonging helps people to experience companionship and acceptance through family, friends, and other relationships. Experiencing not belonging through isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person's subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, academic performance and self-control.
With adult eyes I can see how Maslow studied what he called the master race of people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt as he felt "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Maslow studied what he described as the healthiest 1% of the population. The healthiest also happened to be the most privileged and celebrated in society. The subtext of this is that the hierarchy might be better understood as the hierarchy of motivations for the privileged, than exactly a hierarchy of need. Maslow’s hierarchy to me has always felt almost intuitively accurate, of course we need physiological needs met before we can attend to matters of belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. Yet if I pause and wonder what the implications of this are, it starts to make a little less sense as a hierarchy. Even in my limited understanding I know people's sense of belonging and safety hugely influences whether someone feels able to take in physiological care; and many people (adults and children) will sacrifice physical safety, food and shelter - such is our drive to belong to a desired group. From a group analytic perspective our need to attach and belong to our groups is the primary task for survival, both physically and psychologically.
It is also essential to speak about how racist the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is. The only character in the film who is not white is played by Mickey Rooney, a white man in yellow face - his story arc there to provide comic relief for the white audience. The punch line being as a white audience we all know who can never belong, who will never pass as elite. My wanting to have Breakfast at Tiffany’s held as something only good and beautiful as part of my cultural identity, makes it tempting for me to split off all the active abuse in the film. What does it then mean about me if I keep the racism in mind and still am drawn to the film? Is it as simple as throwing everything racist in the bin and never looking back? Is there a way to hold it differently - to hold all of it? What is created if I do? Or is this simply just my ego refusing to give something up? I don’t have the right answers to these questions. I don’t think any one person can - this is a social problem and as such we need social methodology - we need group conversations and multiple understandings to hold all the parts.
With adult eyes I can see how there is much for me to learn from the story of Holly’s white woman position in her social group. Her white femininity, elitist conversation and socially sanctioned beauty are the things she can trade on to help her access the social elite group. She hides the reality of her external and internal poverty, as well as the existence of her traumatic past, in order to put conditional belonging first.
When trying to discuss the antiracist book club for psychologists one of the concerns that gets raised amongst white peers is that as a white psychologist wanting to discuss racism, I am coming from a place of shame and self harm. There can be a fear that by naming and exploring something so ugly within our collective identity, I might be trying to encourage a collective experience of self-flagellation, or, self-hate amongst my white colleagues. There have been several times verbalised a fear the bookclub is a way of promoting ‘struggle sessions’ - that is to say ritualised public shaming to elicit conformity. Other questions that get asked are why would anyone with privilege give it up - what is in it for them?
Whilst I am sure these self hating/masochistic aggressions exist as motives as part of the unconscious group experience , my practice of anti racism has little to do with self attack and I have no interest in harnessing this in the space. In a community with so little experience of collective containment from a secure base, it is easy to understand why a request for self-examination of aggression, trauma and pain might be experienced as potentially abusive, disturbing and shaming. When the feeling of belonging is so elusive and our social script is built on damaging belief that belonging is achieved through denial of painful realities and of believing boundaries are rules, it makes sense that this is a concern. However, to my mind integrating something painful so that I can be less self-destructive is not quite the same as simply ‘giving something up’.
To speak directly, my hope is that in continuing to try and have conversations about racism and white supremacy we might create a better understanding of ourselves, own contexts, our own psyches and therefore the psyche of groups we belong to. My desire is to belong and I know my ability to belong is woven into the fabric of our community's ability to be conscious of its need to heal.
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead