Belonging and loneliness
When you feel that you belong, you feel connected
When you don’t, you can feel lonely.
Let me share my experience.
Very few gay men seek out and then read articles about loneliness unless they’ve come to the realisation that they’re lonely. The stigma and shame we feel is real, and it takes a lot of courage to even engage with the subject.
I’m proud of you for opening this article. I recognise and admire your courage. Now that you’re here, let’s start getting you connected to yourself, those most important to you and to your community.
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The concept of belonging – or feeling that we don’t belong – is central to loneliness. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the concept over the past months and how my hustle to belong affected me and how the hustle to belong could affect you.
Let’s talk about this photo
I found this photo of me at 19 when going through some old photos recently. I’d just finished swimming in a race for my swimming team at university.
The photo brought up a whole heap of emotions that we’ll discuss shortly. I wanted to reach into this photo and give the 19-year-old me a hug. The me in this picture was desperately wanting to fit in - to belong – and was hustling hard to make it happen.
Reflecting on the feelings that the photo brought up in me, I experienced a wave of clarity of thought and emotion about belonging and madly scribbled some notes. You’re reading the product of these notes.
We humans need to feel that we are seen, to be heard and to feel that we belong. Feeling that we belong is a powerful behavioural driver for us. Belonging can take many forms. We can love our work because we feel that we belong to something greater than ourselves. We can love our communities – be they physical or virtual – because we feel that we belong there. We can love our other halves because we feel that we belong with them. We can feel that we belong with our families and friends because we feel that they see us and love us for who we are.
When it comes to feeling connected, belonging is everything. It’s logical, therefore, that we can feel disconnected when we feel like we no longer belong.
And we know, don’t we, dear reader, what disconnection is, right?
To not belong is to feel disconnected. To feel disconnected is to feel lonely.
For the gay man experiencing loneliness
We are all subject to the human condition and the need to feel that we belong applies to us too.
So many of us were surrounded by messages that told us that we were wrong. That we would go to hell if we did not fit the normal. We were told that unless we were more manly and masculine, we could never be enough.
These messages seeped into our core. Some of us rejected these messages and chose to let our beautiful gay selves to emerge and be seen.
Some of us moulded and adapted ourselves in the effort to belong to the group and adhere to social norms and expectations. We denied and repressed ourselves.
However we entered the gay community, we found that we don’t fit in there, either. The community the professes inclusion and diversity feels like it actively excludes those who don’t fit a stereotype. So we mould our physical and mental selves once more to fit in.
We can mould and edit ourselves to feel that we belong in a relationship, to prove that we’re worthy of love.
At some point, we can feel that we don’t belong anywhere. We can feel that we don’t belong in our relationships and our community. We can feel like we don’t belong with the people around us. We can feel that we don’t belong within ourselves.
This is an awful realisation. We can feel hollow and invisible. We can feel lonely.
We can want to jump start things to feel that sense of belonging – even when it harms us. We can hustle for the approval of others. We can hustle to fit in. We can hustle to show that we’re made of the right stuff. We can hustle to prove that we are worthy of love. We can hustle to prove that we belong.
Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.
Part of that hustle can involve editing and adapting our selves to fit in, to belong and to show that we are worthy enough. If you’re like me, you’ve edited and adapted yourself in the past and you’re likely doing it now.
You carefully choose your words.
You carefully choose your look.
You carefully choose your hobbies or interests.
Why the careful choices? To avoid the wrong kind of judgment and the subsequent feeling of not belonging.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? And the hustling and careful choices never end. It can’t end because the destination we’re looking for – editing our selves to achieve complete acceptance from everyone and then the feeling that we belong – doesn’t exist. We’ll never arrive at that state.
That feeling of belonging only comes when we stop editing and hustling to be someone or something else. The feeling of belonging comes when we accept what is – not what should or could be - and make decisions from there.
This is terrifying. I know. I spent so much of my life editing myself to fit it. The hustle was my modus operandi. I spent so much time hustling. I spent years hustle to prove that I was worthy of being where I was.
Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.
I was exhausted and lost.
And then I chose to stop hustling. What happened? Read on.
Back to the photo
Finding the photo of myself from when I was 19-years-old was like opening an emotional time capsule. I saw the smiling kid in speedos and wanted to give him a huge hug.
I felt that I was sucked into the photo and into the body and mind of me back in 1996.
I desperately wanted to be seen. I desperately wanted to be heard. I desperately wanted to feel that I belonged.
I desperately wanted to be straight. I desperately wanted to fit in, and gay people where I was in the 1990s didn’t fit in.
I chose to double-down on being just like everyone else around me. I chose to date women. I chose to deny myself – and the world – of part of who I am.
My mind was like some kind of super-computer that constantly ran complex equations about how I could best fit in with people. This came from being frustrated that I was always seemed to be at the edge of friendship groups. I was friendly with everyone, but frequently was not included when invitations to parties were issued. So my super-computer mind determined that I needed to be nicer and friendlier.
That kind of worked. I kept going, determined to be the nice guy and to make myself above suspicion. (continued below...)
While I wasn’t especially sporty, I noticed that other guys who were sporty and ripped were popular and confident. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be around them. I started working out. But I never felt big enough or masculine enough to fit in, so I worked out more.
I never felt smart enough to contribute thoughts in my classes at university. I kept quiet and studied hard until I felt smart enough to make a comment. When I did summon the courage to make a comment, I seemed to confuse others. I kept quiet until I knew that I’d get it right and dazzle them with my wit and wisdom and then feel that I belonged in the room.
I developed the belief that I needed to have the perfect body, the perfect mind and the perfect soul to be accepted and to fit in – to belong. I held that belief very tightly.
