1. Familial and societal values and expectations define who we are.
Our parents are at the centre of our upbringing and teach us values, attitudes and beliefs that help to define us from our conception and birth. Family expectations can either act as a burden on a child’s sense of self and abilities, or an opportunity to learn and grow. In order to preserve their cultural identity, some parents tend to preserve their traditions and language by entrusting nuances of their national heritage onto their children. There is often a tension between children’s desire to follow their own dreams and ambitions, and the hopes and expectations of their parents. Sometimes a compromise must be made. Our actions and decisions are restricted by the expectations that our parents have of us, which then manifests itself into a vast change in our identity as we may not be following our instincts. We construct a sense of ourselves through social interaction in our family from an early age. They set the examples for us to follow and we subconsciously adapt to share similar lifestyles and ideals. Adherence to pre-existing guidelines that define social groups, and to the expectations of others, can often be the easiest and in some cases the only path to fitting in. Especially during the teenage years, there is a need for others’ validation and adherence to social convention.
2. Establishing an adult identity.
Determining who we are and where we belong as adults is influenced by both our past and our present, by what we already know and what we yearn for in our lives. Finding peers, friends and partners who respect and accept our presence is a vital part of our establishment of an adult identity. Our identity gets more complicated with the passage of time. With age comes new frontiers, challenges and opportunities that individuals can grasp with either hesitation or optimism. The movement from an adolescent identity to an adult identity can often be a challenging one, particularly when the experience is fuelled by frustration, mishap and confusion. Being an adolescent or young adult is a time fraught with fear for the future and uncertainty, since the body and the mind experience great change – physical, physiological and social change. As gregarious and cognisant beings, we loathe ostracism and desire assimilation. 3. Families and intimate relationships with others shape who we are.
Families ideally provide love, protection, security and the opportunity for us to find out who we are. The need to belong is an intrinsic motivation in all humans to feel accepted and valued by others through sustained, meaningful connections that validate our role in society. Not all families provide the same kinds of opportunities for personal growth and, even in the most stable and supportive families, pressures to conform may occur. While we do not choose our families, we can choose the close connections we forge with other people. A desire to belong is also a desire to connect with others. Changing circumstances can precipitate a change in our close and intimate relationships, which in turn reshapes and further develops our identity. It may seem that our everyday lives are filled with mundane routine, however we eventually realise that every relationship and commitment gradually becomes a significant part of who we are and how we see the world.
4. Groups and communities provide us with a sense of belonging.
Groups and communities can provide security, support and acceptance in our lives. By nature, human beings are not solitary creatures. Belonging is an inherent aspect of our human condition that is a universally ubiquitous concept in humanity. Examples of groups include families, factions, teams, clubs, schools and workplaces. Contributing to the social fabric can have a positive effect on our sense of self – it can enhance our self-esteem as well as our self-worth. Not only do we belong to a family group, but also to racial, religious and cultural groups – even without our knowledge (passive). We fulfill the need for belonging satisfactorily when the group values and respects the contribution our presence makes to the group. Belonging to a group often carries with it a sense of exclusivity or privilege. It also fosters a feeling that we are accepted and loved.
Belonging can often be contradictory in nature as people may want to belong to a group or organisation out of fear of being left out or ostracised. To attain a sense of social integration, we attempt to affiliate ourselves with groups that share mutual values and ideologies which affirm our identity and social role. It is often difficult to belong if we hold different ideas, beliefs and values from the majority of a group or community. Refusing to conform to the expectations of the majority – especially in schools or workplaces – can take considerable courage and strength of character. Misalignment between individual and group identity will have the same isolating effect as social solicitude, leaving us spiritually disoriented and emotionally desolate.
5. Our identity can often be challenged.
The people and ideas we encounter on a daily basis change the way we see the world and how we see ourselves. Our identity develops as we grow and change. As teenagers we may be challenged by peer pressure and thus might be easily swayed by others with stronger personalities. Our beliefs – political, religious and personal – may also be challenged and our identities reshaped as a result. Beliefs add meaning to our lives and connect us to others, by giving a sense of direction and purpose. If our beliefs are shunned, all semblance of our individuality and character can sometimes be diminished. When we are disconnected from others, we tend to view our own ideals and values unfavourably because they are ‘different’ from the rest of society. This disparity can place a burden on one’s self-worth and identity.
In some circumstances the only method to find our true self is to go against the boundaries applied to use by others. Overemphasis on adapting ourselves to satisfy what others think and desire can cause individuals to turn into such parochial beings that we lose sight of reality and who we really are. Knowing who we are and where we belong is fundamental and it allows us to live as happy and confident individuals able to reject conformity. We are all part of a family, a community and a culture. While we think of ourselves as being individuals, we must also accept that as social creatures we like to feel like we belong and feel safe. This, in turn, gives us the confidence to be ”me”. The clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the football team we belong to, even the school we attend forms the parcel of who we are.
6. Choosing not to belong.
Conforming to the needs of a group can often stifle one’s true identity, and thus an individual can choose not to belong to a certain group. Whilst belonging suggests a desire to be connected to others, it may also result in a dependence on others and a subsequent loss of individuality. Choosing not to belong to the mainstream can be a difficult yet rewarding decision. An individual may define themselves in opposition to social norms and expectations. When an individual decides that they do not want to belong to a specific group or community, they demonstrate strength and courage, as well as a dominant, unique identity that is able to cope on its own. However, there may be some drawbacks. In not belonging and conforming to a group or community, we may be left feeling lost, confused and without purpose in life, regardless of the strength of our individuality. If we do not fulfill the fundamental necessity for social integration, we may feel isolated from a world that we share nothing with and lose the sense of purpose that defined social roles are able to provide. If this crucial aspect of the human condition is not fulfilled, we may lose all semblance of our identity and place in society. The nature of isolation holds no benefits for the individual, as it disallows an individual to view life in a positive manner, and denies them the right of relishing upon the positives in life. When individuals are alienated, they tend to lose their sense of identity because they feel as though they are ‘nothing’; to the world they do not exist.
7. In order to belong, we must make sacrifices.
To gain a true sense of acceptance sometimes requires compromise. Because there will inevitably be conflict between the views of the individual and that of the group, we must often conceal or renounce nuances of our true character that are contradictory to the group’s collective identity. In order to belong to a group, we have to give up some of our individual freedom. Sometimes we may even have to compromise certain personal beliefs or modify our behaviour in order to fulfill an impulse to belong. This means belonging will invariably challenge our identity by forcing us to either uphold our own values or conform to the will of the group. Thus, a sense of belonging can benefit or hinder personal development. A sense of belonging can either support or detract from our personal identity. We must make compromises to suit which direction we would like to take in our lives. While in some instances belonging may challenge identity, identity and belonging must coexist in society. This is because identity is actually formulated through perceptions of individuals and that without social groups, identity would only be a figment of one’s imagination. In a society which inherently seeks to categorise individuals and others’ acceptance is based largely on the extent to which one conforms, it is paramount that every individual finds their genuine place in the world.
Despite the often horrific consequences that come attached to defying convention, the determination to find who we truly are is sometimes so great that we are willing to risk everything in order to try. Some sort of balance must be reached such that we feel validated and significant but also understand our true selves. Conforming with prevailing culture has the capacity to strip an individual of their identity or at least parts of it – it is the self that is compromised and dampened. Isolated are those who maintain individuality to the detriment of collectivism. Assimilated are those who unconditionally accept conformity; entropy awaits those who have no regard for self and others; but salient are those who are able to maintain a discernible element of individuality whilst concurrently achieving societal acceptance. It is difficult to fulfill these dual impulses: to belong to a group, and to be free to express one’s individuality. This is the distinction between acceptance and the exertion of individual identity (through personality, beliefs, gestures etc.).
8. A sense of belonging can strengthen our identity by assigning us defined social roles.
We are more likely to uphold our own values and personal beliefs if we are under some form of obligation to do so. Roles can be both explicit (teacher)
and implicit (bully). Where we sit in the social hierarchy can affect how we see and how we feel about ourselves. While there are no specific rules or conventions for such roles, we are inclined to behave in a way that is synonymous with our designated ‘identity’ so that we meet other people’s expectations. In all of the social groups that we as individuals belong to, we have a status to abide by and a role to fulfill. Status is our relative social position within a group or community, whilst a role is the part our society expects us to play in such a status. For example, a man may have the status of father in his family, and is thus expected to nurture, educate, guide and protect his children. Mothers usually have complementary roles. One can also have multiple roles and statuses – such as an uncle, grandfather and so on.
9. Individual growth comes from belonging.
Individuals gain more from belonging to a group than from living in isolation. Most groups have certain expectations that members must conform to, but they also provide a forum in which individuals make valuable connections with others and enrich/reinforce/question their identities. Members of a group can also teach each other, sharing the wisdom they have gained from their life experiences. The wisdom is used to enrich the group’s collective knowledge. Belonging can facilitate or perhaps stifle personal growth.
10. Types of identity and belonging.
Types of identity:
Career: lawyer, nurse, politician.
Family: father, mother, older sister, cousin.
Skills: athletic, intelligent, leader.
Cultural: history, tradition, religion, ethics.
Social: peer group, clique, club, gang.
Also collective/multiple/gender identity.
Types of belonging:
Relationships: family, friends, partner, teacher.
Social: groups, classes, clubs, organisations.
Environment: Australia, metropolitan, farm.