15 Oct Sense of Belonging
Silvana Quiton (ESR1)
For most of us in the Nowelties team, the secondments have started, and we are experiencing living in a different country, being in a different lab and interacting with different people. This is an exciting time in our PhD journey and, for me especially, was a long-awaited experience.
Aachen is the 6th city I have been living in for the last six years. Coincidently, this is my 6th blog, in which I want to talk about the sense of belonging as an important aspect of mental health. Moving abroad, by definition, involves stepping out of your comfort zone. Consequently, this provides you the opportunity to have different perspectives, and traveling is not only an exciting activity, but it also involves being mindful of the emotional impact.
While adaptation is an important trait in our globalized world, there is a difference between fitting in and belonging. When we adapt to situations, places, or relationships, we evaluate the status quo. We adjust to being accepted, or as Michele mentioned in his blog, our character shapes and molds itself to the country we are in and the people around us. Having the capacity to adapt is not only an essential trade as a travelling researcher but all throughout our life experience. We can quote Charles Darwin to remember the importance of adaptation: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
However, there is more than adaptation and fitting in. There is belonging.
The sense of belonging is a concept in psychology that can be defined as the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment to feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment (Hagerty et al., 1992). It is comforting to have an identified role and goals that gives you a sense of purpose from a professional perspective. However, there is also a sense of belonging from a social perspective.
Rene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, who focuses on vulnerability, emphasizes the conjunction of “true belonging” from a more holistic view. She eloquently affirms that “because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance”.
From the two definitions mentioned above, we could say that the sense of belonging is a paradox undeniably linked to mental health. Ultimately, the more we exercise our authentic self while also making connections to others, the more we exercise our authentic self while also making connections to others. This is a powerful practice that helps us thrive. In fact, you can have a sense of belonging in you anywhere you go as long as you can make real connections.
In all my different trips, I got the fortune to run into kind and friendly people who helped me transition to my “new normal” and feel connected. However, I reckon the most important interaction is with myself. The more I accept myself, the better I navigate my relationships with people and/or the environment. My sense of “true belonging” is now a practice I have incorporated into my life. Although it is a work in progress, I believe it is being accelerated with the wonderful opportunity of living abroad and getting the chance to meet and discover different socio-cultural “normalities”.