Adam Blatner, M.D.

June 22, 2008

Belonging-ness is my term for the feeling of belonging. We may say objectively, from the outside, that a person belongs to this or that group, but that person may or may not feel that connection. There are teenagers in families who feel alienated even though their parents and teachers think they’re okay; the alienation is an experience of non-belongingness. This feeling of belonging is a basic need, so is is important to appreciate some of the psychological and social dynamics involved. Based on a greater understanding, we may be more able to diagnose problems that arise out of a lack of belongingness and suggest more rationally formulated individual and social actions for promoting or restoring a sense of belonging.

This problem is more relevant today because the postmodern condition has intensified alienation. To say that our culture is postmodern is to recognize more vividly that the changes in culture in the last several decades has made life qualitatively different from fifty years ago (the mid-20th century being the mid-late point of modernity). Alienation in turn involves people not feeling sufficiently connected, and this condition—i.e., the lack of belongingness—is one of the important yet often overlooked causes of a variety of personal and social dysfunctions.

Lack as a Source of Pathology

Pathology refers to the way things go wrong in living systems, and can refer to mental and social problems as well as physical illnesses. We get sick not only from toxins or infections coming from without, but also sometimes from not being able to take in substances that the body-mind needs. As an analogy, consider the problem of nutritional deficits:

Around a hundred years ago the idea was just emerging that there were certain nutrients that were needed but might not be present in some diets. Diseases like pellagra that you don’t hear about much anymore were unfortunately common among poor people, in institutions, and in others with vitamin-deficient diets. Because medical science in that era was still caught up in the relatively recent recognition that there were germs, and, from that, beginning to understand what was causing so many diseases, pellagra was initially thought to be an infectious disease of some type. Efforts to find the pellagra germ were not fruitful, though; rather, it was necessary to break set, to look in a radically different direction, “out of the box.” Could illness come not from eating something toxic, but rather not eating something that was needed? Once it became apparent that this, too, could be a source of pathology, other nutritional deficiency diseases were also discovered.

Beyond nutrition, we have become aware that there are other types of deficiency. People get sick from lack of exercise, stretching, movement. Also, experts have increasingly noted that sleep deficit is a common source of dysfunction affecting school, work, sex, and family life. The aim of this paper is to heighten awareness of another type of potential deficiency that has become more prevalent—the sense of belonging. To appreciate this problem, several component ideas must first be understood:

Belonging-ness as a Basic Need

Just as protein is needed in the diet for the health of the body, so belongingness is a basic need for the mind and soul. In the early years of the study of depth psychology, different innovators explored our “basic” motivations. Freud suggested sex and aggression as two key drives, Alfred Adler noted the seeking of the sense of superiority to counter inferiority feelings, and Jung noted a wide range of archetypal sources of motivation. Others also came up with their suggestions.

By the 1940s, though, child development research had considered another interesting disease that was prevalent again in orphanages, variously called "hospitalism," "anaclitic depression", or “marasmus," and describing the way some babies became sickly and often died! They traced this not to not being fed, but not being sufficiently cuddled, touched, played with! Other researchers supported the growing need for contact—and this in some ways was in contrast to a fashion in the child-rearing texts of the 1920s and 1930s to not pick up the crying child lest he be “spoiled.” (The success of the Doctor Spock books in the late 1940s was due to his challenging this anti-spoiling regiment. Benjamin Spock didn’t support “permissiveness” as his enemies accused, but simply not being harshly reserved.)

Psychoanalysts in the 1950s wove such research into revisions of theory, and while some stayed with Freud’s earlier “drive” theories, a fair number came to espouse what came to be called object relations theory. (This term refers to the object of a person’s love—and/or hate—, but many think of objects as inanimate, so the term is somewhat somewhat misleading; the theory itself seeks to highlight the intensity and depth of interpersonal relations.)

