Welcome to the Club

Brené Brown’s definitions of belonging (“be who you are”) and fitting in (“be like everyone else”) frame this blog (Atlas of the Heart, 2021).

That’s a provocative title for me to choose, because those words strike me with as much horror as they did when I was teenage me, accepting that I’d never be part of anyone’s club. I didn’t understand, then, that I was also choosing not to fit in, that ‘fitting in‘ means being like the other people in the space. I was never really prepared to compromise on that.

But I always wanted to belong and that wasn’t really on offer either. I was happy in our little family of four, but there was never a time I didn’t also know I was ‘the adopted kid‘ to my dad’s folks, an othering that played out in some quite unpleasant ways. At school, I was always on the periphery of friendship groups, both yearning for and rejecting them.

I didn’t understand that my belonging was not in other people’s gift. I thought other people had to grant me some magical key to the door. It took me a long time to figure out that I needed to take responsibility to belong to myself and that was quite hard to figure out as an adopted person because I wasn’t at all sure who I was. I know that’s a bit of a RuPaul soundbite statement (“Can I get an amen?”), but that doesn’t make it less true. Took me years and the building of new relationships to do that work on myself and it wasn’t until I was doing some thinking in preparation for this blog that I realised that it wasn’t an unfixability in me that was ever the issue, the bad guy here is how we are educated and socialised.

I’m thinking about this because with my friend and colleague Claire Collins I’m organising a workshop on the subject of belonging at the Women’s Leadership Network #YouToo22 Conference on 31st March 2022 (tickets still available). Belonging in the sense of ‘belonging with’ a group of people (rather than individual attachments) came so late to me that I’m probably a bit of an expert in unbelonging, in a lived experience sense.

I’ve been fortunate in my 50s to find belonging, both with a ‘birth’ family of familial and non-familial kin and within a friendship group which was born at the same time and in the same intense moment as the collective movement #JoyFE💛 I can remember a warm evening in Edinburgh during the Festival in 2017, sitting in a big room with friends and family, in my dressing gown, everybody chatting, windows open to hear the sounds from the street, not really joining in, just thinking: so this is how it feels to be part of something.

I realise as I write how much this experience helped me understand why I’ve spent much of my life resisting labels. Labels, I’m thinking now, are a false belonging. I know they mean much, to so many, and I am not being disrespectful if that’s the case for you. I have been there. I am writing personally and somewhat painfully about me. I remember that desperate clinging on – to a political standpoint, an identity characteristic – a diagnosis. I’ve done all of that, and the latter I really noticed during my short tenure as a slimming consultant (I didn’t fit in there, either). I noticed how women self-limited around a diagnosis by using the word “my”*. Emphatic, final. Confident, even: the most confident I ever heard them sound. “I can’t do that because my fibromyalgia. I can’t do that because my mental health.” I realised, in hearing this repeated echo, that I’d been exactly the same. Sometimes I couldn’t do the thing, no. But sometimes I actually could.

I self-pathologised because I was afraid to step into my power. My potentia, as I’ve learned to call it, using Spinoza’s distinction of joyfully activist potentia from power-as-usual potestas. That took energy, it took self-responsibility and it took courage. Far easier to tell myself (and the world) that I was too damaged to move. I atomised my identities down to the ones where I felt most broken and in doing so I made even less effort to belong. Over time, I began to see the lonely road I walked as inevitable, as a badge of honour, almost. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to connect with others around our shared brokenness, so I never belonged to those communities either.

Maybe that’s why, when I encountered Spinoza and his affirmative personal ethics I was ready to hear the whisper of something more joyful and leave the tragic life story Olympics behind. Spinoza made himself deeply unpopular in 17th century Holland, because he believed that god was in all of us, not a remote being sitting transcendently on a cloud. He believed that the life-force in all of us was an energy we could pool and share (and not just with humans). And in this way, we could channel the pain, sorrow and despair of everyday life into a joyful activism: potentia**. Spinoza’s times were as turbulent as ours, so he knew what he was talking about.

Potentia rests on us each figuring out what our values are – ethics being the sum of these values and integrity being what happens when we’re true to them. An affirmative ethics is one which plays out in joyful practice: potentia. Navigating our lives from the inside (ethics) out, rather than via a cacophony of externally imposed ethics, is where potentia is at.

But it’s not where society is at. I heard the other day about a five-year-old being sent to the ‘Regulation Station’ in school, because of some sharing infringement. School uniform and toileting activities are monitored like never before in secondary schools. FE students are exhorted to ‘be professional’. The Society for Education and Training has just published a code of ethics for FE teachers. We impose compliance and control in the name of behaviour management across all contexts and settings of education. Yet when are we ever taught to explore our own personal ethics? Values are everywhere, for sure; laminated and stuck onto walls but are they actually lived?

These are cultures of ‘fitting in‘, not cultures of ‘belonging‘. The message we all get from the education system is “be like us.” Don’t, for goodness sake, try to be yourself.

What might education look like, if we created cultures of belonging which began with enabling people to identify their personal ethics? If that was part of induction, for students and for staff, revisited regularly? I’m not suggesting anarchy; there can still be guidelines, with transparent rationales, where we can all understand the reason why and we buy into it because we understand it, because it resonates with our own ethics, because we are given the chance to belong and because belonging, inevitably, builds trust (check out the work of Dr Christina Donovan, FE trust researcher).

I visit a college regularly where every classroom has a sign saying, “Don’t sit on the floor, it’s not professional!” I can imagine my reaction to this as a 16-year-old. But if the sign said, “Please show respect to others by not sitting on the floor outside class,” then yeah, I could hear the echo of rightness in me, it would be a much bigger step for me to transgress. It’s an appeal to my ethics and that’s always powerful, especially when I’ve had the chance to work them out for myself.

Our workshop will hand over to you, so that we can explore together practical ways to build a culture of belonging (and trust), working from a personal ethics outwards. In #JoyFE💛 we call these #microjoys💛 – small and intentional acts of affirmative potentia which challenge the macroaggressions and cynical assumptions of everyday life. Follow the #YouToo22 hashtag (and check back here) for inspiration and to add your own.

*I didn’t hear men do this. But then, there weren’t many men.

**This is exactly the thinking behind the collective movement #JoyFE💛