by Karlie Chalmers, OT Reg (Ont), Psychotherapist
“I feel sorry for anyone who is in a place where he feels strange and stupid.”
― Lois Lowry, The Giver
What does it mean to belong?
I read ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry in fourth grade, a book about a futuristic ‘utopia’ where choice is removed (they assign you a job, wife, and kids) and everyone is unfailingly polite - the cost for this future free of discrimination, autonomy, and pain is being genetically altered to forget all human history and memory of pain and pleasure. In ‘the community’ Jonas lives in there is a special role, known as the ‘receiver’, this individual carries the memories of pain, pleasure, and past failings of the human race so the community will not repeat evil or go through undue hardship. To this day, I remember thinking how difficult it must be for Jonas, but not for the reason most people would expect. The overt suffering and joy Jonas experiences as he carries these burdens are obvious, but what struck me was that Jonas experiences a second burden that the reader senses latently throughout the book.
The burden of being unknown and not emotionally attuned to those around him. The burden of lacking a sense of belonging. The burden of his emotional experiences being neglected because no one knows what Jonas knows, and no one can experience the severity of pain or pleasure he bears within him. Jonas is given half of the core components of what it means to belong: the experience of being valued and needed with respect to other people. However, the second, and arguably more important, component of belonging is direly absent - the experience of congruence with other people through shared authenticity, understanding, and emotional experience. As the story proceeds, Jonas is isolated and alone as he carries his burden. Eventually, this alienation and sense of lack forces Jonas to reject the community and leave the supposed ‘utopia’ he strived to protect. Jonas comes to realize what many children with disrupted childhood experiences of neglect and trauma discover as they explore how they relate to themselves and others:
Without a sense of being needed and valued within the group paired with an authentic, emotional relationship with members of the group there is not a subjective experience of belonging…
& without a sense of belonging there is no utopia.
Belonging is fundamental to being a social creature, Maslow ranked it 3rd in his hierarchy so it must have been pretty important.
[Accessible image description: A triangle cut into 7 vertical segments, each a different color. From bottom to top they are: physiological (green), safety (purple), belonging and love (pink), esteem (blue), cognitive (gray), aesthetic (light orange), self-actualization (dark orange), transcendence (yellow).]
As humans we crave a sense of belonging and when we cannot access the safety of this perceptive state we tend to become anxious, listless, un-impassioned, and depressed. How many of us have had a creeping, icky feeling of fear sneak in alongside the isolating thought “Why don’t they care about me” or “I don’t have any friends”. For many, these concerns pass quickly once we are reunited with the people we love and feel we belong with, but for others a sense of otherness and alienation from those they care about persists even when the social situation appears to offer safety, belonging, and shared roles and meaning. Often this stems from formative experiences that distort our sense of self in relation to others, and thereby, distort our sense of belonging. This can happen in many ways, too many to discuss today - so I will focus on the specific effect that neglect has on a person’s sense of belonging.
My reason for focusing on neglect first is that it is the highest prevalence out of all forms of child maltreatment and the most easily overlooked form of trauma by the individual and therapists alike. Jonas was alone in his experience of vast emotions. Children who are left emotionally to manage their own little minds almost always are overcome by them and end up being deeply impacted in their adult life. This shows up in the ability to manage emotion productively, communicate and create emotional intimacy, and feel a sense of safety in their relationships and communities. Jonas sought a new place where he belongs, venturing out into the winter and the unknown in search of people who felt the pain and pleasure of it all like he did. If you take the time to intentionally and proactively meet yourself when you were younger, re-parent and care for that inner self, and get support on how to find safety within your emotional experiences, then there will be a profound impact on your relationships and felt sense of belonging. And as for feeling like an outsider, I promise you this, there are places you’ve never been where you already belong - you just have to be ready to venture towards them, and simultaneously, within yourself.
[Accessible image description: A graph titled ‘Neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment. The chart along the y-axis read: Neglect, Physical abuse, Other, Sexual Abuse, Psychological maltreatment, and Medical neglect with bars showing their prevalence. The x-axis reads 20%, 40%, 60%, and 80%. The chart shows that, by far, neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment at 78%, with all other forms being below 20%.]
Neglect and Barriers to Belonging:
Neglect is any situation where a caregiver is unable to meet the practical, emotional, or protection needs of their child, this often occurs within the context of serious individual stressors such as serious caregiver illness, or lack of social support networks alongside macro-level stressors such as poverty, environmental or political disaster, and systemic oppression. It is important to note that most parents make tremendous effort to provide for their children, and when this does not happen it is often the culmination of many complex factors, rather than a character flaw or lack of love within the parent.