Much of object relations theory originally was based on observations about the interactions of infants and young children and their parents or caretakers, but what should be realized as that these early bonding experiences, with all their ups and downs, is only a small part of the richness of the dynamic! By age four to six, young children expand the scope of their worlds to include wider circles of friends, neighbors, and more abstract entities. Kids hear about and begin to root for the teams their parents root for, begin to relate to the family’s or communities myths about gods or spiritual entities, partake of ethnic identities, and feel patriotism and other sorts of loyalty. The term, belongingness, then, is more understandable and inclusive of our broader, more complex and life-long needs for feeling connected.

Active Belonging-ness

Belonging-ness differs from nutrition in that it is composed of active as well as passive elements, involving what you give as well as what you get. When you’re very little, it’s mainly a matter of feeling included by your family, it’s passive. But around the age of four, you become more aware that you can give, you can help, you can be useful to those around you. When you make that kind of connection, you feel sort of like they belong to you as much as you belong to them. You feed your teddy bear and help setting the table. You’re a little bit of a daddy-mommy as well as a little kid, because you can help. It’s important for family to promote and validate this active component of belonging because it gives the feeling a deeper kind of rooted-ness.

Some parents and school systems don’t arrange their operations so that children can experience their usefulness. They’re not given enough chores or responsibility—actually, it takes a bit of work to make such arrangements, and sometimes it’s easier to just do things for the kids. But this  pampers or spoils them. It feeds into the part of children that like to be babied, but if indulged, they fail to learn the enjoyment of feeling useful that comes with the assumption of responsibility.

The need to participate actively becomes even more important in mid-childhood and beyond. Organizations and communities can be inclusive, can think they’ve helped people to feel like they belong, but unless those folks can find some way to participate and give of themselves they don’t really buy into the feeling. To say again, objective belonging (as observed from the outside) may not result in people feeling belongingness (deep inside).

“Stroke” as a Unit of Belonging-ness

Since the dynamic of belongingness hasn’t been widely appreciated, some of its component elements haven’t been widely understood. Nevertheless, a few people have addressed the interpersonal sphere in some practical ways. The term “stroke” was coined by Dr. Eric Berne, a psychiatrist who in the 1960s developed the theory and method of Transactional Analysis. He used it in his best-selling book, Games People Play. Berne meant a stroke in the sense of the nonverbal equivalent of a pat on the shoulder, and could consist of an appreciative glance, a gesture of recognition, a kind or encouraging word. Strokes can be subtle, the little and even unconscious signals exchanged among people that make for the sense of community—murmurs of approval, nods, smiles, and the like. Dan Goleman’s 2006 book, Social Intelligence, expresses a heightened appreciation of this pervasive dynamic.

Another interesting term that overlaps with strokes is “attention,” as in the phrase, “Oh, he just wants attention.” Observers of children’s behavior, though, will note that if positive attention isn’t available, children will provoke attention by behaving in a negative fashion. Scolding is no fun, but it’s actually better than being ignored.

Berne and others in the field of Transactional Analysis note that people need a certain unspecified number of strokes every day. When one is getting enough strokes one feels belongingness. It’s more than ten and probably less than ten-thousand. Let’s imagine for illustrative purposes that people need, say, about 400 strokes a day. These can be glances of recognition—the “hey, I know you” eyebrow flash—, smiles, pats, shaking hands, rooting for your team on television, and so forth. Note that strokes can be real or illusory or some mixture of both.

Of course, you tend to get and give strokes more easily by living in a tribe where everyone knows you, and more if you play a useful role. On the other hand, you can easily fall into a deficit by living in a big city where folks tend not to look at you when you walk by. The various traditional sources of feeling a sense of roots or belonging-ness—neighborhood, family, job, and the like, to be discussed further on, supplied strokes. In our postmodern era we have to learn to find new creative sources of strokes just as we need to find new sources of energy (substituting sun or wind or whatever for oil).

An Unconscious Dynamic

Because our culture doesn’t talk about this dynamic—in part because few really understand it clearly—, most people don’t learn to realize what’s going on inside them. Sure, words like loneliness, alienation, isolation, existential “angst,” and other terms have been thrown around, but most people feel shame and guilt about somehow being inadequate or otherwise personally deficient for feeling this way. Or they may feel resentment and yet don’t know whom to blame. This may also be due to the fact that much of our psychology has been oriented to the individual, implying that society as a whole is not to be challenged. The assumption still operates that healthy people can adjust and therefore that’s what we should try to do.

