“Fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging… doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
The mantra ‘find your tribe’ is a bit overused nowadays. But it is true. We all want to belong. It starts at birth and never leaves us. We’re always drawn to something bigger than ourselves.
Not belonging can impact us early on. Madalena is Portuguese, but was born in South Africa. “When I moved to Portugal, I didn’t speak the language. I had no idea what people were talking about.” Even after learning Portuguese she felt like “an outsider, desperately trying to be accepted. My inner child is still a bit scared… just wanting to please, always on edge.”
We go to great lengths to fit in. We even develop fake selves at work. Here are three examples of people acting out:
“I was wearing a work mask. Pretending to be who I was.”
“I’ve always had a feeling that I’m not authentic, that I don’t fit in the corporate world.”
“I was good at the business side, but the creative stuff didn’t come easily. So, I was putting a mask on every day.”
‘Belonging’ came up 35 times in my Spoon by Spoon interviews. It’s why we stay so long in our jobs. It’s why we feel so lost when we leave.
Simon was in the Navy and felt it was part of his identity. “It’s not a job. It’s how you live. You’d go away for 9–10 months and spend all your time with people in the same culture. It never felt like work. I’ve definitely missed that sense of belonging.”
Not fitting in, not belonging, trying to be someone else. They are all so tiring. It takes effort to be a round peg in a square hole. Here are more examples:
“The people around me were not my kind of tribe. It was a cutthroat corporate environment. They were like sharks.”
“She said, ‘I know you well enough to know that when you’re smiling on the outside, you are not on the inside.’ That was heavy. But she was right.”
Last year I worked with some senior executives. One of them found it difficult to open up to the group. “Never bleed in the water,” he blurted out, “Because the sharks will smell it.” That’s how he felt about work. Never reveal yourself. Always be on your guard.
The first step to career change is waking up. Remembering who we really are. Or who we really were. And it can be a shock to see how far we’ve drifted from our former selves.
Jenny realised that she’d lost herself. “A big part of it was pretending to be something I wasn’t at work. Having to pretend I was really passionate about something that I was good at, that wasn’t my driving passion.”
Knowing we need to change is a good start. But sometimes things hold us back – we’re caught in a net.
For years Pete felt he had to keep going for big jobs, demanding jobs, leadership jobs. “Imposter syndrome became a massive, massive part. And you’re just questioning yourself and you put this stress on yourself.” But last year he decided to stop. “I don’t want to be a leader. I don’t want to have people or P&L responsibilities. I don’t want to meet clients. I don’t want to do presentations or pitches. I just want to go freelance. I want to be working with people I like.”
“Dress up, fake talk. It’s the same old, same old. Making small talk with people I don’t like, don’t want to be with.” Bernadette decided to take some of her own medicine when work didn’t suit her anymore. “I’ve always counselled people, ‘When you’re in the game you’ve got to play by the rules. If you don’t want to play by the rules, then get out of the game.’ And I thought, well, I suppose that’s me now.”
So what can you do once you’ve ‘woken up’ to find yourself a different person?
First put a team around you. People you trust, who will support you, tell you how it is. Maybe even remind you who you were and how you’ve changed.
Adeolajoined Sam Collins’ trailblazing network, Aspire. “One of the things she talked about was getting yourself a tribe. So, I got myself half a dozen people who were there to help me when things got a bit sticky — if I was having a bad day or something had gone wrong. Or I was confused and I needed a sounding board. Having a tribe, a group of people who are just there to help has been invaluable for me.”
2) How we work:
Early on in our careers we often focus on the what — the type of work, the type of organisation. But as we develop, we can see that the work itself is less of a problem. It’s how we’re doing that work which is more important.
“In freelancing you rarely get to know people and that’s a really big thing. I’m happiest once I’ve got to know people, and as soon as they’ve gone, I just feel I’m lost again.” But where Emma works now, “I know everyone there. I’m really happy there as I think it’s the familiarity. I realise now that belonging and being part of something is a massive thing for me.”
3) People are key:
Most of the time what we’re doing is lower down the list than who we’re doing it with. Yasmeen worked in education for years, “The people are great, but they’re very different from me. I also worked in tech for a while. They’re very different, too.” Then Yasmeen discovered acting. “I never ever thought I would act. No way am I that person. But in the process of exploring theatre I found my theatre tribe. It was just a mind-blowing revelation for me because they are so much like me.”
“Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you are wearing someone else’s shoes.” Phoebe Stone
If you can’t be yourself at work, now is the time. Take the damn shoes off and put on ones that fit you better.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan