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Existential Self-Help II: Getting Over Belonging Anxiety

Don’t Feel Like You Belong?

Multi-colored silhouettes of people in a group
Image by Canva

Oddly, you’re not alone.

Belonging to a group or community may seem straightforward, but it can be quite complicated and emotionally challenging. Three factors to consider in any instance where you’re uneasy and not quite fitting in:

  1. Belonging is an essential human need.

  2. There are norms about acceptance that we tend to glance without much thought and which often involve an arbitrary exercise of power over others.

  3. Social media often figures into belonging dynamics and can be a harmful form of communication, often exacerbating the norms of belonging and thus creating anxiety about attaining an essential human need.

It turns out existentialism has quite a bit to say about belonging. Arguably, it’s one of its most prominent contributions to the history of philosophy. Until the likes of Martin Heidegger (and later Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Hannah Arendt), philosophizing about the human need to belong was mostly ignored.

In this blog, we may only scratch the surface of existentialism's contribution, but we’ll do so with great practical effect!

Human Belonging as a Fundamental Need

In ancient Greek philosophy, the idea of being in common (koinonia) was the basis of the polis, or city-state. Plato and Aristotle explored ways in which human being-in-common could be in harmony with virtue and a broad conception of truth.

The early modern natural law philosophers (i.e. Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke) understood human belonging as one of the ways in which humanity can best strive to actualize God’s will. Much later in the history of philosophy, John Stuart Mill took the primal desire to be in unity with one’s fellow human being as the principle underwriting his conception of utility and pleasure—that we not only seek to be happy, but do so in a way that conduces to the common good.

And of course, you can take just about any religious or spiritual tradition, and you will probably find at the foundation of its narratives and teaching is something about how “one becomes two” through some process of recognizing the other; and further down the road, a journey of reconciliation with multiples others, who at first pose complications to the harmony of being-together.

The example I used to present to my ethics students involved asking them to recall a more immediate experience.

When you first arrived at university. How strong was your desire and worry about finding a new group of friends? How much were you willing to change in order to be accepted by others?

Students in a cafe
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Far from being merely a bio-psychological impulse, philosophers like Mill see the desire to belong as a key to realizing human potential. Belonging together is not just about survival by means of being part of a larger group that can offer safety. Even for the likes of Thomas Hobbes, cooperation and belonging were not empty gestures to secure livelihood; they were genuine human behaviors.

In fact, one can say that

belonging is the dynamic relation that allows separate people and unique qualities of these people to come together in unexpected ways, creating synergies, relations, and new ideas and practices.

For this reason, Hans-Georg Gadamer placed the power of belonging under the notion of Tradition (not just any tradition, but the phenomenon of Tradition itself). Tradition arises as the result of human belonging. It contains the knowledge and experience accumulated over the generations on how to live, flourish, and co-exist. To put it another way, it’s what the economist Thorstein Veblen would call social and historical capital.

At the same time, Tradition is limited in its knowledge and experience because human understanding is finite, as well as the fact that the conditions in which we live are changing. New challenges arise where the “old” knowledge and practices are not adequate. So, at the heart of Tradition is the need for its capacity to be critical of itself, and to be able to transform itself.

Paul Ricoeur captures the dynamic of “Tradition as resource” and “Tradition as critical examination of these resources” by the terms sedimentation and innovation. When a Tradition becomes stagnant, or sedimented, it requires transformation by its participants.

An example?

Think of a musical tradition, like jazz, and how one form of jazz sediments and is changed so that a new kind of jazz emerges. From the basic form of jazz in the 1920s, to swing in the 1930s, to bebop in the 1940s, to hardbop jazz of the 1950s and 60s.

[For those who want a more historically and philosophically inclined analysis of this, you can have a look at Paul Ricoeur’s essay “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?]

What Are the Norms of Belonging?

Think of the norms as basic rules of eligibility and acceptance. How these rules are presented and how well they are known depends on the type of group or community. Belonging to a social clique will most likely involve much more ambiguous requisites than belonging to a religious community.

Your woman sitting apart from two other women in rejection
Image by Canva

Ambiguity about rules of acceptance can be frustrating since what works for one person may not work for another. Negotiating these norms is not only difficult for many of us, but the real problem is one of arbitrary power over who is accepted and who is not. Thought you were getting along with everyone in a group, only to find its leader gave you the final veto?

One of my colleagues draws on an insightful distinction within the history of philosophy. Sebastian Purcell recalls that the term power can be broken down into two meanings.

Power as potential (potentia), which means the power to do. Think capacity and capability.

Power as authority (potesta), which means the power to exercise control. Think power as dominion or even dominance.

Applying this distinction to the idea of belonging, we can say the power to do is often undermined by the power of authority. I’ll come back to this in the final section.

Belonging to communities and groups is a way of empowering us (i.e. Tradition, per above). Meeting new people, having connections, and having a supportive group enables us to learn new things, find help when needed, and share ideals and goals.

Yet such communities tend also to have explicit and implicit means of acceptance. Whether this involves a “trial by fire” initiation, confirmation by experience, or declaration by oath, belonging entails an exercise of authority over those who wish to belong, potentially making them do or experience things that are harmful physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Does Social Media Affect Belonging?

