I was recently invited onto the Podcast ‘Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri’ to talk about the topic of ‘Belonging’.
The discussion centred around our mutual experience of growing up in cultures that were not of our families of origin. Annalisa is technically a ‘second culture kid’, and I am a ‘third culture kid’ – the latter meaning I spent my formative years in a country other that that of my parents or where I was born.
The focus of our conversation was on belonging and whilst a rich discussion, we were limited by time and the need to keep the discussion relevant to a broad audience.
In this blog I am going to (briefly) explain why I believe how ‘belonging’ is absolutely essential to not only our emotional and psychological health, but beyond that, critical to our very existence. And how it is under threat.
I have in previous blogs written about primary belonging which we refer to as attachment, and so I am now primarily approaching the topic from a more anthropological perspective.
My premise is that if we do not have a strong sense of belonging then there is an inverse correlation with the amount of (death) anxiety we are exposed to. At the extreme, this anxiety is unbearable and is the primary source of neurosis (and psychosis).
What is belonging?
Our first sense of belonging is derived from our family of origin. Belonging and attachment are inextricably linked for children and the main role of belonging in our family is, beyond immediate safety, as a means of deriving self-esteem.
As children we want to please our parents. We learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ and bit-by-bit form an understanding of the culture of the family – the rules and ways of being in that family. Through satisfying those rules, we derive self-esteem. So what is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is a combination of feelings whereby we feel valued and appreciated alongside feeling a sense of belonging. It is linked to meaning in that if we are embedded in a culture (a family) and are able to fulfil the expectations of that family – the cultural expectations – then we derive a sense of meaning from the process.
However, self esteem does not only come from ‘fitting in’. Healthy and psychologically robust children grow up in environments where the culture both supports them to derive self esteem from meeting expectations but also from forging their own path – expressing who they are.
As humans we are all somehow trying to find our personal balance between ‘standing out’ and ‘fitting in’, whether that be in the culture of our family of origin or later, in society.
What is Culture?
When I use the term Culture, I am referring to it on a macro level – in the context of society. If society is made up of the people with whom we share commonality, then culture is an expression of the values of that society.
Culture has two functions – it enables people to find mechanisms for generating self esteem (work, social groups, interests etc.) and secondly, and this part is entirely unconscious, it has an enormous symbolic function in assuaging death anxiety. Every culture on the planet provides its constituents with answers to cosmological questions, the four primary being:
Where do we come from (the story of our origin);
How to behave whilst we are alive (and derive self esteem);
What happens when we die (funeral rites etc.);
A myth of some sort of afterlife.
Culture is therefore in essence religious, and so are all human beings. However, as powerful as culture is, it remains symbolic and therefore cannot compete with the realities of death and so there remains residual death anxiety that we contend with. This in part gets expressed by an intolerance towards others who have a different culture as when we encounter difference it unconsciously increases our own anxiety as our cultural values are undermined and thus death anxiety encroaches upon us.
A currently example of the above is the war in Ukraine. The West thinks it can win on firepower – which it can technically – but what they fail to realise is that Putin is fighting a religious war – a war to restore the ‘myth’ – the culture – of Russia. Ergo, the war is unwinnable.
The role of myth
When we hear the word ‘myth’ many of us think of stories of old, perhaps extending back to the Ancient Greeks who had many a myth to tell. The truth, however, is that all cultures are comprised of myths. The answers to the aforementioned cosmological questions that each and every culture answers for its constituents are in essence myths. They are myths because they are stories rather than empirically provable.
Myths are stories that are held by the collective – by all, or at least most, constituents of a culture.
They may just be stories, but they are stories that hold great power in anchoring us to an identity and providing us with a sense of belonging.
Technology and the loss of myth
Joseph Campbell, the American writer and mythologist suggested that the world is changing too fast for us to cultivate and sustain myth. This matters significantly as, if myth forms the basis of culture, and culture functions as both a vehicle of deriving self esteem and in assuaging death anxiety, then the loss of myth renders us more anxious and less able to derive self esteem from our culture.
The deconstruction of Western Culture
We are living through a period of mass social change, much of which has been brought on my technology and some brought on by unexpected, but seismic events, such as The Pandemic.
In The West we are seeing long-standing cultural institutions and social structures being torn down at an alarming rate. The issue is not a moral one – some of these institutions and structures represent oppression and inequality and need to be challenged. However, we are at the stage of challenging virtually every construct that defines us right down to sex and gender. And yet have nothing collectively held to replace it with. There is nothing left to collectively believe in.
If all systemic meaning is removed and annihilated we will be left with nothing from which to derive our identity, sense of meaning and self-esteem. Perhaps this is already afoot as traditional ‘pillars’ of meaning collapse and people have little to replace them with, and certainly little of symbolic (religious) value, death anxiety comes rushing forward and manifests as both intolerance towards others (increasing culture wars), tribalism and ‘mental health problems’.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer