Braving The Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and The Courage To Stand Alone.

Braving The Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and The Courage To Stand Alone.

Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW

When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear. And it’s especially true when I notice that findings from my research are going to challenge long-held beliefs or ideas. When this happens, it doesn’t take long before I start thinking, Who am I to say this? Or, I’m really going to piss people off if I call their ideas into question.

I search for inspiration from the brave innovators and disrupters whose courage feels contagious.

In my earlier years, I tried the opposite approach—filling my mind with critics and naysayers.

J. K. Rowling, Bell Hooks, Ed Catmull, Shonda Rhimes, and Ken Burns as does Oprah.

But my oldest and most steadfast counselor is Maya Angelou.

But there was one quote from Maya Angelou that I deeply disagreed with.

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” M.A.

For over twenty years, whenever that quote popped up in my life, I felt a rush of anger from two places. First, Dr. Angelou had come to mean so much to me that I just couldn’t stand the thought that we disagreed on something so fundamental. Second, the need to fit in and the ache of not belonging was one of the most painful threads in my own life. I couldn’t accept the idea of “belonging nowhere” as freedom.

I never felt in. My name, challenges peoples expectations and living with segregation had me feeling on the outs with the white and black divide.

I moved multiple times through elementary school.

The normal turbulence and awkwardness of middle school was magnified by perpetual “new-girl-ness.” My only saving grace was that during all of these transitions, my parents were in a good place and getting along. This meant that despite the turbulence around me with ever-changing schools, friends, and adults, home was safe. It even felt like a refuge from the pain of not belonging. When all else failed, I belonged at home, with my family. But things started to break. That last move back to Houston was the beginning of the long, miserable end to my parents’ marriage.

Most of all I wanted to be a part of something that literally did everything together in lockstep. A Bearkadette was belonging personified.

On tryout day all of the girls—and I mean all of the girls—were made up from head to toe. Some were wearing blue satin shorts and gold shirts, and others had blue and gold tank tops with little white skirts. Everyone looked so bright and shiny. I looked like the sad girl whose parents fight a lot. I would later hear through the grapevine that I was a solid dancer but not really Bearkadette material. No bows. No shine. No group. No friends. Nowhere to belong. I was alone. And it felt devastating.

I walked back to our station wagon and got in the backseat, and my dad drove away. My parents didn’t say one word. Not a single word. The silence cut into me like a knife to the heart. They were ashamed of me and for me. My dad had been captain of the football team. My mom had been head of her drill team. I was nothing. My parents, especially my father, valued being cool and fitting in above all else. I was not cool. I didn’t fit in.

“That became the day I no longer belonged in my family—the most primal and important of all of our social groups.” Brene Brown

Had my parents consoled me or told me I was brave for trying—or, better yet and what I really wanted in that moment, had they taken my side and told me how terrible it was and how I deserved to be picked—this story wouldn’t be one that defined my life and shaped its trajectory. But it did.

Sharing this story was so much more difficult than I thought it would be. I had to go to iTunes to remember the name of the tryout song, and when I played the preview, I just started sobbing.

I didn’t break down because I hadn’t made the drill team, I wept for the girl that I couldn’t comfort back then. The girl who didn’t understand what was happening or why.

I wept for the parents who were so ill equipped to deal with my pain and vulnerability. Parents who just didn’t have the skills to speak up and comfort me or, at the very least, run an interception on the story of not belonging with them or to them.

These are the moments that, when left unspoken and unresolved, send us into our adult lives searching desperately for belonging and settling for fitting in.

Even in the context of suffering—poverty, violence, human rights violations—not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts.

(Insert the ACE Scores As Divorce)

That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth. It broke all three for me. when those things break, there are only three outcomes, something I’ve borne witness to in my life and in my work:

1. You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing it and/ or inflicting it on others;

2. You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or

3. You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.

I certainly tried the first two. Only through sheer grace did I make my way to the third.

Telling myself that my parents were the only ones in the world who were struggling to keep a marriage together, I felt tremendous shame. I was certain that I was the only one in town, even in the world, living through this specific kind of shit show, despite the fact that my high school was in the national news for the alarming number of students there who had committed suicide.

