Why Belonging Matters to our Health & Well-being
Lessons from the animal kingdom
We surprised my daughter with a rescue kitten on Christmas morning. The look of joyful astonishment on her face when the box I handed to her started meowing was well worth the scramble to adopt him in time.
The kitten is already part of the family. He is frolicking around the house like he owns the place.
The problem? Our dog and other cat are not pleased.
The dog is jealous, whimpering pitifully in the kitten’s presence. Our 12-year-old cat, Ruby, is plainly mad — hissing and moaning and marking her turf.
Here’s the thing. Ruby’s attitude isn’t unique to felines. As we all know, humans can be equally quick to judge, dismiss, or even shame people outside our circles. We see this happening online and in the real world. We may feel it in our own lives. Even if we intellectually endorse the notion of inclusivity — in our workplaces, schools, and homes — our primitive brains can easily to revert to hostility when we feel threatened by others.
It turns out that the situation in my kitchen is not only straight out of Animal Planet, it also begs the question:
What is the difference between inclusion and belonging?
Inclusion refers to the act of incorporating into our lives people (or kittens, as the case may be) who may have previously been excluded or marginalized. Belonging, on the other hand, refers to the sense of being accepted and welcomed as a member of a group or community. It involves feeling like we fit in and are accepted for who we are.
In short, inclusion is an action; belonging is an emotion.
Why does this matter for health?
When we feel accepted, valued, and supported, we are more likely to feel confident and worthy. As a result, we are more likely to engage in heathy habits like connecting with other people and to pay it forward to people in need.
On the flip side, exclusion and a lack of belonging can have negative impacts on emotional health. When people feel marginalized or excluded, they may feel rejected, unsupported, and isolated. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression which, in turn, can drive self-soothing behaviors such as binge eating, drinking or drug use.
Particularly for my patients who struggle with social isolation, anxiety, or loneliness, the holidays can feel like a gut-punch. Of course not everyone who feels excluded — whether it’s from a holiday party or a teen gathering — will end up battered and scarred, but I think we can agree that creating a sense of belonging can help people feel more connected and emotionally stable.
So, what are some simple steps to help people who might be struggling with a sense of belonging this winter?
Active listening involves fully focusing on and engaging with the person speaking — without interrupting. When we feel heard, we also feel less stressed and are less prone to negative emotions and behaviors.
Example: Tell me the whole story. I’ve got time.
Validating other people’s feelings is an act of kindness. Empathizing with their feelings is an act of generosity. Even if we don’t agree with the other person’s point of view, the mere act of trying to understand someone else’s perspective allows for more calm on both sides.
Examples: I hear you. That must be so hard. I can understand how that would feel.
DON’T TRY TO FIX.
When we allow others the time and space to tell their story, they are better at solving their own problems. While it’s tempting to come up with creative solutions to help a friend or loved one trouble-shoot a problem, sometimes that person simply needs to be heard.
ACCEPT PEOPLE FOR WHO THEY ARE.
I can’t think of a single patient (or person in history — can you?) who has authentically changed their thoughts, feelings or behaviors by being shamed for who they are or by being excluded from a group. When we accept people for who they are, we are all healthier — inside and out.
Example: I love you just the way you are.
The upshot: While I’m not optimistic that Ruby will heed my advice, here’s hoping that the rest of us can pounce into 2023 with more self-compassion and empathy for others!
For a story about the harms of exclusion and the benefits of belonging, meet my friend Daniela Pierre-Bravo. The MSNBC journalist and best-selling author joins me on today’s episode — and Season One Finale! — of Beyond the Prescription.
In college, Daniela took an 18-hour overnight bus to New York City for her first interview in media. As the oldest daughter of a large family of Chilean immigrants — and having worked multiple odd jobs to put herself through school — this interview was her ticket to a new life. Yet as a DACA recipient, she struggled to feel like she truly belonged in the US.
Working tirelessly to be included in American life took a toll on Daniela’s mental health. On this episode, she joins me to talk about the difference between inclusion and belonging and the health harms of not feeling seen.
Daniela is wise beyond her years! She offers lessons for all of us about the importance of showing up as our true selves in the New Year and beyond.
Some end-of-year housekeeping:
Season TWO of Beyond the Prescription starts in January, so stay tuned!
Thank you for your support of Season One! ‘Tis the season to catch up on episodes! Some of the most popular have been:
Tiler Peck, New York City principal ballerina, on how a career-threatening injury changed her life here.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR reporter and author of The Stolen Year, on the social-emotional toll of pandemic-related school closures on American kids and families here.
Dr. Sharon Malone, gynecologist and women’s health advocate, on the myths around menopause and hormone replacement therapy here.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, on solving the epidemic of loneliness in our country here.
Jon Favreau, political pundit and podcaster on the mental health toll of screen addiction and the benefits of human connection here.
Scott Stossel, journalist, national editor of The Atlantic, and best-selling author on grappling with his lifelong debilitating anxiety here.
For the archive of all podcast episodes, click here.
And if you’re feeling frisky (like our new kitten), leave me a comment about this post, podcast or anything else! I welcome your thoughts and feedback.