Why don’t I belong?
‘I don’t fit in,’ I complain, earnestly, full of pain. ‘I don’t belong. I don’t belong anywhere.’
The therapist looks at me steadily, brimming with compassion for me and probably a little stuck about how to respond. If she contradicts me, she’ll risk being misattuned. If she agrees with me, she’ll reinforce my misery. So she sits and waits and eventually she says, ‘When did you first feel like this?’
I look at her, puzzled, like she’s being really stupid. ‘I’ve always felt like this. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t.’
‘Tell me about some specific times when you’ve felt it in particular,’ she insists.
I want to wave her away with a dismissive, ‘Oh, but there are so many times …’ but actually I can’t. Because, at least in this moment, I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint specifics. The feeling of not belonging is so general, so intrinsic to how I experience the world, that individual episodes don’t leap to mind.
‘I don’t know,’ I say at last, lamely.
She looks a little surprised, as if she was expecting me to regale her with innumerous exclusionary tales.
‘It’s more just a general sense, just a kind of … fact …’ I try to explain.
‘It’s a belief?’ she proffers.
I want to reply, ‘No, it’s a fact. It’s true.’ But I can see where she’ll go with that. For a moment, I feel affronted, like she doesn’t believe me: here I am again, having to prove myself, having to justify my experience, having to insist that I really have experienced what I have experienced, because no-one ever believes me, just like the abuse, that was hidden away, and no-one ever believed, even when I told them about it …
I realise with a jolt that I’ve fallen into a head-rant as a reaction to something that may not even have happened.
‘When I was at school, no-one ever liked me,’ I explain. ‘I never had a real friend – someone that I could count on to be my friend. I had a few friends, but I never really thought they liked me. I never thought they actively wanted to spend time with me. No-one wanted to sit next to me in class. And I didn’t belong to any of the groups. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like other kids …’
‘In what way?’
‘I was a geek. I wanted to work hard and behave myself. I never wanted to get into trouble. I wanted to learn. I didn’t understand about teenage stuff. And I was ill all the time, and I missed a lot of school …’
‘Who did you want to fit in with? Who did you want to belong to?’
Again, this deceptively simple question has me flummoxed. Because what I wanted was more nebulous than that: not ‘belonging at any cost’ but acceptance. I didn’t mind being a geek. But I wanted to be one inside the group. Any group. Just not the outcast I always felt I was.
‘I was different. It was like I had the mark of Cain on my forehead. Not because I worked hard and behaved myself, but because …’
I shrug my shoulders frustratedly. ‘I don’t know. Just because!’ It’s a ridiculous answer and I know it, and she knows it. For some reason, I’m getting activated, like the pain of adolescent exclusion is rippling through my bloodstream. My pulse is thrumming in my ears and my legs have started jiggling, like I want to run away. I’m beginning to feel upset, and with it a little faint and distant-dreamy.
She pushes me with her eyes.
‘Because I’m bad!’ I say, knowing it sounds even more ridiculous, but I have to say it, because it’s the truth.
‘What makes you bad?’
I’m really frustrated now. Why can’t she understand?
For a moment I think I sense a flash of frustration on the therapist’s face, that sense that we’ve been here before and I don’t seem to have assimilated anything that we’ve previously discussed. This, of course, just confirms my badness, and I sink shamefully into myself at the perceived disapproval. Oh I hate myself.
‘So you don’t fit in, you don’t belong, because you’re bad?’ the therapist says, with scorching tenderness. I feel as if I ought to realise how thin it sounds, but it doesn’t: it’s a perfect statement of fact. This is my life. This is me.
In justification I want to talk about all the ways that this is true: how I stand apart from the other mums in the playground; how I don’t get invited to parties; how in a group I am always on the outside of the conversation; how I’m not part of a big family get-together at Christmas; how I always seem to be the one who has to initiate first contact with friends.
It’s this generalised, endemic sense that I’m not wanted in this world, that everyone else is in on the joke and I’ve misheard the punchline. It’s a sense of running to catch up but never quite making it, like a French class after being ill so you don’t understand the vocab. I live life from the edges, peering inwards, but even the glass through which I look is frosted, and the sounds muffled and dim. I live in my own world, alone, rejected, set apart. I don’t know what the rules for joining are. I don’t know where the sign-up form is.