Sometimes the most dangerous thing for kids is the silence that allows them to construct their own stories—stories that almost always cast them as alone and unworthy of love and belonging. That was my narrative, so rather than doing high kicks during halftime, I was the girl hiding weed in her beanbag chair and running with the wild kids, looking for my people any way I could.

During my parents’ ongoing and worsening fights, my brother and two sisters would usually come into my room to wait it out. As the oldest, I started using my newly formed fitting-in superpowers to identify what had led to the fighting, so I could concoct elaborate interventions to “make things better.” I could be the savior for my siblings, for my family. When it worked, I considered myself a hero. When it didn’t, I’d blame myself and double down on the data finding. It’s only just dawning on me as I write this—this is actually when I started choosing research and data over vulnerability.

As I look back, I realize I probably owe my career to not belonging. First as a child, then as a teenager, I found my primary coping mechanism for not belonging in studying people. I was a seeker of pattern and connection. I knew if I could recognize patterns in people’s behaviors and connect those patterns to what people were feeling and doing, I could find my way. I used my pattern recognition skills to anticipate what people wanted, what they thought, or what they were doing. I learned how to say the right thing or show up in the right way. I became an expert fitter-in, a chameleon. And a very lonely stranger to myself. As time passed, I grew to know many of the people around me better than they knew themselves, but in that process, I lost me.

What started as a friendship turned into a huge crush, then a total love affair. Never underestimate the power of being seen—it’s exhausting to keep working against yourself when someone truly sees you and loves you. Some days his love felt like a gift. Other days I hated his guts for it. But as I started to catch glimpses of my true self, I was filled with grief and longing. Grief for the girl who never belonged anywhere and a longing to figure out who I was, what I liked, what I believed in, and where I wanted to go. Steve wasn’t threatened at all by my soul-searching. He loved it. He supported it. In 1987, I met Steve. He came from very similar family trauma, so he recognized the hurt, and for the first time in both of our lives, we talked about our experiences. We cracked open. We would sometimes talk for ten hours over the phone. We talked about every fight we witnessed, the loneliness we battled, and the unbearable pain of not belonging. He saw me. And even though he caught the tail end of my self-destructive days, he saw the real me and he liked me. Seven years after we met, Steve and I got married. He went from medical school to residency, and I went from undergrad to grad school.

After AA, OA and codependency finally, a new sponsor told me I had the pu-pu platter of addictions: Basically, I used whatever I could find to not feel vulnerable. She told me to find a meeting that spoke to me—it didn’t matter which one as long as I stopped drinking, smoking, caretaking, and overeating. Sure. Gotcha.

Those early years of marriage were tough. We were broke and mentally strung out from residency and grad school. I’ll never forget telling a school therapist that I just didn’t think it was going to work out. Her response? “It may not. He likes you way more than you like you.”

Through my thirties, I traded one type of self-destruction for another: I gave up partying for perfectionism.

(Insert link to the gifts of Imperfections)

Rather than suffering in silence and shame, I started to talk about my fears and my hurt.

When I was told I couldn’t do a qualitative dissertation, I did it anyway.

When they tried to convince me not to study shame, I did it anyway.

(Insert I thought link to I thought it was just me)

When they told me I couldn’t be a professor and write books that people might actually want to read, I did it anyway.

(Insert link to book round up of affiliate links to amazon)

It wasn’t that I swung from one extreme—finding value only in fitting in—to another—finding value only in being different, defiant, or contrarian. Those are two sides of the same coin. I was actually still craving belonging, and my decisions to be on the outside of my profession kept me in almost constant anxiety and scarcity.

It wasn’t ideal, but I had come far enough to know that the price of assimilating and doing what was expected of me would have cost me too much—possibly my health, my marriage, or my sobriety. As much as I wanted a crew, I’d stay on the outside before I sacrificed any of those.

Then, in 2013, a series of little miracles happened that led to one of the most important moments of my life. Oprah Winfrey invited me to be a guest on one of my favorite shows, Super Soul Sunday.