Neglect is a particularly difficult experience because it is the impact of what didn’t happen. Rather than overt memories of conflict, violence, or loss, a child who has faced neglect is left with a distorted sense of belonging, and yet the individual may struggle to point to a memory or situation that caused this inner experience. Due to the hidden nature of neglect, the commonplace trauma symptoms of avoidance and minimization play out with ease, further repressing the neglect from the person’s conscious mind. This allows the individual to avoid facing the internal factors that prevent connection and attunement to others in their adult life. A child who lives with neglect develops a complex method of inner coping that protects them against the painful reality that their parent is unavailable and unable to care for their emotional and tangible needs. These inner structures of coping become outdated, and yet they continue to play themselves out in the present with counter-productive results.
The effect of neglect trauma can manifest in a number of ways. If you were neglected you may…
Disassociate from or avoid affection:
When people need affection from a caregiver but it is unavailable, they learn to disavow this need. One defense mechanism against the trauma and pain of this unmet need is disassociation, the experience of disintegrating the experience of cognition, affect, and body alongside compartmentalizing extremely painful experiences into a form of sub-amnesia. Imagine this, everytime a child approaches their father for emotional support they brush them off for the football game due to emotional exhaustion from 12 hour shifts. The child will feel the resulting disappointment and distress of needing their father’s attention and love, or for a warm meal, or support with their homework. Each rejection by the parent for emotional closeness or caregiving will intensify the child’s emotional experience of rejection and alienation, dysregulating their emotional systems further. Unequipped to regulate this distress, their mind will provide the subjective feeling of ‘apartness’ or compartmentalization of the experience and go into a calm, disconnected state. If this experience is recreated enough times, the child will no longer express any needs to their caregiver, and even when the need arises or affection is freely offered, the default mode of disassociation in response to these stimuli will become the norm.
Once the child comes to pair the experience of affection and rejection both as noxious and dangerous stimuli and disassociate in response to them they have developed a trauma response known as ‘freeze’. In future adult relationships where they are able to receive affection, emotional support, practical caregiving, or attunement, instead of the typical response to these things of reciprocity, joy, or closeness, they may instead disassociate automatically, missing out on the felt sense of belonging and connection, and appearing unattuned to their partner, co-worker, or friend. Without repairing this chronic dissociative response to attuned attachment, the individual risks going through the motions of belonging and relating without ever having the felt experience of belonging with others. Many adults who experienced the trauma of childhood neglect report the feeling of being a passenger in their own lives, bodies, and relationships, as if they are unable to connect the mind, emotion, and body for a holistic experience of belonging. Your childhood brain protected you by walling off your emotions at a time when it did not have the capacity to regulate them, but it could not make them go away completely. Today you can still access them. By accepting that your emotions exist, and exploring the experiences that made them feel unsafe to experience, you’ll be able to learn how to listen to them, manage them, and use them to feel attuned and connected to others.
Experience Faulty Core Beliefs
Alongside defensive neurological responses to stress, like disassociation, these moments of missed affection or caretaking by a preoccupied or unwell caregiver plant the seeds of faulty core beliefs. For children experiencing neglect, they often cannot fathom why their caregivers aren’t available. The child who experiences neglect does not yet understand the demands, stressors, and realities of the world, so they make up their own reasons for their own maltreatment. These reasons are typically self-focused and false. Typically neglect-related faulty core beliefs fall into three general categories:
My needs aren’t important and they don’t matter
I will never get what I want in life, trying leads to disappointment
I am flawed/unworthy/unseen and therefore I don’t belong
The trifecta of trauma-based cognitions forms a monolith of suppressed meaning that
operates within us to create an automatic narrative, self-destructive behaviours, and reproduce tangible evidence in our relationships that seemingly confirms these faulty core beliefs that trauma subliminally taught us. These faulty core beliefs become the trauma-based operating system for our higher consciousness, akin to a physical cancer, which continues to subconsciously mutate and recreate itself within our self-schema, behaviours, and functioning within the world. The good news is once we uncover these faulty core beliefs and the way they influence how we process information, we can begin to make space for the creation of a healthier self-perception based on our values, desires, and true self. This personal growth allows us to come into relationships authentically with self-leadership, which improves sense of belonging and a felt experience of connectedness.
Lack role models of reciprocal empathy, coping, caregiving, and vulnerability:
We learn to behave in certain ways largely due to the role modeling of our primary caregivers. If those individuals were not able or available to model meeting the emotional needs of others, connection-promoting behaviors, or healthy conflict resolution then their adult child may be left feeling at sea without a map, the treasure of human connection present in their midst but hidden just beyond their grasp. Due to these skill deficits with the practical aspects of relationship-promoting behavior and emotional attunement in relationships. Those who experienced ongoing emotional neglect, without intention, often feed into relational patterns of disconnection. They do not promote the need for shared emotional experience and mutual need to feel valued and important within their relationships through caretaking, bids for connection, checking in, emotional attunement to the needs of others, provision of validation, and promotion of vulnerability. However, many folks who come through neglect, and all forms of traumatic experience, actually recognize that their experience lacked something and seek out other positive role models: teachers, friends, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, bosses, faith leaders. Due to this resourcefulness, many adults who experienced neglect already are well on their way to building these fundamental relationship skills, in fact, some of them are more attunement than non-traumatized counterparts due to the impacts of post-traumatic growth and trying to create into the world what they lacked as children.