The feeling of shame is one of being ineffably defective. It is not that I have done wrong. It is that I am wrong. And there is nothing I can do about it. It is a searingly powerless place to be. If I was born wrong, if I was born to be wrong, then what is the point to me being alive? How can I expect to belong, when I don’t have the right credentials? How can I ever expect anyone to accept me, when I am intrinsically unacceptable? I deserve to be on the outside. I deserve never to fit in. I deserve only for bad things to happen. And how can I shift those beliefs when they appear so inarguably true?
And that’s what I expect the therapist to say to me now: ‘I think you need to get over yourself. Of course you don’t belong. You never will. Stop being so arrogant to think that you ever could.’
But of course she doesn’t. She sits with me in the crushing hurt of feeling excluded. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised how painful it has always been, to feel that I don’t belong. I hadn’t realised that this corrosive ache infests every interaction I have with another human being: it’s the longing, unspoken, but always in some way expressed, that says: ‘Please accept me. Please let me in.’
I feel ashamed of my neediness. I feel ashamed of wanting to belong. And I feel ashamed that I don’t belong – that out of all the people in the universe, only I (so I believe) have been excluded.
‘Do you think other people feel like this too?’ the therapist asks, as if reading my thoughts.
Of course not, I immediately think. It’s only me that’s this bad. But then I realise that she never asks questions for the sake of it. She’s implying, by asking it, that they do. Do they? Do they really? I can’t believe it. When I look at other people, they’re always so happy, so likeable, so ‘in’ … Am I seeing them through a filter? That’s where the therapist is going.
‘No, I don’t,’ I say at last, remembering to speak. ‘Or at least, not like I do …’
She holds me in a steady gaze and I know that she disagrees, and I realise that other clients sit on this butt-torturing chair too and that maybe she hears us all say the same kinds of things. But mercifully she doesn’t press her point.
After a long pause, because I’m not saying anything else, she speaks. ‘It sounds to me like the sense of not belonging, not fitting in, of being bad … it sounds to me like it’s a core belief, something that has taken a hold very early on in life.’
She looks at me, as if for confirmation that she’s on the right tracks. She hasn’t said anything to disagree with yet, so I just nod and frown and wait.
‘It sounds to me,’ she says, carefully, ‘that this is all about shame.’
Shame. How is it possible to feel so ashamed of being ashamed? Because as she says that single word, I feel small and stupid that, as ever, the problem boils down to shame. I lower my gaze and huddle up small and try to hide, even here with the therapist. I don’t want to have a problem with shame. I don’t want that shame to be noticed. I just want to be like other people, who aren’t ashamed. I want to fit in …
‘Shame is the sense that we don’t belong,’ the therapist begins to explain. ‘It’s a conviction that we are intrinsically defective, even in a way that we cannot identify. We believe there is something wrong with us, and so we are excluded and unwanted. We are outside the group, with no way in. We don’t belong. It affects the way we view everything about ourselves and other people.’
I look at her sadly, because I resonate with everything she has just said. This is me. I am shame.
‘How do I fix it?’ I say, plaintively. I still can’t look at her.
There is a long pause before she answers.
‘Well,’ she says, at last. ‘Firstly, we can talk about it. We can try to dismantle some of your beliefs and help you see where they don’t fit reality or where they’re not helpful any more. Secondly, we can work on you experiencing the opposite of shame here – belonging, being wanted, having your needs met, being connected, being acceptable. And then thirdly I guess the biggie is that you can work too on accepting yourself.’
‘Accepting myself?’ I can’t understand what this has got to do with shame.
‘Yes,’ she says, earnestly but quietly. ‘We can’t control other people, and force them to show us that they accept us. But we can control our reactions to ourselves. We can ‘belong’ to ourselves. We can ‘fit in’ with ourselves. We can be part of the group – of ourselves. We can show ourselves that we are okay.’
I am dissatisfied with her response. It seems a facile pretence. If I don’t feel loved and accepted by others, I just need to love and accept myself, and pretend that I’m perfectly happy being Billy No Mates Who Loves Herself? It doesn’t sit right with me. I say so.
‘No, no, not at all,’ she responds, hurriedly, seeing my confusion. ‘It’s not about denying your need or your desire to be accepted by others and to belong somewhere. It’s just that however much people might accept you – and I believe that some people do, because I do – you won’t be able to experience that unless you accept yourself. Shame – a belief in your own intrinsic unworthiness – tells you that you don’t deserve to belong. So even when you are accepted, you’re unable to receive it. That’s what I mean by accepting yourself. So that you can be accepted by others, when that acceptance is offered.’