The next morning, as I was getting dressed to meet Oprah for the first time, my daughter texted me. She wanted to make sure I had signed and returned a permission slip for her school trip. After assuring her that I had, I sat on the edge of my bed and fought back tears.

I started thinking, I need a permission slip to stop being so serious and afraid. I need permission to have fun today. That got the idea started. After I looked around my room to make sure no one was watching the incredibly ridiculous thing I was about to do, I walked over to the desk in my room, sat down, and wrote myself a permission slip on a Post-it note from my computer bag.

It simply said, “Permission to be excited and goofy and to have fun.”

It would be the first of hundreds of permission slips I would go on to write for myself. I still write them today and I teach everyone who will give me five minutes of their time the power of this intention-setting method. It totally works. But as with the permission slips you give your kids, they may have permission to go to the zoo, but they still need to get on the bus.

Set the intention.

Follow through.

That day, I got on the bus.

I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, those permission slips to myself were actually an attempt to belong to myself and to no one else.

Rarely do you have the gift of knowing you’re inside a moment that will be part of what defines you. But I knew.

Six months after that unbelievable day, I found myself sitting in another green room in Chicago. This time I was speaking at one of the largest leadership events in the world. The event organizers had strongly recommended that I wear “business attire” to the event, and I was staring down at my black slacks and pumps and feeling like an imposter. Or like I was going to a funeral.

I was sitting with another speaker (a woman who would eventually become a good friend), and she asked how I was doing. I confessed that I was coming out of my skin and that I couldn’t shake the feeling of playing dress-up. She told me I looked “really nice,” but the expression on her face said, I know. It’s hard. But what can we do?

I abruptly stood up, grabbed my suitcase from a wall lined with suitcases belonging to the other speakers, and went to the restroom. Minutes later, I came out in a navy shirt, dark jeans, and clogs.

The woman looked at me, smiled, and said, “Awesome. You’re brave.”

I wasn’t sure if she meant it or not, but I laughed. “Not really. It’s a necessity. I can’t go on that stage and talk about authenticity and courage when I don’t feel authentic or brave.

I physically can’t do it. I’m not here so my business self can talk to their business selves. I’m here to talk from my heart to their hearts. This is who I am.” Another important step in learning to belong to myself.

“I’ve lived my entire life on the outside,” I said to Steve. “It’s so hard. Sometimes our house is the only place I don’t feel totally alone. I don’t feel I’m on a path that I understand—I can’t find anyone else on it. There’s no one ahead of me saying, ‘It’s okay. There are a lot of professor-researcher-storyteller-leadership-entrepreneur-faithful-cussers out here. Here’s the blueprint.’ ”

Steve took my hand and said, “I know it’s hard. And you must feel alone. You’re kind of weird—an outlier in a lot of ways. But here’s the thing: There were more than twenty speakers at that big leadership conference, and you were the highest-rated speaker. In your jeans and clogs. Given that, how do you figure that anyone belongs there more than you? You will always belong anywhere you show up as yourself and talk about yourself and your work in a real way.”

This was the moment when the core, defining story of how I saw myself—a young, lonely, not-shiny girl standing hopelessly in front of a gym door scouring a poster for confirmation that she belonged somewhere—shifted. I had achieved success with my work. I had a great partner and great kids. But until that moment, I wasn’t free of that story of not belonging in my world or my family of origin.

I discovered that I had a lot more to learn about what it means to truly belong.

True belonging. I don’t know exactly what it is about the combination of those two words, but I do know that when I say it aloud, it just feels right. Because, true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

So as I dug deeper into true belonging, it became clear that it’s not something we achieve or accomplish with others; it’s something we carry in our heart. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours.

Belonging to ourselves means being called to stand alone—to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism.

When it comes to belonging, I asked: What are people trying to achieve? What are they worried about? The answer was surprisingly complex. They want to be a part of something—to experience real connection with others—but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power.

Reluctant to choose between being loyal to a group and being loyal to themselves, but lacking that deeper spiritual connection to shared humanity, they were far more aware of the pressure to “fit in” and conform.

