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Monday, December 22, 2014

Psychotherapy Blog: Making Changes: Developing a Sense of Belonging

I'm continuing my earlier discussion about the psychological aspects of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy, which I started with Part 1 and Part 2 of this topic.  I will continue to focus on Ms Ferrante's first two books in her trilogy, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name.   In  this article, I'll discuss the topic, developing a sense of belonging.

Developing a Sense of Belonging

Making Changes
As I did in my two prior articles, I'm using the character, Elena Greco, from Ms. Ferrante's novels to illustrate how change, which includes developing your sense of self as a separate person from family and friends, can be challenging and how this challenge can be overcome.

As I mentioned in my prior articles, Elena Greco, through her determination and hard work and with the help of a teacher, was able to transcend her circumstances in a poor town on the outskirts of Naples to fulfill her dream of becoming educated with a much brighter future than she ever could have had if she followed in the footsteps of her parents.

At the same time, as anyone who has made similar changes knows, it's hard to let go of a way of life that has been part of your family for many generations.  It's even harder to feel that, with your education and broader horizons, your family and old friends might see you as being "different" now--even if they still love you and want you to succeed.

Many clients, who come to see me in my psychotherapy private practice, who are first-generation American, express how torn they feel emotionally between following their parents'  customs and rituals that have been part of the family for generations and adopting the customs of their new country.  

Some people, who have struggled with this emotional dilemma, learn, over time, to strike a balance between familial customs and new customs.

Others, who find it too difficult, might take an all-or-nothing attitude by either leaving behind all the traditional customs in order to blend in and feel that they belong in their new country, or by resisting all new customs.

Most of the time, it's almost impossible for people not to feel the pull of the traditional culture as well as the new culture.

The character, Elena Greco, who remained in her country, but who might as well have gone to a different country because of the changes involved in moving from a poor town near Naples and going to college in Pisa, is acutely aware of her family's and friends' mixed reactions to her.  She's also aware that she doesn't feel like she belongs in her new surroundings.

A Sense of Belonging is a Basic Human Need
A sense of belonging is a basic human need.

Developing a Sense of Belonging:  A Sense of Belonging is a Basic Human Need

From the time that we're born, we're hardwired for attachment to our primary caregivers and without them, we can't survive.

Similarly, from the days of cave men and cave women and beyond, survival depended upon belonging to a tribe.  No one could go it alone and survive.  During those times, being banished from the tribe meant death.

Although most of us don't live in small tribes anymore, we still have a basic need to belong, whether it's a need to be part of a family, a group or a community with shared values.

Getting back to Ms. Ferrante's character, Elena Greco:  Her story illustrates how painful it can be to make the transition and straddle between two different cultures.  Her story is also emblematic of the experiences of anyone who has made this kind of change.

At first, she was ashamed because she felt inferior to the classmates she met in Pisa.  She was mostly aware of how different she was from them, and she felt she didn't belong there.

Similarly, initially, many people who go through this transition are painfully aware of how different they are from the new group that they are entering into, whether, as in Elena's case, it's a difference of socioeconomic status, language, dress or other customs.  

Whether you're a college student in a new city or someone who has moved to another part of the country or the world, initially, you might feel uncomfortable because you feel like you don't belong.

But many people in this situation discover that they have much more common with people from the new group than they initially realized.  So, while you might be very aware of how you and others are different, it's just as important to realize that you probably have a lot in common too.

Developing a Sense of Belonging:
  • Look for and Accept Opportunities For Connection:  Before you get to know people, you might make certain negative assumptions about them.  But you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that your assumptions aren't correct when you take the time to get to know people.  If there are opportunities to connect, accept them, keep an open mind, and get to know others.
  • Get to Know People as Individuals:  It's not unusual, at first, to see people who are part of another group as being all the same.  But, in reality, we are all individuals, so it's important, to get to know each person as an individual rather than making assumptions about them because they're part of a particular group.
  • Discover Common Values:  Common values can create bonds.  While you might not share the same exact values, looking for some common values can be a start towards developing a sense of belonging.  So, for instance, even though you might be from a different religion, you and the new people that you're meeting might share a wish for there to be peace regardless of religion. This can be a powerful bond.  Or, for instance, you might discover that others have had similar losses and a similar understanding of what it means to cope with loss and emotional pain.  This can also serve as a powerful bond.
  • Strive to Be Non-judgmental:  Acceptance is different from agreement.  You might not agree with everything about the new group but, in most instances, you can learn to be nonjudgmental.  This doesn't mean that you take on values that you might not believe in or that you're not discerning about what's best for you.  It does, however, mean that you don't automatically judge someone as unacceptable because you and s/he might have different views.  
Getting Help in Therapy
Sometimes, unfamiliar people and places can be overwhelming, even when you've tried to get to know them and discover commonalities.  You might feel lonely or depressed because you feel like an outsider.

Developing a Sense of Belonging:  Getting Help in Therapy

You're not alone.  Many people before you have struggled with the same problem and have learned to overcome it.

Rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from getting help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with people in this type of situation.

Getting Help in Therapy to Develop a Sense of Belonging

Getting help in therapy can make all the difference between feeling like an outside and developing a sense of belonging.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.























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