The Crushing Anxiety of Belonging

I can distinctly remember the first time I had that horrible feeling of being left out.

I wasn’t invited to a popular girl’s birthday party in junior high and everyone else was. I remember wondering what I needed to change about myself to get invited? What was wrong with me that nobody wanted me around? Everyone was always telling me how funny I was, how crazy, maybe that wasn’t a good thing? Maybe it was annoying? Oh God am I annoying?

My best friend wasn’t invited either but that wasn’t a salve in any way for my grated, raw feelings. I assumed I was dragging her down with me. Sure we hunkered down together that weekend and prank called boys, ate a disgusting amount of bagel bites and had a great time with just us, as we always did, but bonds were forged at that birthday party and she and I never recovered for the rest of junior high. That birthday party may as well have been initiation night for the junior high version of a sorority. They all stuck together after that and they were mean. At least that’s what I told myself.

My mother told me not to worry about it. Someday, she said, these things wouldn’t matter. Someday the mean girls will be gone. ‘Who wants to go to her party anyway?’ she asked incredulously. Because of course my Mom was trying to spare my feelings by turning that party into something lame I wouldn’t want to go to anyway. She wanted me to look forward to the glorious years of adulthood where everyone belonged to everything.

Or so I thought.

That sense of belonging I promised myself was coming in adulthood? I finally have realized that’s all in my head. It’s in all of our heads. We choose whether and where we belong. Mean girls never really go away because in many cases they were never there to begin with. In fact most of the time they don’t even know that’s what they are.  

Everyone wants a spot to fit in to, somewhere they feel like they belong, but some people are so anxiety ridden over rejection that they tell themselves they belong nowhere. I’m wierd, I’m ugly, I have no fashion sense, my hair isn’t fluffy, I talk too much, I talk too loud, I talk too soft, I’m too vulgar, I talk about myself too much...EVERYONE thinks self deprecating thoughts about themselves, some more than others. And we all know once you let loose those thoughts, they multiply and blanket the brain suffocating any confident thoughts we may have until we either take control back of our brains and shake them out like sand from a beach towel or we become lonely and socially crippled.

I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my kids elementary school functions and all the PTA moms are grouped together, the soccer moms are together, the neighborhood Moms etc, I’m the outsider. I’m the out of district Mom. Most of the time I feel like they are all looking at me thinking who is this chick? Why is she even here? She doesn’t even live here. And I have to remind myself that if I choose to, I belong.

That’s anxiety. I never really thought I had it but there it is always lurking under the surface. It’s like a fungus that wants to grow and take over your whole brain with self doubt. I’m pretty sure everybody has it to a certain extent. I move easy in crowds, I don’t usually have a problem talking to people, I have many friends and yet I have anxiety over belonging. Now why is that?

That missing birthday invitation affected me. Up to that point I had easily moved in every group and rarely gave a thought to whether my presence was wanted in any given situation but suddenly I felt judged and the ‘what for’ was left to be unraveled by me for the foreseeable future.

We all want to belong whether it’s to a particular group of friends, to another human in marriage, to a church, to a Mom group, to something. Sometimes we long for a feeling of belonging in our own family and can feel mortally wounded when we don’t find it. Humans were not meant to be alone. God knew that as soon as he made Adam didn’t he? There is a reason isolation is used as a form of torture, why it’s the harshest punishment even in prison. Our souls become sick when left alone. For the anxiety ridden person, the worst loneliness sometimes can even come when they are surrounded by the most people. The larger the crowd the more invisible they feel. Then the bad thoughts start to creep in like evening fog. No one would probably care if I left.

Eventually I became friends with that girl whose birthday I missed out on, that girl who unknowingly defined a two-year chunk of my childhood and countless hours of pondering my self worth in years further than that.  I ran into her a few years ago at the store and we reminisced about high school friends and how people were doing. She asked about my best friend, the one who she also didn’t invite to her party, and said something that I reflect on every time I start to feel that anxiety that nobody likes me, nobody wants me around.

“You know I was always jealous of how close you two were. You were such good friends, I never had that when I was that age, you were always together. I wish I had tried to be closer to you but you seemed happy to just be with each other and I didn’t know how to get in.”

Ugh. How wrong I had been. I was so sure that she didn’t want me around that I never considered she might feel the same way. That they might be looking at us as the exclusive girls and not the other way around.  

So my Mom was right in a way when she said someday it wouldn’t matter. It’s not because we grow up and all of the sudden we are included in all groups and all things, holding hands and basking in the glow of community and belonging. It’s because it takes a lifetime to realize that mere inclusion does not erase anxiety.  

The truth is our soul can’t really be completed by the acceptance or validation of others if we suffer from insecurity. True soul soothing, cool breeze, happiness inducing feelings start in yourself.

The truth is the party never even mattered. I chose not to be friends with her, it really was my choice. She was never mean, I was. My anxiety caused me to quickly assume myself unworthy. It was easier to go on the defensive and save myself rejection than to shrug it off and move on. I judged her and everyone she associated with and told myself I was the better person.

The truth is that crushing anxiety of belonging isn’t really keeping us from connecting and belonging to others, it’s keeping us from connecting and belonging to ourselves. Once we believe in ourselves and the beauty of our own souls we belong everywhere we go.

One thought on “The Crushing Anxiety of Belonging

  • October 27, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Oh Katie, but those girls are out there still. They are the group of suburban moms who look like they have the same stylist (hair, make-up, and clothes all perfect and disturbingly similar) who are planning theme parties for their one year old’s graduation from something and aghast when you admit you’re not, the groups of women who won’t talk to you if you are a widow, the couples groups who will only include you if you take so many vacations per year.

    There are numerous reasons why people choose to be in groups of people like themselves, some good and some not-so-good but that’s another article.

    Yes, self-esteem is lasting when it is internally produced versus the temporary self-esteem boost we get by buying the latest clothes/car or being a member of a certain group. Knowing yourself and your own worth is freeing in that when you find yourself in a situation or group where you don’t feel comfortable or welcomed you accept that you might not be a good fit and leave it at that. Your worth as a person is not in the equation.

    Ps. Keep writing cous.


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