The Powerful Need to Belong: Especially After Leaving a High-Control Situation 


We become acutely aware of our fundamental need for belonging when we are cut off, banished, shunned, disconnected and/or alienated. If you have exercised your right to reclaim your life from a high-control situation, it is highly likely that you are now being rejected or excluded by those who are still in the group or situation. You may very well have lost any sense of belonging, especially if family members and friends are still a part of the extremist group.



Belonging is so important that it is one of the core human need categories listed in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, depicted in the illustration below. At one time the survival of the individual was inextricably linked to the tribe. To be separated from the tribe meant certain death. Our primitive reptilian brain probably still considers belongingness a survival issue.


When we are cut off from, and shunned by family and friends, it can awaken very primal feelings – feelings that can make us feel panicked – prompting us to conclude, on a deep level, that our very survival is at risk. This is why ostracism, disconnection, and shunning are such powerful, punitive and inhumane tools.


If you are now disconnected or being ostracized, you must make it a point to attend to your fundamental need to belong. Being with others will help meet the need of your body/mind to be seen, acknowledged, known, connected and included. It will diminish the anxiety that accompanies any punitive shunning behaviors.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs


Maslow posited that until the lower level needs in the Hierarchy of Human Needs – such as belonging – are met, it is difficult to move up the hierarchy to satisfy higher level needs. So, for example, if you are finding you are having trouble attending to your “self-esteem needs” after extricating yourself from exploitation and control, it may be you first have to attend to your “belonging needs”. By taking care of your belonging needs you facilitate your movement up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to meet other needs that properly press for attention and fulfilment.


In today’s world, it is an over-exaggeration to imagine you will die if banished from a group. This is a thought you must challenge. You will be hurt by being ostracized, disconnected or shunned, but you will not expire from it. Your survival on the planet is not threatened by being cut off or alienated from a real or symbolic family. You can help the reptilian part of your brain calm down by giving it a sense of belonging by joining in group activities (in the workplace or in the community) that please you – even if they are not with the group of people that you are really longing for right now.


It can also be helpful to employ the technique of relating to it, not from it (“it” being whatever feeling is distressing you at the moment). You can apply this simple technique to the feeling of disconnection and lack of belonging. For example, you can say to yourself:

  • A part of me feels like I just cannot survive being disconnected or shunned and losing my sense of belonging in my group, but I choose not to dwell on this irrational fear.
  • The old, brainwashed part of me resists joining groups of ‘worldly’ or ‘infidel’ strangers to engage in pleasant activities, but I’m going to push past that resistance and find a group or activity that pleases me.

You acknowledge (relate to) the feelings that inevitably emerge from disconnection, isolation, shunning, but you refuse to be governed by (react from) those feelings. This takes practice, but with a little effort you can make relating to instead of reacting from your default position when dealing with any challenging feeling.


So how does one attend to their need for belonging? By reaching out to associate with others (even if they are relative strangers) you begin to give yourself the gift of fulfilling the need to connect and belong. Even the most basic connections can help calm the reptilian part of your brain and help you feel better during the initial shock of being cut off from a group or community, even if it was your choice to leave the group or situation.


Don’t wait to feel profound interest in an activity or group. If you notice any small level of interest, join in. Involvement often precedes interest and awakens interest. Just get involved. Just connect. Find a healthy, inclusive group to join, such as an exercise group, a health club/gym, a walking group, a mindfulness meditation group, a yoga center, a photography club, a support group, a volunteer agency – whatever pleases you or whatever opportunity for connection that presents itself. Healing from trauma is made so much easier when we connect with the community around us.


‘Belonging’ does not reach out and find you. You must take steps to find ways to connect and belong. Be proactive. Do it now. If your first efforts at connection are not satisfying, find another group to join. You must be persistent and courageous in attending to your fundamental, human need to connect and belong.


“Only connect.”  ~E. M. Forster


Recommended Reading on the topic of belonging and connection:

Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization”, 2012, David H. Johnson

True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect with Others, and Cultivate Happiness”, 2011, Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., Wendy Millstine

Leaving Loneliness: A Workbook. Building Relationships with Yourself and Others”, 2014, David S. Narang

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect”, 2014, Matthew D. Lieberman

Real: The Power of Authentic Connection”, 2016, Catherine O’Kane, Duane O’Kane


(This article originally appeared on the Open Minds Foundation Blog.)