Connection to a larger humanity gives people more freedom to express their individuality without fear of jeopardizing belonging. This is the spirit, which now seems missing, of saying, “Yes, we are different in many ways, but under it all we’re deeply connected.”

(Insert link to Richard Barretts Levels Book)

(Insert Miguel Ruiz Mastery of self)

Continuing on the path of grounded theory, I focused the research on these questions:

1. What is the process, practice, or approach that the women and men who have developed a sense of true belonging have in common?

2. What does it take to get to the place in our life where we belong nowhere and everywhere—where belonging is in our heart and not a reward for “perfecting, pleasing, proving, and pretending” or something that others can hold hostage or take away?

3. If we’re willing to brave the wilderness—to stand alone in our integrity—do we still need that sense of belonging that comes from community?

4. Does the current culture of increasing divisiveness affect our quest for true belonging? If so, how?

What emerged from the responses to these questions were four elements of true belonging. As you take a look at each of the four elements, you can see that each is a daily practice and feels like a paradox. They’re going to challenge us:

1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.

2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.

3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.

4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

As a clearer picture of true belonging emerged from the data, and I realized why we must sometimes stand alone in our decisions and beliefs despite our fear of criticism and rejection, the first image that came to me was the wilderness. Theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation. What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.

(Insert Walden Summary)


The special courage it takes to experience true belonging is not just about braving the wilderness, it’s about becoming the wilderness. It’s about breaking down the walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers, and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.

We can’t expect to take a well-worn path through these badlands. While I can share what I’ve learned from research participants who practice true belonging in their lives, we all have to find our own way deep into the wild. And if you’re like me, you’re not going to like some of the terrain.

(Insert CJung Shadow Self)

(Insert Peterson myths and maps of meaning)

We’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up, join, and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.

True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.

(Insert review of white fragility)

You don’t wander into the wilderness unprepared. Standing alone in a hypercritical environment or standing together in the midst of difference requires one tool above all others: trust.

The definition of trust that best aligns with my data comes from Charles Feltman. Feltman describes trust as

“choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions,”

and he describes distrust as deciding that

“what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).”

Because getting our head and heart around a concept as big as trust is difficult, and because general conversations on the theme of “I don’t trust you” are rarely productive, I dug into the concept to better understand what we’re really talking about when we say trust.

I love using BRAVING as a wilderness checklist because it reminds me that trusting myself or other people is a vulnerable and courageous.

Boundaries—You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.

Reliability—You do what you say you’ll do. This means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.

Accountability—You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.

Vault—You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.

Integrity—You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.

Non-judgment—I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.

Generosity—You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

BRAVING as a tool for self-trust.

B—Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay?

R—Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do?

A—Did I hold myself accountable?

V—Did I respect the vault and share appropriately?

I—Did I act from my integrity?

N—Did I ask for what I needed? Was I nonjudgmental about needing help?

G—Was I generous toward myself?

We all must find our own way.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

(Insert The Hero Journey’s Link to summary)

The quest for true belonging begins with this definition that I crafted from the data. It will serve as a touchstone as we move through the work together:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

The Latin paradoxum means “seemingly absurd but really true.” True belonging is not something that you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart. It’s finding the sacredness in being a part of something and in braving the wilderness alone. When we reach this place, even momentarily, we belong everywhere and nowhere. That seems absurd, but it’s true.

(Insert the MY STROKE of INsight, the right brain of no separation)

High Lonesome: A Spiritual Crisis

Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope. Only art can take the holler of a returning soldier and turn it into a shared expression and a deep, collective experience. Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.

When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing. Without connection or collective engagement, what we hear is simply a caged song of sorrow and despair; we find no liberation in it. It’s the sharing of art that whispers, “You’re not alone.”

For the moment, most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process slowly and paradoxically adopting the behavior of the people we’re fighting. Either way, the choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid, and lonely. Very few people are working on connection outside the lines drawn by “their side.” Finding love and true belonging in our shared humanity is going to take tremendous resolution.