Struggle with executive dysfunction, attention, learning and self-care:
According to Harvard, alongside every major research institution, we know two things about neglect: First, it is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment, accounting for 78% of reported child maltreatment in the U.S. in 2023. Second, science tells us that young children who experience anything on the ‘neglect spectrum’ from significantly limited caregiver responsiveness to severe neglect may sustain a range of adverse physical and mental health consequences that actually produce more widespread developmental impairments than overt physical abuse. These can include cognitive delays, stunting of physical growth, impairments in executive function and self-regulation skills, disruption in the development of self-care and fundamental life skills, and disruptions of the body’s stress response (Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University). All of these impacts of childhood emotional and practical neglect may seem unrelated to sense of belonging, but each had a mediating effect on belonging:
Sustained attention: When we cannot focus on a conversation we miss social nuance and emotional cues that result in poor attunement to the conversational partner. Since mediating attention during communication is key to social responsiveness, this cognitive challenge can have a serious impact on sense of belonging.
Executive function: Executive functioning is the ability to initiate tasks, plan future tasks, sequence or logically sort tasks, switch between different components of a task, and hold information in your working memory to utilize for a task. When your executive functioning is poorly developed you may have trouble with self-care tasks, efficiency in getting work and chores done, and perhaps even getting out of the house. All of these things - a messy house, poor hygiene, and inability to schedule and execute outings can all produce a poor environment for bringing people together and maintaining relationships.
Academic Success: As every kid with a learning disability can attest to, it really sucks to ‘feel stupid’. Even if your peers recognize your other strengths, feedback that you are not learning as fast as others can make you feel less than others and cause another form of lack of sense of belonging.
[Accessible image description: An infographic with a beige background, with green and blue images throughout, has a green circle at the center that reads “Sense of Belonging” with floral accents around it. The top half of the graphic is titled ‘How to Improve Emotional Connection’ with three sub-points and related images: a picture of a woman disintegrating with the point ‘healing dissociative responses to connection and affection’, two heads with a string connecting their brains with the point ‘Improving our emotional attunement to our own needs and the needs of others, and a thought bubble with a squiggly line with the point ‘Unlearning faulty core beliefs that perpetuate a distorted sense of belonging’. The bottom half of the page is titled “How to improve feeling needed & valued with three sub-points and related images: a circle with two hands stacked under a floating heart and the point “Learning and Implementing reciprocal caregiving skills”, an side profile of the outline of a head with many coloured arrows inside and the point ‘address executive dysfunction and attentional difficulties through cognitive skill building and accommodations, and a heart with a heartbeat line inside with the point ‘address issues impacting health resources and energy to engage’ ]
Neglect, Belonging, and Post-Traumatic Growth:
If this article resonates with you or reminds you of someone you know, there is hope. Our brains have an amazing ability to rewire themselves and our spirits as human beings have a propensity towards growth and healing. All of us are interconnected and interdependent on each other, as social and moral creatures, we all belong here, to one another, and to the living planet. We all play out old patterns from painful experiences, whether in our own lives, in the lives of our children, or in our social circles, but that old pattern that keeps showing up in our lives can become a story of our own creation. If we can bravely choose to explore what it is that is holding us back, we release ourselves from the spiritual, neurological, and emotional tethers of the past, and are able to experience new ways of being in the world. This is the meaning of post-traumatic growth, taking an inventory of the impact of your negative experiences, and then choosing to meet your childhood self and say “I’ll find a way to fix this, I won’t let these things keep happening to you or to anyone else” and then you make a commitment to doing just that, over and over in small ways every day. By being the balm to your own wounds and being a responsive caregiver to that inner child, you’ll be amazed at how, once your inner child feels a sense of safety and belonging with you, you will find a sense of belonging in the world with much more ease.
And as with Jonas’s long journey to finding his new community and people who were willing to feel the full breadth of human connection - if you feel in a place where you feel strange and stupid, or lost in the cold snow of winter and feel stuck, don’t stop- keep going…you just might find what’s been missing.
“Always in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something--he could not grasp what - that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did not know how to get there.” (Lois Lowry, The Giver)
Unlike Jonas you don’t have to go through this process of healing alone, we’re here to help. If you feel you need help with your sense of belonging, you experienced childhood neglect, or need help with trauma, please reach out. Our heart-led, client-centred therapists are here to support you in your self-reflection and healing. You can book a free 20-minute consultation below!