A girlfriend at the time said that Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’ made her think of me, especially the verse:
I don't care if it hurts I wanna have control I want a perfect body I want a perfect soul I want you to notice When I'm not around So fuckin' special I wish I was special
But I'm a creep I'm a weirdo What the hell am I doin' here? I don't belong here.
How right she was. I really didn’t feel that I belonged.
The hustle to feel that I belonged continued after I graduated and then started work. Only it felt that it amped up a few notches. I felt like I had to prove to others just how worthy I was of getting the job and proving that it wasn’t an accident. I had to prove that I was as worthy of a promotion, posting or opportunity as others. The competition was real. I freely edited myself to get an edge on the competition. I started the cycle of proving that I was worthy and that I belonged.
Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.
Of course, there were periods where I did feel that I belonged. They felt blissful, but all too brief. And then, in cruel irony, I’d start to feel that I was too much. I’d start to dial things down to prove (to whom, I still don’t know) that I still belonged.
In writing this, I’m reflecting on one question: Why did I do this?
I so desperately wanted others to see me. I wanted others to say that I was worthy. In doing this, I believed that I needed to hide what I didn’t like about myself – especially my sexuality and my insecurities. To compensate, I projected that which I believed was good.
The path to my loneliness was paved by small decisions to hide what I didn’t like about myself and – consequently - didn’t want the world to see and then judge. It was paved by decisions to project what I believed to be worthy and what I believed others wanted of me.
It was these decisions that were the source of my loneliness despite being surrounded by people and doing a job that I’d always wanted to do. I felt hollow. I felt a creeping numbness.
This was a sure recipe to disconnection within myself. I felt lonely and felt that I didn’t belong anywhere, including within myself.
I belong to me
I’ve written before that I got help to reconnect myself back to myself and to the world around me. I wanted to do it by myself – oh, how much I wanted that to happen. It would have been much neater and less inconvenient. But the way back to connection – and to feel that we belong – is by asking for help, getting people in your corner AND doing work within ourselves.
I wouldn’t be writing this blog – and you wouldn’t be here reading it – if I’d not allowed myself to get help.
There have been many moments over the past few years on my way back to connection which I can say were pivotal. One of which was reading the opening chapter of a book by my intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown. In Braving the Wilderness, Dr Brown talks about the power of belonging and what we humans can do to ourselves and others in the search to feel that we belong.
I’ll let you read the book, but I felt that Dr Brown had written this book exclusively for me. She saw me. The chapter is built upon a quote from the late Dr. Maya Angelou, all about belonging. It read:
‘You are only free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’ – Dr. Maya Angelou
This clicked. This lit a spark. This changed me. There is a clear line between the moment that I read those words and this moment that I’m writing these words and you’re reading them.
I didn’t need to hustle to belong wherever I was in the world. I didn’t have to hustle to feel that I belonged when around other people. I didn’t have to hustle to feel that I belonged online. I simply did not have to hustle to belong if I accepted myself and truly belonged to myself.
The work within me now is reminding myself that I belong when I truly belong to me. Everything else in life can – and does – change, but belonging to myself can remain a constant.
If I truly belong to myself, I don’t have to hustle to prove that I’m enough to others or that I’m worthy. I am enough. I simply am worthy, for I am enough for myself.
There is power in the statement ‘I Am Enough’. Indeed, it’s become a mantra.
If this was a movie montage, there may be some stirring background music to emphasise the importance of this realisation. But it’s not a movie; it’s life. Belonging to myself sounds – and is – inspiring.
But Dr Angelou was right: the price has been high. The price has been high on myself and those I love the most. Some friendships haven’t endured. This makes me sad.
But Dr Angelou was also right when she said that the reward is great. I am me. I belong to me, just as I am in this moment. Sure, I still find myself hustling for approval and to feel that I belong occasionally, but I’m quick to notice it (usually because I feel like the 19-year-old me) and gently bring myself back to me.
I have people in my life who love me – not who I’ve been hustling to be – and want me to be unapologetically me. Sometimes this overwhelms me, but I remind myself that I am worthy of love and belonging. I want them to be wholly themselves, too. The love and sense of belonging is real and powerful.
There is peace within me.
To you, my awesome reader, if you’ve made it this far, I’m going to say that this post has resonated with you. I’m giving you a hug right now, for I see you and understand how awful not belonging at home, in the community, within our selves, feels. I want you to know that I mean it when I say that you are enough, just as you are, in this moment. As the awesome human that you are, know that you belong everywhere – and you don’t belong anywhere – when you belong to yourself.
The price is high. The reward is great.
So, dear reader, do you truly belong to yourself? Or are you hustling to belong?
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If reading this post has made you uncomfortable or made you think and you need some help, remember that I’m here to help. I have resources on my page if you need crisis help right now. I’ve also built a team of amazing coaches and human connection experts to help you make sense of your loneliness and to help you towards connection. These coaches and connection experts can be found here and can help you learn from your loneliness and help you towards feeling connected.
Also, for a small monthly fee, you can join the growing community of other gay men who are all prioritising their connection according to the three pillars of connection. I help the group to set weekly connection intentions, share my own and then help to keep them accountable in a supportive way. Contact me on socials or send me an email if you’d like to know more and get the help and support you deserve as you work out how to give the world the authentic, beautiful human you are.
Want to chat more about the importance of belonging? Join me for a coffee and a chat in the upcoming episode of my podcast for gay men ‘Connection over Coffee with The Loneliness Guy’ from Thursday 25 November 2021.
Where to now?
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BUY ME A COFFEE TO SAY THANK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the authors and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to chronic loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Resources page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.