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Feeling As If You Don't Belong
Ron Johnson, Ph.D.

"Nobody loves me for me!"

I was talking to a bright professional who had come in for counseling. She functioned well and associated broadly, but still she felt some painful and paradoxical absence. Most certainly, she is not alone. Persons who seek counseling often complain of something missing in their relationships, marriage, family, work group or community of faith. Most of us sense "belonging" is essential to our happiness and well-being.

What motivates our wish to connect? As our bodies need air and food, so our inner self needs recognition, appreciation, and affirmation--someone to hold us in "esteem." And once we ourselves are reliably nurtured, we in turn become the nurturers, looking beyond ourselves for some larger belonging--another relationship, a broader community, a shared ideal to bring us together.

For most, our family was our first place of belonging, and where we learned the rules and roles of belonging. We tend to continue those behaviors that were met with approval, and squelch those that were met with disapproval. From our small family-tribe, our social world then grows bigger and bigger, where we meet new challenges, satisfactions and frustrations. Some, who have felt the absence of belonging in the past or present, decide not to commune with others but rather to make themselves "immune." Since this need will not go away, however, we may end up substituting a deformed belonging, such as an addiction or abusive relationships.

In contrast, healthy belonging is a two-way street of mutuality and self-giving. We bring our gifts, our talents, our dreams, and our selves to the other. We expect the other to do likewise. When we predictably also reveal our faults and flaws, we trust others will love and accept us anyway. And we in turn accept theirs. In fact, sharing these untoward experiences can form incredibly intimate bonds. This ideal is easily present, and most of us spend a lifetime learning how to relate authentically.

There is an old Hasidic story about Heaven and Hell. "I will show you Hell," the Lord said to a rabbi, and led him to a room of famished, desperate people sitting around a large circular table. In the center was a pot of stew, enough for everyone. Yet no one ate. All they had was a single long-handled spoon; long enough to reach the stew, but too long to then get the food into one's own mouth. "Now I will show you Heaven," said the Lord. The rabbi entered another room, identical to the first. They had the same table, same stew, and same long-handled spoon. Yet everyone was full, flourishing and exuberant. "I don't understand the difference," said the rabbi. "It is simple," said the Lord. "You see, the people in this room have learned to use the spoon to feed each other." I am slowly learning to let myself be fed, and to pass it on to others.

Ron Johnson, Ph.D.
The Samaritan Counseling Centers

Find out more about pastoral counseling.


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