What is Belonging?
According to shame researcher and otherwise incredible human, Dr. Brené Brown:
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.
True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
Quite the definition, right?
Today I’m viewing the concept of belonging through the lens of trauma recovery. I’m going to unpack how trauma disconnects us from our communities, leaves us with a sense of not belonging, how shame thrives in isolation, and how we can take the brave step of finding a community that will affirm our sense of belonging.
As always, this is written from my unique perspective. If something doesn’t resonate with you, that’s totally okay. Everyone’s story is different. Take what you need, and leave the rest. ❤
How Trauma Separates Us From Others
The ways trauma separated me from my community was two-fold.
1- During my 3 year long abusive relationship, I was going through something horrible and felt I had to hide it in order to still be accepted by my community. I thought that if I let anyone see what was going on they would think I was crazy for staying with my abuser, a weak and powerless person who deserved what she got, or otherwise shame me. I also had the perception that there was absolutely no way I was getting out of the relationship. I thought that if I left, he would kill himself or hurt me or my family. So it was not safe to leave. I knew that if my loved ones knew what was happening, they would try to get me to leave because they were kind people who wanted the best for me. But in my mind, I couldn’t leave. So if I was honest with them about my relationship and they told me to leave, I would let them down by staying. And then they wouldn’t love me anymore. I felt my only option was to hide what was going on, strap on a smile to my face, cover up my self-harm scars and pretend I was happy. I got really good at this. So many people had no idea what was happening. And although I had friends who loved me, I felt largely alone. Because under the facade, I was suffering through something I couldn’t let anyone see.
2- Years after the abusive relationship, I started coming to terms with my trauma symptoms and seeing a therapist. I couldn’t run from my trauma anymore. My symptoms were so severe and couldn’t be escaped through my usual coping mechanisms of codependent relationships, substance abuse, and extroversion. Suddenly the community I created around these behaviors was somewhere I didn’t feel I belonged. I looked around and all I could see were people who didn’t have flashbacks, paranoid impulses, intrusive thoughts, and crippling shame. I knew a lot of my friends had mental health issues they were working on, but nothing was the same as this trauma I carried. I had always painted myself to be this happy, energetic, extremely social person. I felt like if I let my community see me as I truly was, suffering over the events of the past, they wouldn’t like me anymore. I felt like I had to pretend to be normal and okay, or I would disappoint them. I pretended and pretended because I felt like if I was the real me, I wouldn’t belong.
How Shame Thrives in Isolation and Keeps Us Stuck
All of these ways I felt isolated from my community were not resulting from anyone actually telling me I didn’t belong or wouldn’t be loved if I wasn’t okay all the time. There was no actual evidence that if I was real with my people, they would drop me. And yet, I believed this so deeply because shame was running my psyche.
During the relationship, I was so ashamed of the abuse. I was manipulated and gaslit into believing that the constant mistreatment was my fault. I was ashamed at how bad it had gotten and how depleted, anxious, and depressed I was. I was ashamed at being a ghost of a person. It was too dangerous to blame HIM for what he did to me, so I blamed myself. And this internalized shame was projected onto everyone around me. I believed that if they really saw what was going on, they would be ashamed of me too. And I would be even more alone.
After the relationship, I was ashamed of being traumatized. I didn’t understand that having trauma doesn’t mean someone is weak, or that they’re “unable to let go of their past”. I didn’t understand that trauma literally changes your brain, and the symptoms you experience aren’t your fault. I didn’t understand that I wasn’t broken or irreparably damaged, but rather I was deeply wounded and there was hope for healing. I thought I was crazy, too much, and a liability. It felt deeply dangerous to push past this shame and be vulnerable with my friends. It was too terrifying to imagine. So I didn’t.
The shame that kept me isolated also THRIVED in isolation. So my disconnection from community kept getting stronger and stronger. It was a closed loop- the more I felt isolated from my community, the more I retreated in and let the shame guide me, which isolated me even more from community. I knew I couldn’t live this way. So I started searching for anything that would give me hope and make me feel like I wasn’t alone in this.
How to Heal In Community
On my search, I started finding books, podcasts, and certain social media accounts that talked about trauma openly. Suddenly the word “survivor” was on my radar. I started finding people who were not only survivors, but also THRIVING in their lives. And it wasn’t because they were perfectly “healed”, it was because they seemed to be unashamed, unapologetic, even outspoken about their lives in a way I couldn’t yet fathom for myself.
Let’s circle back to our guiding definition of “belonging” by Brené Brown. In order to feel we belong to a community, we have to believe in and belong to ourselves. What does that mean? Basically the opposite of shame. Shame says we are abnormal, broken, powerless, embarrassing failures. Believing in ourselves means owning that we are capable, resilient people who have the ability to heal, grow, and find happiness. Belonging to ourselves means bringing compassion and love to our wounds instead of shame and ridicule. Ultimately, it means being OKAY with what is and who we are. This doesn’t mean being okay with the abuse, or not having feelings of grief, rage, or fear. It doesn’t mean not being upset with our trauma or symptoms. It means practicing the art of RADICAL ACCEPTANCE and being okay with where we’re at. It means doing the best we can and affirming that that is good enough. It’s casting aside perfectionism and giving ourselves grace. It’s being there for ourselves, even when it’s really hard.
When we are able to believe in and belong to ourselves first, then we are able to be vulnerable enough to let ourselves be seen by others. And when both of these are combined, we can find deep, deep healing.
So what does this look like?
For me, finding like-minded people who are also dealing with trauma has been incredibly profound. Following people on social media who are open with their healing journey lifts me up and reminds me that there is no shame in being a survivor. Following psychologists and reading their books helps me learn more about how trauma has impacted my brain, which allows me to have more grace for my symptoms and realize they are biological and not due to a character flaw in myself. Talking to fellow survivors makes me realize I’m not alone in this.
From this base of community I’ve found largely online, I’ve become more able to radically own my neurodivergence in other spaces where before I was terrified of being myself. I’ve been able to advocate for my needs at work, make boundaries in relationships, and be real with where I’m at in friendships.
The inner work of believing in and belonging to myself is constant. For me, it’s bringing mindfulness and compassion to my inner critic who tells me I’m not good enough. It’s implementing grounding practices like meditation, journalling, and mindful movement to help me center in my body. It’s writing affirmations of strength I can call on when I need a reminder that who I am is not a burden and the abuse wasn’t my fault. It’s been opening my heart to a spirituality that is not defined by dogma or doctrines, but by the feeling I have deep within me that healing is possible and I am divinely supported in my quest to break the cycle.
A Message To You
This is my story, my process.
You who are reading this might be at one of a wide variety of stages and coping with a plethora of challenges right now. Wherever you’re at, I want you to know:
You are not broken. You are not your trauma. You are not a failure. You are not damaged beyond repair.
There is hope. There are people out there who will remind you that surviving is in and of itself an incredible feat of strength and power.
You deserve to rest. You deserve kindness and compassion. You deserve communities, friendships, and relationships that affirm your basic goodness.
You are powerful and capable of breaking the cycle. You are radically brave for surviving, for healing, for trying. I see you and believe in you.