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The Workplace: Belonging vs. Fitting In

I choose belonging.

Having worked in the field of communications practically my entire adult life, I’ve often observed the behavior of people in workplace settings. A master’s degree in counseling also has led me to pay close attention to how people are made to feel in their work setting. Do they feel like the they fit in or belong? Yes, I am that person who always want people to feel as if they belong. That they are part of any group I am participating in, and that they feel like they are supposed to be there.

Lately, for some reason, I began to think more about fitting in and belonging in workspaces. One may not think there is much difference between the two. Neither did I until recent years. I don’t know why. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I began to rethink the two nor the primary distinction between the them. Well, I found the answer after I read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. In it, she explains the differences between fitting in and belonging in such a splendid and profound way that when I read it, I wrote in the margins, “yes, yes, yes!” And, then added the word “deep” with a capital D.

Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent a large part of her life studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. You may have heard of her following her phenomenal, and viral, TEDx talk in Houston in 2010 (if you haven’t, be sure to look it up!). Brown explains the differences between fitting in and belonging in this way:

“I defined belonging as the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

She hit the proverbial nail right on its head. As human beings we have a natural need to belong to a group, a community. Our work lives fit into that paradigm of the need to belong, too, and to be accepted for who we are. I have been in positions where I felt like I belong, so I know what it feels like. Then, there are positions where I often felt like I “fit in.” You know, having to adapt and change in order to be accepted. Have you ever felt that way, too? Let me tell you, all that adjusting and adapting all over the place to “fit in” is strenuous, wearisome even. I’ve come to a conclusion that at this stage in my life, I no longer want to work at fitting in. I either belong and am accepted for who I am or not. After reading Dr. Brown's work, that feeling was bolstered even more. I have abandoned the fitting in shackles for the freedom of being exactly who I was born and meant to be, a confident woman with strength, resilience, pride and milestones achieved.

Understand, I’ve never given permission to anyone to make me lack confidence. That was instilled in me as a young girl by my father. He taught his children to be ourselves, to be our best selves. He always said to go for what you want to be and to achieve it. I have held onto that and have had a very blessed life and successful career. I now want to encourage people everywhere to take the same path. If you feel like you are struggling to fit in, stop. Just stop. Be you. Be the best you. Go for your dreams and what you want to achieve. Do it whether you feel you belong or not. Remember, belonging can come in different forms. Those many forms can include your natural family, adopted family, personal friends and even some workplace associates.

The essence of the matter and the reason for this particular blog post is this: you shouldn’t have to become who someone else wants you to be in order to be accepted. When you are valued, all you have to do is be you.

Until next time,

Dr. Pat

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Dr. Pat Sanders
Dr. Pat Sanders
Oct 20, 2020

c.southward, thank you for reading the piece and for your valued response. Yes, we have to be able to be who we are wherever we are. Take care!


Amen! I wholeheartedly agree. All while growing up, I noticed that I was a bit different than others. Some couldn't accept that about me but I did. I never worked hard to "fit" in. I wanted to be my authentic self, ALWAYS. My motto was those who like me will & those who don't won't - the end. In the professional world, you often hear folks say you have to play the game. To me, that means you should work to fit in. I've never worked at playing the game. I've worked at staying true to self. Great piece!!!! It just validates what I've always felt.

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