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The Difference between Fitting in and Belonging

At the time of this writing, a lot of Americans are still in “lockdown” in their homes.

In times of trouble, one place where humans shine is in their ability to come together. It’s something we embrace all the time at Arts Academy in the Woods.

But right now, we’re forced to be apart. And young people who previously found comfort in bonding with their friends are more subject than ever to messages from social media that tell them how to “be cool” or to “fit in.” 

This can muddy the waters when it comes to deciphering the difference between fitting in and belonging.

We All Need to Belong

Belonging is a powerful and deep-seated drive for all humans. We are social creatures and need to feel that we’re part of a tribe.

That tribe could be your family, cultural community, friends, neighborhood, social networks, associations/organizations, and those with whom you share pastimes. For many students at an arts academy high school like AAW, it is also their classmates and fellow creatives.

Whatever the case, it is through belonging to that tribe that we experience love, meaning, connection, inclusion, and purpose – to name just a few. And the feeling of belonging is so essential that many folks are willing to mask who they are in order to fit in.

But there’s a big difference between fitting in and truly belonging.

What the Research Shows

Researcher and educator Brené Brown is an expert on the subject of belonging. But she’s also emphatic on the fact that fitting in is not the same as belonging.

She puts it this way:

“In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I’ve discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.

Many us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, (Take it from me: I’m an expert fitter-inner!) But we’re not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking.”

In other words, fitting in is external. It’s an act of inauthenticity. But belonging is real. It’s internal. Furthermore, it’s a willingness to acknowledge that each of us belongs to something greater than ourselves.

Belonging does not pivot on our actions or the approval of others. It’s our birthright.

The Difference between Fitting in and Belonging Is Important

For young people and old people alike, it’s easy to confuse the acceptance you receive from others as true belonging.

But acceptance is so often achieved through the act of “fitting in.” We behave in a certain way that’s expected from or even needed by other people.

The problem is, seeking acceptance is only satisfied when you get the desired response from those people. And this can be a very emotional ride because your self-worth and well-being are dictated by another person’s approval.

So acting disingenuously in order to fit in can be a pretty dicey situation. You end up compromising your own identity in exchange for approval from another over whom you have zero control. 

Meanwhile, belonging is an inside job. It doesn’t come from without, but rather it begins from within.

Building Belonging

One of the beautiful things about attending an arts academy middle school or arts academy high school is the valuable life lessons gleaned from an arts education.

All art – be it performing, visual, written, or otherwise – is developed over time with effort, hard work, commitment, and a willingness to be vulnerable. This is true of building a sense of belonging as well.

At AAW, we encourage students to find out who they truly are so they will naturally gravitate toward their tribe. Here are some of the ways we encourage students to foster belonging:

1. Speak from Your Heart

In the act of creating, you can’t be fearful. You must be willing to speak directly from your heart. Fear only hinders belonging. But sharing your heart freely enables you to find others who resonate with you and can connect with shared experiences.

2. Be Kind

When you practice simple acts of kindness, you will see a kinship develop with people around you. Simply put, it feels good to be kind. And kindness is contagious.

At the end of the day, you’ll be in a place of more love, compassion, and purpose. Kindness is the embodiment of finding belonging. When you discover who you are, it becomes that much easier to allow the overflow to pour into the lives of others.

3. Recognize Self-Sabotage

We all have that inner monologue. It’s that one that keeps you bound to unhealthy relationships, bad habits, or any other number of things that are hindering your self-discovery. So learn to recognize this inner drill sergeant and silence the voice.

He or she only tells you lies and makes you believe you don’t have something to offer others in the world. But you do. You have so much to offer.

4. Try New Things

No creative person has ever mastered his or her art by being afraid to try something new. They know, inherently, that they must push themselves beyond what is their “normal” to discover new levels of their art.

Pushing beyond your normal is also one of the best ways to learn about and come to know yourself. And since knowing yourself is imperative to belonging, challenging boundaries is an easy and effective place to start learning.

5. Practice Authenticity

It’s well understood that feeling pressured to fit in at all costs can lead folks to participate in unhealthy behaviors – such as going along with the crowd in the face of hurtful or mean-spirited actions. This is the root of bullying and it’s not tolerated at AAW.

Practicing authenticity is hard work. But it’s so worth it. Because when you work from a place of being genuine, you’re going to find your tribe. And you won’t have to compromise your authentic self to truly belong.

Know the Difference between Fitting in and Belonging

In a nutshell, the main difference between fitting in and belonging is that you don’t need anyone or anything else to give you a sense of belonging.

It doesn’t matter whether others choose to accept you. And this is our doctrine at Arts Academy in the Woods. At this Fraser power school, you can bring yourself to the table with the confidence of knowing that you belong.

Because you truly do.

So if you think our school could be the right place for you, contact us today. And get ready to belong to something amazing.


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