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Longing to belong

The latest news is, Portugal is good to go … we have even run out of adults to vaccinate and mask regulations have loosened up. We can move towards being ourselves again and to socialise more freely. Even though the social disconnection of lockdown scarred many, others around the world felt lockdown facilitated the opportunity to be themselves.

Somehow, the absence of a social life brought the gift of living in a more fulfilled, meaningful way. When amidst our social groups, we can sometimes experience an intense craving to be accepted, to be given status, to feel important, to be popular and to be liked. The craving can be painfully tangible and, for some, the lack of fulfilment can lead to a feeling of emptiness, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

Recent research, presented in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, highlighted how central acceptance is to our lives and even core to our survival. Indeed, belonging to a group would have helped our ancestors survive harsh environments.

Because of this, being part of a group, being accepted, still helps people feel safe and protected. But not everyone is accepted in groups and not everyone feels a sense of belonging. Many live in fear of rejection by their social group. Research shows being rejected is bad for your health. “People who feel isolated, lonely and excluded tend to have poor physical health, their immune systems are compromised, and they even tend to die sooner than those surrounded by loved ones” (sic).

People with social anxiety are constantly worried about being socially rejected and can also become people pleasers. Sometimes people pleasers or popularity seekers get a bad press. We often judge them as being disingenuous, insecure, lacking self-esteem, but if we look at the bigger picture, that the need to belong is a basic human need, we can better understand why some of us become so eager to please and why the pursuit of approval or admiration can become the very meaning of life for some.

So, even though people-pleasing and focusing on popularity may bring a sense of belonging, this sense can come at the cost of connection with yourself and a feeling of a meaningless life.

The old Aesop’s tale of the miller, his son and the donkey illustrates so well the fruitless pursuit of people pleasing …

One day, a long time ago, an old miller and his son were on their way to market with their donkey, which they hoped to sell. They drove him very slowly, to keep him in good condition for the sale. As they walked along the highway, some travellers laughed loudly at them.

“What fools, why don’t they ride their beast of burden?”

Feeling embarrassed, the miller told his son to climb up and ride. They had gone a little farther along the road, when three merchants passed by.

“Shame on you, young man!” they cried. “Let the old man ride.”

Feeling humiliated, the boy got down and the older, heavier miller climbed up himself to ride.

At the next turnstile, they overtook some women carrying market baskets loaded with vegetables.

“Look at that thoughtless old man,” exclaimed one of them. “Getting fatter, while that poor boy, nothing but skin and bones, has to walk.”

The miller felt a bit vexed, but to be agreeable, he told the boy to climb up and join him.

They had no sooner started out again, then a loud shout went up from another company of people on the road.

“Goodness, that poor donkey is so abused carrying two men, surely they should carry the poor creature?!”

The miller and his son, not wanting to be seen as animal abusers, climbed down and decided to carry the donkey. Soon, as they approached the market town, a great crowd of people ran out to get a closer look at the strange sight, laughing and pointing. The donkey did not like being carried, and with all the hullaballoo, he began to kick and bray, and then, just as they were crossing a bridge, the miller and son lost their grip and the donkey fell into the river and sadly drowned.

By the end of this journey of trying to please everyone, no one was actually pleased; in fact, the miller and his son did not please anyone including themselves.

They lost money, popularity, and tragically their donkey. The journey could reflect an entire lifetime of trying to win favour, trying to please, trying to be socially embraced. We do this in life through perhaps pursuing a respectable career, following our peers, or acting in certain ways. We crave social acceptance to reassure ourselves that we’re doing the right thing often where there is no right thing.

And so, the miller and his son could learn a thing or two about how to cope with social rejection and disapproval. Here are some words of advice for them:

1. Assume that everyone is going to experience rejection. It’s impossible to go through your entire life or journey with everyone being nice to you all the time. When you are rejected or excluded, the best way to deal with it is to seek out other sources of friendship or acceptance and value your own choices.

2. Never take anything personally. What other people say or suggest tells you about their values, their ideas, beliefs and limitations. You might listen and reflect upon what they say, but don’t change your behaviour according to someone else’s beliefs unless, of course, through proper reflection you choose to do so.

3. Identify your values and beliefs. Reflect upon what you think is right and wrong and spend time with people who think and believe similarly. Always be open to those with different values, but instead of acting on what people say, simply reflect and consider action if it feels right.

4. Identify your needs and act accordingly. Take heed of what others have to say without compromising your own needs.

5. Identify your goals in life. Reflect honestly to yourself – is one of your goals to be popular? And ask yourself if this pursuit offers meaningful connection and real sustainable self-esteem. Self-esteem gained through social approval is tenuous and, as social approval changes as the crowds have different opinions, self-esteem is at risk of being robbed.

6. Value what you have and what you choose to do, even when others don’t.

7. Don’t bow to social pressure just because you are afraid of rejection. Face your fear and accept that you will be rejected at some point in your life.

8. Seek support from those that do support you and talk about your fears of rejection. Remember nobody is better than you and you are better than no one.

9. Look for more sustainable ways to feel connected, not through pleasing or approval or being as good as, but through real friendship, where there is an exchange of perspectives, ideas and a possibility to be yourself.

In the end, the pursuit of pleasing is a loser’s game; you can never be acceptable to everyone. Instead, choose meaningful connections which both give a sense of belonging and allow you to be yourself.

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