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.)



The Paradox of Ego Development in Growth & Healing


“When you perceive a truth, look for the balancing truth.

― John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton

While writing books on recovery from the undue influence of high-control groups, I was often aware of the puzzling fact that the opposite of what I was saying was also true. The paradox being, as Niels Bohr says, “…the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” For example:

  • while healing from high-control group exploitation requires that we dig up the past and work through the lingering emotions due to all the undue influence, true healing can only take place in the present.
  • while we work to strengthen and heal the self — true freedom, according to the great eastern philosophies, is ultimately found in finally recognizing that there is no separate self.
  • while implicit in the “hero’s journey” is that in the future we will arrive at a better place, in truth there is no future. There is only the present moment – there is always and only what we are experiencing in the now. “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.” ― Albert Einstein
  • while healing from mind-control, exploitation and abuse requires that we apply ourselves to actively learn how to grieve, how to trust, how to reclaim our agency in the world – healing also requires that we learn how to accept what is and how to surrender to life as it unfolds.
  • while, after abuse, we must work to strengthen the ego caged or crushed by the high-control group – once strengthened – the next developmental piece of work is to transcend and dissolve the very ego we have just worked so hard to strengthen.

In order to expand on the last paradox (strengthening the ego, only to turn around and dissolve it) in the above list, let’s take a moment to look at the mental construct called “the ego”. Often when we speak of the ego, it is in a derogatory fashion – suggesting that there is self-centeredness afoot. However, the Freudian template of the mind, highlights the ego as a necessary component of the self, not just a narcissistic one. The ego helps us to define ourselves, defend ourselves and function in the world.

The school of psychology known as psychodynamics posits that babies have yet to develop an ego and that a healthy ego is built throughout childhood within the crèche of a supportive, loving family. As we grow and move out into the world, we use the ego strength developed in the heart of the family to help forge a life for ourselves, define ourselves, protect ourselves, work, and build a home and family.

Of course, some people are not afforded the luxury of growing up in a supportive family and do not build a strong, healthy ego. With that essential component missing in their development, they then spend their energies trying to get the mirroring, attention, recognition and affirmation that was missing from their childhood. People who are always seeking attention are labelled narcissistic and egotists, and while that may be true, they are, in effect, desperately trying to get unmet ego development needs met.

As said, if our ego needs were met as a child, we use that ego strength to build a life. A strong, healthy ego is necessary to claim personal agency in the world, help us withstand the vicissitudes of life and repair any injuries due to the inevitable losses encountered in any life. The paradox is, that once we have built a good life and competently handled life’s unpredictable changes, higher levels of human needs emerge and our challenge is then to transcend (move beyond) the very ego that we built, the very ego that helped us construct and live our life.

If we were raised in a cult, or lured into any manipulative group or relationship, many healthy ego functions may have been stunted or crushed. In fact, many of our attempts to fulfill basic human needs will have been interfered with – interrupted by their undue controls. Perhaps, due to unwanted and undue interference our ability to fulfill our basic human needs has been stalled. Our work then, once out of the restrictive environment, is to re-establish our fundamental needs for safety, belonging and self-esteem, etc.

A closer look at Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid might help us understand the further level of growth available to us after we have met the challenge to heal from undue interference and meet our basic human needs.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

The first four levels of needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid hierarchy (1 through 4) are called “deficit needs” – needs that make humans distinctly uncomfortable if not met (our physiological needs, the need for safety, the need for love and acceptance, and the need for self-esteem and respect). The four levels of needs at the top of the pyramid (5 through 8) Maslow identified as “growth needs”, higher level needs that take a back seat to the previous four needs until those four are met.

The four higher level growth needs are:

  • Level 5) the cognitive need to explore and understand;
  • Level 6) the aesthetic need to enjoy nature, beauty and the arts;
  • Level 7) the self-actualization need to make the most of our abilities;
  • Level 8) the self-transcendence need to move toward a more spiritual self.

Maslow says that once we have achieved or met our basic needs (1 through 4) for Physiological, Safety, Belonging and Esteem needs, the higher level needs (5 through 8) to meet Cognitive, Aesthetic, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence needs, kick in.

While working to heal the wounds resulting from undue influence – we are often doing the work required to meet the unmet or partially met needs at the bottom of the hierarchy (1 through 4). We feel satisfied once able to exercise our agency so that we can experience safety, belonging and self-esteem. Sometimes then, therapy or the healing journey stop at that point leaving the top four higher-level growth needs (5 through 8) unattended.

The paradox here is that just when we imagine our heroic healing journey is complete, we discover that we have the option (need?) to embark on another heroic journey – the journey to self-actualization and self-transcendence (ego-transcendence).

Most therapies, and most private initiatives at healing the wounds from cult mind-control and abuse, do not include these higher levels of growth. I mention them here so that once you feel you have recovered from your captivity in, and injuries from, the high-control abuse – you also become aware of the further levels of growth you can embrace to fulfill your life. These further levels of growth are also called transpersonal and transcendent levels of human development.

Transpersonal Psychology posits that there are three stages of human development. (Note: In the transpersonal model of human development the word “personal” is used to represent the “ego”.) The three stages are:

1) the pre-personal – the child – before the development of ego;

2) the personal – the adult – with appropriate ego strength to function in the world;

3) the trans-personal – the stage when the healthy adult transcends ego – where the sense of self extends (transcends) the individual (personal/ego level) to encompass the higher self with its enhanced maturity, awareness, consciousness or spirituality[1].

So to summarize … in taking on the challenge to heal you have been addressing unmet needs due to undue influence and interference in your life. As well, you have been repairing ways in which your ego and self-esteem may have been damaged or stunted. You may have also ventured into meeting some of your cognitive needs with the psycho-educational material provided by websites like this.

However, looking again at the image of Maslow’s hierarchy above, you will see that while you have embarked on the hero’s journey, while you have attended to the wounds and developmental delays due to being in a coercive group – you may not have dealt with, or attained, the higher levels of human needs – yet. Addressing these higher level needs is the next phase of your hero’s journey. It is now up to you to embrace the next challenge of healing and growth by making sure that your cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and self-transcendence needs are addressed.

The interesting paradox is that while the first phase of healing consists, to a large degree, in building the ego strength that can help you build a new life outside of the coercive group — there then appears a further phase of healing and growth where life calls upon you to dissolve the very ego you have just worked to strengthen. Self-transcendence is about dismantling the ego – its defenses and its preoccupations – in order to enjoy “being” and “pure consciousness”. In fact, it is the strong, healthy ego that participates in its own demise.

You can certainly enjoy a ‘good-enough’ life without addressing the higher level needs (5 through 8) – but it has been my experience that you will encounter your own inner push toward fulfilling the higher level needs.

The inner push may be felt as a certain level of dissatisfaction or ennui with life once you have done your healing work and attained the first four levels of human needs. Do not mistake such feelings of ennui as an indication that you have yet more work to do on your past, or on old injuries. Feelings of inner ennui usually indicate that you are now ready to embrace the journey to farther reaches of human development or as Maslow says “the farther reaches of human nature”.

The paradox is that once you attain a basic level of healing, the hero’s quest begins anew. The one caution is that one needs to complete the first quest (healing wounds, finding one’s path, strengthening the ego) before one embarks on the second phase of the journey. As said, it is the healthy, strengthened ego that works to dismantle itself. If you have not yet built a healthy ego[2], you are probably not ready for the challenges of the second heroic quest – acceptance, non-resistance, letting go, forgiveness and the experience of pure awareness.

This next phase of the hero’s journey is, therefore, one of moments of solitude, stillness, simplicity, inner spaciousness and surrender. Initiates on this higher-level heroic quest are not found on a steed forging their way through a dark forest. You are more likely to find them sitting quietly on a meditation cushion. ~

You can read more about the transpersonal level of development by reading the following books:

  • Toward a Psychology of Being, 2011, Abraham Maslow
  • The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1993, Abraham Maslow
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, 2006, Viktor E. Frankl
  • Going on Being, 2001, Mark Epstein
  • Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, 2002, John Welwood
  • Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, 2014, Sam Harris

 “…moments in our lives where the unconscious crosses consciousness; where the eternal crosses the transitory; where a higher will demands the surrender of our egos.” –Marion Woodman




[1] Some Transpersonal theorists are: Wilber; Battista; Grof; Assagioli; Ferrer.

[2] Transpersonal psychologist, Ken Wilber coined the term “pre/trans fallacy” to explain the phenomenon of people who rush too soon into trying to transcend ego – before they have done the hard work to build a healthy, adult ego. Wilber suggests that while pre-empting the work at the personal (ego) level of development, such people think they are operating at a trans-personal (spiritual) level of development, when they are actually functioning from a prepersonal (child-like, pre-ego), primitive level of development with its attendant magical thinking (which can at moments mimic the trans-personal). We need to do the fundamental ego strengthening work before we move on to transcending that ego. There are, unfortunately, many people operating at a pre-personal level of development (child-like), while claiming they can help you attain higher levels of consciousness. As Ken Wilber, Ph.D. says, they are caught in the “pre/trans fallacy”, operating at a child-like, magical thinking level of ego development rather than truly operating from a level of development that has transcended the pre-personal and personal levels. We see this in cult leaders or gurus who end up abusing their followers in one way or another, in an unconscious attempt to fulfil their own unmet developmental needs. Wilber’s “pre/trans fallacy” behooves us to be very careful who we follow.