The feminist movement, though, arose as a challenge to this. A pressing issue in the 1950s and 1960s was the plight of the housewife living in a suburban “nuclear family” situation. It was a terribly isolated existence and the prospect of another day with demanding children for many women generated a net drain rather than surfeit of strokes. So many women were complaining to their family physicians of symptoms associated with anxiety and depression and were then given tranquilizers (which had become a little safer than their more dangerous earlier sedatives). But the real diagnosis was that they were a little “stir crazy.” It wasn’t yet appreciated that trying to adjust to an unhealthy situation may itself be unhealthy.

One of the reasons mother-in-the-home was more stable in the previous century is that more people lived together—grandparents, siblings, other families—or they lived close by. Women were far less isolated and could get and give more strokes with peers.

In the 1970s, the social norms that generated guilt for considering balancing home life and work were challenged. “The personal is political.” Sometimes dis-ease lies not in the individual but in the context, the rules of the society. Nowadays people no longer believe that women should accept the traditional mother-in-the-home role. Although some seem happy doing this, others nowadays are free to seek more experiences beyond the home without guilt.

The point to note, though, is that the hunger for belongingness, for human interchange, for feeling appreciated and the need for stroke exchange was for the most part overlooked not only by professionals, but was also not appreciated by clients and other people—the symptoms were not uncommon, but a good diagnosis (in the sense of assessing the state of basic belongingness)   was rare.

An Aggregate Experience

Belonging-ness in a way is like good overall physical nutrition—it doesn’t depend on any single source. There are many vitamins, minerals, and different nutrients and they need to be balanced. In the world of the mind, there are a number of phenomena that are similarly the product of the overall sum of many inputs. Examples  include the sense of self, the sense of meaning, the sense of spiritual connectedness, the sense of belonging-ness, among others. (See paper on aggregate experience elsewhere on my website.)

While a lack or problem in certain components may not throw the overall “vital balance” off, when enough factors that deplete the sense of belongingness begin to accumulate, the person begins to consciously or unconsciously suffer. To restate, a variety of things can promote a sense of belonging, and, similarly, many different activities can sap belonging-ness. Thus, alienation, anomie, loneliness, isolation, addictions, substance abuse, all may result from a net deficit of belongingness experiences.

Interactions with Spirituality and Meaning

When people feel more belongingness, they tend to feel that their lives and experiences are more meaningful. Disconnection from belonging works in the opposite direction—folks feel their lives become less meaningful, or even meaningless. This may also overlap with their sense of self. Some people lose self-esteem, feel ashamed, guilty, and reproach themselves, because they can’t understand why they’re so lonely or isolated. They tend to feel as if they could just will themselves into positive connectivity.

Alas, there’s a germ of truth to this: People can learn a variety of ways to increase their capacity to make contacts and belong more, and learning these techniques, skills, and practices should be encouraged. However, equally important is the need for society and its sub-groups, businesses, communities, schools, and the like also to take responsibility for welcoming and fostering connections among newcomers and those who don’t easily fit in.

More meaningful activities in turn tend to strengthen the feeling of belonging-ness. One can enjoy the feeling by joining a club, but this can be fairly superficial. On the other hand, when one begins to actively help the club, invest energy, and feel needed by the club, one begins to feel more identification with that club’s success or failure.

Spirituality is an interesting category: I define spirituality as the activity of developing one’s connectedness or relationship with the greater wholeness of being, whether that be imagined as a personal supreme being, named or not, or as a less personal spirit or super-force of nature. (You may be interested in other papers on spirituality on my website.) The myths, stories, personages, scriptures, traditions, music, art, foods, and people all serve as psychological anchors, symbols, that enhance the feeling of connection. Also, spirituality generally draws to it a sense of ultimate significance, deep meaning. So finding belongingness in one’s relationship to the Divine Source also can be an important way to strengthen the process.

Religion I define as the social organization of the spiritual impulse, and if people can further find a sense of belongingness with people who share their own connection or path, the whole complex further deepens and strengthens this dynamic in the psyche.