How often have you heard from others or experienced the paradox of social media:

Greater facility and availability of technological connections with other humans often results in alienation and depression.

Through technology, we can make and maintain contact with others instantly despite geographical distance; and yet in many ways, we are no closer to them or ourselves.

Discussion on social media is usually superficial, or in worse cases, provocative and inflammatory. The way we present ourselves is often how we want others to see us, especially when we lack self-esteem. Psychologists refer to this as “selfitis”. And what’s more, the pervasiveness of social media allows for an inescapable, over-idealized projection that can make others feel inadequate.

Is this alienating effect of technology anything new?

Consider an excerpt from an essay by Martin Heidegger written in 1950:

All distances in time and space are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all.

. . .

Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time.

. . .

Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance.

“The Thing”, Poetry, Language, Thought (1971: 165, my italics)

Not so new. But the pervasiveness that social media present is something unfamiliar to previous generations—in how it dominates, lingers, persists, and even invades.

From my philosophical point of view, technology by itself is not to blame. Technology presents ways of increasing human capacity, but always with expected and unexpected costs. As Henry Drummond, the historically-based lawyer in the film Inherit the Wind, put it:

“Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

A biplane amongst a flock of birds
Image from Canva

Here’s not the place to devle into the limitations of social media, but it is worth calling to mind a few key, limiting features that exacerbate the complexities of belonging. Social media often:

  • encourages emotive, terse, and over-idealized messages and reactions;

  • discourages considered, forethought interactions and dialogue; and

  • is based on trending so as to exaggerate the effects of the first two points.

Until social media platforms require members to adhere to etiquette, or until an app interface is created to buffer potentially harmful posts, the problems of belonging will continue to be exacerbated.

Can Existentialism Help?

Recall that the problem of belonging lies when the power of authority undermines the power to do; potesta over potential.

Existentialism can help resolve this problem through its notion of self-care, or what is often grouped under the terms concern and solicitude.

Belonging Begins in Self-care

One of the great insights of existentialism is its conception of anxiety. The existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, describes anxiety as the feeling arising when one senses a threat to one’s self.

Let’s unpack this a little. What Tillich has in mind is not specific threats to self-existence, such as someone pointing a gun at you or a near-death experience. Those are instances of a general phenomenon.

So in general, anything that poses a threat to self-existence is categorized as non-being. Think of it this way: Non-being forms a category of all things that threaten to extinguish one’s life. This includes feelings of meaninglessness, condemnation, alienation, despair, and so on.

We typically experience non-being emotionally and affectatively before we deal with it intellectually. What I mean by this is that threats to our respective lives are felt in terms of anxiety. When your job becomes meaningless, you’ll probably feel it in terms of unhappiness, complacency, or abandonment. You’ll become anxious to change things; or anxious that perhaps you can’t.

Each type of anxiety has its own appropriate remedy. The anxiety of belonging has its remedy in caring for the self. Why?

Because the need to belong, while fundamental, can be warped by one’s own sense of inadequacy. The more one lacks self-esteem, for example, the more one will seek confirmation from a group or community.

Suffice it to say, caring for the self is a way to mitigate that fatal tendency.

Once one experiences anxiety:

  • Try to identify its origin. For example, if you feel rejected from a group or community, consider how this rejection affects your sense of self and your sense of purpose. How essential is the group to these? How virtuous is the group? Or, is it toxic?

  • Plan B, C, D, etc. Assume that you will need to change things. Formulate plans now to find other pathways for self-affirmation. Do the work now, and when things get bad, you’ll feel more confident in finding meaningfulness elsewhere.

Choose a Virtuous Community or Group

Using a form of Jean-Paul Sartre’s form of candid questioning, you can head off the problem by scrutinizing a group, no matter how badly you want to be a part of it.

Can you see evidence or signs as to how the power of authority (potesta) is undermining the power to do (potential)?

“I am not what I am. I am what I am not.”

—Sartre, Being and Nothingness

As Sartre might see it, if your past is pushing you to be a member of a group, and that group is not good for you; it’s time to redefine and recreate yourself so that you no longer need that group. Sartre refers to this as a form of radical transcendence.

Toggle In and Out

We often belong to several groups, communities, and traditions at the same time. They are not perfect. As long as they are not vicious, per above, then one way to keep the problem of belonging at bay is to toggle your focus and participation between different groups as appropriate.

The idea here is that as you immerse yourself in one group (away from another), you can return to any groups you’ve “toggled out of” at a later point. Hopefully, by then any friction or problems will have been resolved. If not, at least you have gained some critical distance according to which you can approach the problem with a clearer head and patience.

Belonging and Being with Oneself

The urge to belong might be driven by unhappiness with oneself. To be able to love and be comfortable with oneself is key.

Remember those boring moments waiting – do you yearn to escape the immediate surrounding and find social comfort in the virtual space of social media? Can you be “bored” in that moment as a form of self-discipline and self-care?

You might then attune to your surroundings and discover something new about the world, others, and yourself. It’s worth pondering! Hannah Arendt ended her magnum opus, The Human Condition, with a quote from the Roman senator, Cato:

“Never is he more active than when doing nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”


About the Author

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.


The topic of this blog relates to anxiety. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor.

If you are in the US and having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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