‘But what if it’s not offered?’ I feel the need, as always, to wear the black hat of identifying the most negative outcome.
‘It won’t be by everyone,’ she admits. ‘That’s unrealistic. You can’t be loved or liked by 7 billion people. But you don’t need to be loved or liked by multitudes. You need to be loved or liked by yourself, and then by a few key people in your life. But unless you accept yourself, you won’t be able to receive it from even those key people.’
She has a point. Oh, she always has a point.
‘But how can I accept myself if I am in fact unacceptable?’ I counter. ‘If I am bad, then how can I pretend to myself that I’m good? I hate myself.’
‘I know,’ she says, almost groaning with gentleness. ‘And that’s a problem.’ She looks at me with sadness and a depth of empathy that makes my heart hum, but I push against it because it feels too nice. It feels dangerous to feel nice.
‘You know, you don’t have to be a victim of your own shame,’ she says.
‘How do you mean?’ I’m bristling a little, but I try to hear her. Shame makes me prickly and reactive.
‘I mean that you are putting your shame out there as something over which you have no control. It’s your boss. It tells you who are, how to feel. It’s defining your identity. It’s abusing you. You wouldn’t tolerate being treated like that by anyone else, so why by yourself – by your own shame?’
I’m holding my breath.
‘Shame doesn’t have to be in charge of your life,’ she continues. ‘You don’t have to accept what it says about you. It’s only an opinion, but you’ve taken it to be a fact.’
I’ve never seen it like this before. I’ve never personified shame in quite such a way – as a cruel master abusing me, and whose opinion, whose perspective on the world, I don’t have to heed. I suddenly realise that I can in fact step back from shame. That I can disagree with it, if I want to. The question is: do I want to? It feels dangerous to disrupt the status quo.
‘If shame doesn’t tell me who I am and what to feel,’ I say, ponderingly, ‘then who does?’
Surprise registers fleetingly on her face. Again, I feel ashamed that I’ve surprised her. It shows the gap between who I am and who I feel I should be.
‘You do!’ says, and her voice rises with passion. ‘You get to define who you are. You’re in charge of you!’
Uh-oh. This is what I didn’t want to hear. I don’t want the responsibility. I don’t want to be in charge of me. It’s a role I’m not used to. All my life, other people have determined who I am and what I feel. In their absence, shame has covered for them.
‘That sounds scary,’ is all I say, in case I say too much.
‘I know,’ she says again, and for a moment I doubt her – how could she know what it’s like to be me? – but I dare a glance up at her eyes and I can see that she knows.
‘After trauma,’ she explains, ‘it can be easier to stick with what’s familiar. New things, even new ways of thinking, can feel dangerous. It’s part of your neurobiology, to guard against danger. But it also limits you. It keeps you stuck in painful thought patterns and beliefs, because it feels safer than trying something new.’
I nod. This I know all too well. Better the devil I know. Better the shame that scolds. Better to be bad.
I need to change the conversation, to give myself time to think about this. There are outstanding questions from earlier, and so I return to them.
‘But the reality remains that I don’t fit in, and that I don’t belong anywhere. I am alone.’
The therapist sighs. Not, it seems, because she’s frustrated with me but because she is feeling my pain.
‘Where do you want to belong?’ she asks, reiterating her point from earlier. I shrug my shoulders in frustration. ‘Why do you want to belong then?’ she asks instead.
‘I don’t know. It’s normal, isn’t it, to want to belong? To have a base?’
‘Like a secure base?’ She’s referring to attachment theory, and I nod eagerly.
‘Yes, like a secure base. To have a place from which you can go out and conquer the world, but you know that it’s safe to come back to it. You can do anything if you know that you belong,’ I say, wistfully.
‘What do other people belong to?’ she asks. ‘Where’s their secure base? How is that different from yours?’
‘I don’t know. I guess it’s partly about family, about having a family that loves you and supports you. Having someone who’s got your back. Having someone who’ll be there for you, no matter what. Like, if you went on X-Factor, who’d be backstage cheering you on?’
‘They are good things to have,’ she agrees, ‘and people are blessed when they have them. But,’ she pauses here, to make sure she’s got my full attention, and she drills her eyes into mine, ‘you could have those things and still not feel that you belong.’
My head drops, because I know she’s right.
‘And,’ she adds. ‘The reality for you right now is that you don’t have that. So you’ve got to find a way of managing it.’
She never backs off from the difficult thing. She never patronises me with reassurance. Jab, punch, hook. I feel winded.
‘Why is belonging so elusive?’ I cry.
‘Is it because it’s the flip side of shame?’ she asks in response. ‘I know people who don’t have family, who don’t have partners, who don’t have much in the world at all, and yet they don’t have shame either. And they are secure. There’s a sense about them that they belong to themselves. They are their own tribe. They know that they will be there for themselves – they love themselves and are endlessly supportive and positive about themselves. Whereas you …’
She breaks off, as if she doesn’t want to level an accusation, despite her current feistiness. I take it up for her.
‘Whereas I don’t love myself, and I’m endlessly unsupportive and negative about myself,’ I say, grimacing, because it’s true. ‘I’m looking for a place of belonging ‘out there’ because I don’t have a place of belonging ‘in here’.’ I point to my chest.
‘And maybe it’s easier to belong ‘out there’ once you belong ‘in here’?’ she adds. Then she shakes her head slightly and looks at her hands. ‘I’m not saying that it’s easy or that people will always love you or accept you if you love and accept yourself. You still can’t account for other people’s behaviour, because if they’re going to reject you, they’re going to reject you, whatever you’re like and however little shame you live with.’
I’m glad she qualified it, so that it’s not my fault. Too easily I interpret every difficulty I face as my fault, as having caused it myself. That, too, is the legacy of shame.
Shame is an interpretative framework for the world, a lens through which we can superimpose meaning and intention and feeling and blame, derived solely from our innate defectiveness. The world stops being a complex matrix of interconnecting elements, a million contributory factors feeding into every single outcome, and is reduced instead to the simplest of formulae: this thing has happened only because of me, and only because I am bad.
Shame is therefore, by its very nature, paradoxically self-obsessed: we both want to obliterate ourselves and also place ourselves at the centre of everything, the sole cause, the sole effect, the sole intervening variable. ‘I am bad,’ we cry, ‘and my badness has caused everything that is bad in the universe to happen.’ And then we are ashamed to realise our own overblown self-importance, that we are putting ourselves front and centre, when all we want is to be out of sight. Shame is the most contradictory of paradoxes.
I sigh and look up at the therapist from my focus on the floor. ‘If I don’t believe shame any more,’ I ask, ‘if I don’t believe that I’m intrinsically bad, then will I feel like I belong?’
The therapist looks at me with an expression that I can’t read. It’s as if she’s going to say something, and then checks herself. ‘What do you think?’
I smile humourlessly at her deflection.
‘I think … I think …’ I dig deep inside to figure out what exactly it is that I think. Often, like now, I don’t know until I say it. ‘I get that shame makes us feel that we don’t belong, that it’s a belief that we don’t deserve to belong. But I still need to find something or someone to belong to.’
‘What about yourself?’ says the therapist.
I shrivel my nose up. ‘It feels like a cop-out. It feels like you’re saying, ‘Oh, you need to belong to yourself because you’re actually alone in the universe.’’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m not saying that as you mean it. I mean it in the sense that everyone, ultimately, is alone in the universe. Our secure base in adulthood has to come from within. Childhood is where we learn to internalise the secure base that our attachment figures provided for us, if we were lucky enough to have that. And we take it onto the inside of us, so that we can be secure within ourselves. And then we can offer it to others.’
‘So in that sense, we create our own secure base within ourselves?’ I ask. This is a new idea to me. I’m not sure I agree with it, but I’m piqued.
‘Maybe.’ She shrugs. ‘These are just theories, or ways of understanding the world. They’re not necessarily perfectly true. But the feeling of not belonging may have its roots in shame. And actually there’s nothing, really, excluding you from belonging in the world, wherever that belonging is. You’re good enough as you are. You’re acceptable.’
The words sit warmly on the inside of me, like a Petri dish for my soul. It would be nice to think that I’m okay as I am. It would be nice to find a secure base within myself. It would nice not to be under the caustic nastiness of shame.
‘Why don’t I belong?’ I say, again, because I need to verbalise it one more time.
Her belief in me rises to meet me.
‘You do belong,’ she says. ‘But shame tells you otherwise. And maybe’ – a long look, drinking in my level of receptivity, my level of defence – ‘maybe you need to start challenging that shame.’ I can’t meet her gaze, but I want to. ‘Because you do belong. You’re not defective. You’re okay, just as you are.’
‘Okay,’ I say, a little weary, but a little hopeful too, although I’m not about to admit it. ‘I’ll try and think about it.’ Because that, for now, is all I can do.
A word of explanation
I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.
My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.
For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/