Belongingness Deficit

At the physical level, if certain vital nutrients are not available, the body will extract them from whatever sources it can. These needs will not be denied! For example, if the calcium intake from the diet is insufficient, or, as in pregnancy, the body’s need is increased, the calcium mineral salts will be dissolved out of the person’s own bones! In the psychological realm, if there are insufficient emotional connections with other people, the mind will turn to secondary systems drawing on fantasy and illusion in order to maintain a sense of being in relationship, of belonging.

As mentioned, it is quite possible to not know you have a nutritional deficiency. In some poor communities, parents may be able to fatten their babies up with calories without offering sufficient protein or other nutrients. The kids seem healthy in some ways but get sick in other ways. How could fat kids with big bellies be nutritionally deprived? Well, part of the fat belly problem—you see this in some news photos—is not fat at all, but rather a swollen liver. A liver that doesn’t get enough protein gets fatty and huge in trying to compensate.

Similarly, people can fill their lives with stuff but still be emotionally starved, and we hear about celebrities and others who crash and burn because of a lack of authentic psychological involvements. Unless we recognize the nature of the need to feel belongingness, people will not know how best to really diagnose and correct the problem of belongingness-deficit.

This deficit can be marginal, so that people can seem healthy enough to keep going. They live, though, without much vigor, they have little energy to give much more than what it takes just to stay alive, and there’s little resilience to stress. People teetering on the edge of belongingness deficit feel un-ease, stress, but have not yet progressed to the point of fulfilling the criteria for a full dis-ease. Nor are they conscious of what’s eating them (or, more correctly, what psycho-social nutrients they’re not getting enough of). There may be ten or a hundred of such folks with “sub-clinical” belongingness-deficit for every one who is actually getting sick.

On the other hand, those who get and give a lot of strokes feel vital and generous. They volunteer in the community, participate in collective projects and political development, have lots of love to give to family and others.

Belongingness Sub-Types: Wholesome / Unwholesome and Actual / Symbolic

In nutrition, we hear about the problems of processed food, empty calories, junk food, and how folks can become malnourished in spite of modern living. (As an example, some computer workers in high tech companies were sick and were found to have what had become quite rare today: Scurvy! This is a vitamin C deficiency noted most commonly in sailors in the 18th century! These nerds and geeks spent long hours creating computer codes and relied on the vending machines in the break room at work for their food. They didn’t go out enough to buy and eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables. So “food” is in itself not necessarily nutritious.)

There is junk food for the soul, too. One kind is the illusion of connectedness associated with possessions. Buying, stealing, manipulating, achieving, getting and then “having,” collecting, accumulating—it can be not only things, but even celebrity, power or status. It seems as if these will gratify and satisfy, and they do, too, but only for a short burst. There’s a little high, a kind of pseudo-belongingness, but then it fades. Drugs have this effect, too, and getting drunk and party-ing. Then you feel empty again and need another fix. As the sage in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, “All is vanity.”

Belongingness can be experienced in a number of ways. It can be more symbolic, more actual, or a mixture of both. It can be more wholesome and constructive, more destructive and anti-social, or more neutral. It can involve all human endeavors.

For example, certain church youth groups promote not only togetherness, but also service in the community. On the other hand, an occasional church group produces campaigns to exclude others, parading with posters saying “God Hates Homosexuals.” Another example: Kids get together, sometimes playing innocent and wholesome games, and sometimes veering off into mischief.  Organizing the latter and you get the growing epidemic of criminal gangs. Alas, these latter also thrive because of the need of alienated kids to feel belongingness.

Some kinds of belongingness operate in fairly objective ways—you can see people greeting each other and shaking hands or enjoying themselves at a square dance. Other kinds of belongingness are more subjective: Your heart swells with not only patriotism but also belongingness while being in a crowd watching an Independence Day parade. You may root for “your” team to win a sports contest. Hey, it isn’t your team! This is you identifying with the team and its efforts—it’s in your head. Well, it feels like your team—by rooting for it, it symbolically becomes yours, and your rooting (even if they can’t hear you because you’re in front of a television set) still works at a psychological level.

Note that there are mixtures. Church is social, but, as noted above, there is also a belongingness felt with God (or Allah, or other names given for the focus of devotion). The rooting for the team may be shared with other people in the room, at a sports bar, and so forth—even if the players themselves can’t hear you.

Some kinds of belongingness mix wholesome, pro-social activities with either actual or symbolic relations; some kinds mix anti-social activities also with actual or symbolic relations. Many types of belongingness are more in-between, neutral, not particularly constructive, but neither are they destructive—just relatively innocent pastimes. Perhaps one could be criticized for not spending enough time doing something more constructive, but there’s also some virtue in relaxing. It’s a matter of balance.

Causes of Decreasing Belongingness

As times change, traditional sources of belonging can be lost or diluted. We are in a postmodern era, an era that is characterized especially by an increasing rate of change in the world. As mentioned before, the world is qualitatively different from what many middle aged and older people grew up with. Consider these current trends:
  – People are able to move more easily, go away to college, travel internationally in the armed services, peace corps, or business, move among different jobs as part of career building.
  – Women also enter college and the work force more, and thus they, too, move more.
  – Grandparents move to retirement homes away from the neighborhood.
  – People’s old neighborhoods change radically. (The poet Gertrude Stein shook her head about her childhood home in Oakland, California, saying with a sigh, “There’s no ‘there’ there anymore.”
  – People more frequently meet and marry different kinds of people, and this leads to both some blurring and some clashing of religions, races, ethnicities, sub-cultures, classes, music, foods, and so forth.
  – New kinds of jobs and careers are emerging that didn’t even exist a generation ago, and we may expect that this trend will continue and that our children will be doing types of work that we cannot even conceive of today.
  – The future is less bright as we are all faced with challenges of unintended consequences of pollution, species loss, resource exhaustion, overpopulation, ecological degradation, global warming, and so forth.
  – Our world is disrupted by those who challenge traditional social role definitions. We are led to doubt what should be our culture’s appropriate expectations about gender, sexuality, religion, authority, education, and other categories.
   – We are challenged also to cope with the advantages and disadvantages of the exponential growth of the internet, other kinds of communications, and distributed (virtual) social networks nationally and internationally via the internet and its “social media” forms of YouTube, FaceBook, Second Life, multi-user video games, ubiquitous cellphone text-messaging, and so forth.

As a result of all these shifts, the major traditional sources of the sense of belonging have been significantly weakened:
   – roots in one’s neighborhood
   – roots with one’s extended family
   – roots with clubs, schoolmates, friends at church, community events
   – roots in affiliation with an ethnic group, special sub-culture, music, food, rituals, history
   – roots in knowing what one wanted to be, to become, expected vocation, social role
   – roots in a positive future, a feeling that things were going to be better for everyone

It will do no good to decry these changes. It has become apparent that technological evolution can be perhaps slightly guided but hardly countered. It is possible, though, recognizing the nature of the need for belonging, to restore a great deal of this by creatively generating activities that promote that experience.

Correcting the Imbalance

If we recognize the underlying need for belongingness as a profound force in life, we may more intelligently respond in many ways. I am open to your suggestions, but to warm us up, here are some possible approaches:

1. School curricula must keep kids grounded in a positive social network. It’s not enough to support “self” esteem—that feeds significantly on the overall morale of the group. If there’s too much competitiveness, even the winners end up feeling left out even as they get that brief flash of achievement. Remember the need for balance.

2. There need to be many more social experiences, clubs, after-school activities, opportunities for kids to feel belongingness. There has been an insane over-valuing of individual academic achievement. While I don’t discount academics, they just don’t take root in the mind and soul of a kid who is in a marginal or gross deficit of strokes. Kids with good grades are getting depressed and we need a better way to diagnose what this is about! Even if there are “chemical imbalances,”  we need to ask why: Animals who lose status also have hormonal changes.

3. The theme, “the world needs you” needs to be emphasized as a general motto especially to kids, but really all ages need to hear it. We need to elaborate on this theme, develop it. It focuses on the ways anybody can find a niche.

