What Brené Brown taught me about cultivating a true sense of belonging.
When I was in college, I thought it was a good idea to visit an animal shelter—before I was actually ready to adopt a dog. I convinced my boyfriend at the time to come with me, and of course, I fell in love with one of the tenants. An employee told us we could take the sweet pup in the backyard to play ball for awhile and instructed us to leave him out back. When it was finally time to leave, we threw the ball one last time, and, as we turned to walk away, I made the mistake of looking back.
I imagine that dog’s face is what mine looked like during one of the first times I can ever recall feeling left out. I was seven or eight at that time, and it was a Friday night. My mom dropped me off at my regular dance class, where I had fun with my friends for the next two hours. After class, we went into the back room to collect our things. That’s when I noticed three of my closest friends grab their sleeping bags, follow another friend out to the parking lot and pile into her mom’s car. It took me awhile to process that they were all having a sleepover—a sleepover I wasn’t invited to. My best friend made the same mistake I did, turning back to wave goodbye to me. I just stood there stunned, wondering, “Why can’t I come?”
I wish I could go back in time, scoop that little girl up in my arms and let her know she’s not missing out on anything and that it was their loss. (While I’m wishing for things, I’d also like to scoop that pup up in my other arm and find a way to give him the best home ever.) But I was a lonely only child desperate for connection. And so instead, for years after this incident, my world revolved around fitting in with this group of girls—most of whom did not deserve my energy or attention in the first place. Author and shame researcher Brene Brown speaks to this perfectly. In her book Braving the Wilderness, she writes, “Humans are hard-wired for connection.” It’s completely normal for us to desire a sense of belonging.
The sad part is not that I wasn’t included in the first place; the sad part is that eventually I succeeded, slowly losing parts of myself along the way. When I finally realized this, I was hard on myself for caring so much about what they thought in the first place. Rather than offering myself compassion—after all, I was very young and didn’t know any better—I shut down and withdrew myself from social opportunities, specifically in my mid-to-late twenties, when I moved across the country after college.
When I made the move to New York City, I only knew one person that lived in Manhattan. This made me overly cautious when it came to going out at night, namely because I didn’t have the close friends I had back home watching my back and making sure I got home safely. And while I made friends quickly, I lived outside Manhattan, first in Brooklyn then Hoboken, and would have to make the trek back alone. Although I wanted to be social, I was also a little relieved to not have the pressure of going out and drinking all the time, and quickly realized I preferred low-key nights in. In a city known for its endless culinary options, I preferred preparing my own meals at home. Most Fridays nights, in fact, I had a standing date with myself at the grocery store—if only to bypass the real-life Supermarket Sweep on Sundays with the rest of Manhattan. Friends coming to visit would ask for recommendations, and I never knew what to tell them.
In addition, I found that I often opted for my own company—and that I’m generally not much of a city girl, which might have also accounted for my lone wolf–like behavior. Weekends I wasn’t fleeing to my family’s in the country, I was usually seeking refuge in my apartment. Writing about the fashion and entertainment industries meant I was expected to cover various events during the week, and I relished my alone time to decompress. Or maybe, I was making up for lost time, catching up on all those times I sacrificed myself in order to fit in.
This was six years ago, and the phrase FOMO, or fear of missing out, was at its peak. (Fun fact: “FOMO” has actually been around for close to two decades.) I made friends that were younger than me, and they’d often use the term. I would hide my eye rolls, telling myself I was above trying to fit in. I believed I was too busy experiencing “joy of missing out” (JOMO), before it was even a thing. Looking back, I see I was judging my friends because I was repressing that little girl inside of me that felt neglected all those years ago.
In her book, Brown references Maya Angelou’s quote:
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
At that point in my life, I was shutting out everyone to avoid getting hurt again. I was well-versed in believing I belonged no place, but I hadn’t yet opened myself up to realizing I belong every place. “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness,” writes Brown. “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
I assumed the opposite of FOMO was JOMO—it’s not. Brown also teaches that courage is not the absence of fear; courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Similarly, finding joy in missing out doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear or any other difficult emotions. In fact, it requires you to face your fear without judgment. Here are some additional steps I learned to truly achieve a state of JOMO:
Step 1: Accept feelings of FOMO
No one likes feeling left out, and there’s no shame in admitting that. Instead of rejecting your FOMO, accept your feelings completely and honor your humanness. Let yourself off the hook when these feelings come up without getting too caught up in them.
Step 2: Get curious about your FOMO
Check in with yourself, and ask questions to uncover what’s underneath it:
Do you care more about the activity your friends are doing without you or is it not being a part of the group in general?
If it’s the former, can you work the activity into your schedule in the coming weeks?
If it’s the latter, is there another friend or group, perhaps people that are more empowering and value your company, that you can make plans with?
Is there something deeper that’s being triggered? Can you trace your feelings back to a past wound or trauma? This may take some time and patience to uncover, but try to tune into your body and emotions to see if there is something from your past that is presenting itself now.
Notice if you’re telling yourself a story that isn’t actually happening or true. Fear, after all, is often defined with its acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real
Step 3: Give your fear a name
Have you ever tried to avoid someone? You’ll go out of your way to not have to talk to or run into them, and somehow they pop up everywhere. No matter where you turn, there they are, even more eager to engage with you.
What I’ve started doing in these situations is actually facing the person, despite my feelings of resistance or discomfort. Once I give them the attention or acknowledgement they are craving, the interaction tends to be brief and much less dreadful than I anticipate.
What we resist persists, and the same is true of FOMO: The more we try to avoid it, the more it shows up. Rather than pushing away your FOMO, lean in and get acquainted with the feeling. You might even try personifying your fear with a name or qualities, so that you can better recognize it when it arises.
Step 4: Listen to what it’s trying to tell you
Give your fear an outlet, so it stops trying so hard to get your attention. Ask your fear what it would like you to know, what it’s trying so hard to tell you. Then, listen. Sit with the emotions that come up. Oftentimes, the only way to get past a storm, literal or figurative, is through it. Similar to confronting that annoying person, once you acknowledge your fear, the emotions behind it can move through you and finally be released.
Step 5: Let joy in
The final step requires listening some more. Ask yourself: What would make you truly happy in this moment? What do you need to heal? What will light your soul up? Is now the time to rest and restore or take charge? Be patient with yourself, as this is a moment-by-moment step; the answers will constantly be changing, which requires you to be ever-present and prioritize yourself.