4. We need to give more priority to not just vocational guidance, but also avocational guidance. I envision several classes a year during the middle school period being devoted to identifying special areas of talent and interest. Most people don’t appreciate what they’re really good at, and what they do naturally fairly well. A corollary, of course, is that folks tend to enjoy doing what they do most easily.

5. Difference, weirdness, oddness—it seems as if most people are odd in certain ways. We need to celebrate this by re-framing it as a virtue, as a part of individuality, as a possible channel for one’s special function in the world.

This also fits with an interesting paradox: People feel more belongingness when they can feel that their differences are enjoyed or at least tolerated. This reflects another need to discover and follow individual differences even in the face of their having little to do with the benefit of the family or group. (In psychoanalysis this dynamic is known as “separation-individuation” and emerges especially between the ages of two to four.)

6. I mentioned that it isn’t always easy for parents to structure their lives so their kids have chores that are genuinely useful. This is true for schools and organizations. Attention needs to be given to reinforcing young people when they’re giving of themselves. There needs to be that inter-personal reward—not so much “that’s good”—approval can be misleading—but more a thoughtful expression of how what was done was useful, how it was effective or helpful in some way.  

7. Encouragement is an art, a skill. Great hosts and hostesses know this intuitively. Good teachers or youth group leaders also. It’s more than mere flattery, it’s a capacity to identify some positive behavior and draw it forward. Alfred Adler, the founder of the school of Individual Psychology around the 1920s was asked near the end of his life (in the mid-1930s) to sum up his insights. He rose to the occasion by saying, “Encourage the child.” For him this was a profound principle, a skill of nurturing of the aforementioned active aspect of belonging-ness.  (A plug should be given here to the Montessori schools and the wisdom of their approach, which also fits with this appreciation of belonging.)

8. For adults, the equivalent of encouragement might be found in the realm of motivational enhancement, common in the world of sales people, positive thinkers, and the like. Some of new age thought is drawing on this trend, as seen in the popularity of the book and video, “The Secret.” It speaks to the resonant chord of awareness that daring to imagine the best not only in others, but in oneself and one’s aspirations—daring to and practicing expecting the best out of life. (The more you have positive expectations, the more you are alert to opportunities as they arise, as a basic starting point.) They would say that there are self-fulfilling prophecies, and expecting the best tends to draw forth the best. All these can be intensified by adding the dimension of interpersonal and group support, encouragement, and belonging.

9. Our country needs a general uplift. For years we have extended our collective energy in seeking to help distant peoples in Iraq and Afghanistan fight against various tribal and ideologic causes, diverting incredible amounts of money that could have been spent supporting the building of bridges, roads, education, research, and other parts of our infrastructure. “W’s” father, George H. W. Bush, back in 1989 at his inaugural address, spoke of the need for encouraging community endeavors, the “thousand points of light.” He was right about this, even though his administration diverted its energies into the first Iraq war, so the ideals were then neglected.

Raising morale generates belongingness which then motivates more people to give a little more and this can perhaps begin to turn around the inertia, selfishness, apathy, and other qualities that reflect more non-belongingness. It may not be easy to do in a time of recession, but if Obama gets in, there just may be enough excitement among youth and by contagion many other parts of society, it could happen. (There’s no question that if McCain is elected we’ll spin into even more cultural demoralization while a few wealthy people continue to suck money off the top.)


I predict that in the future people will look back in some wonder at the contrasts of our present culture, perhaps in the way we are inclined to feel as we consider the contrast between the grandeur of the great castles and fancy balls of the aristocracy of Europe in the 17th through 19th centuries and the squalor of the hygiene of that era. I think the future will note a corresponding disparity between wealth and luxury in many sectors and  the poor "social hygiene" leading to widespread alienation and a variety of social dysfunctions in our own time. We need to bring our social technologies up so that they can modulate the excesses of hard technologies, or our world will seem more like a kindergarten in which the children have obtained real guns and ammunition. I hope this paper and related efforts will contribute to this endeavor. Please feel free to email me at with suggestions about how I can revise or improve this paper.

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