Psychology in Writing: Sense of Belonging

English: Hearts and flowers On the stone parap...

English: Hearts and flowers On the stone parapet of the bridge at Gunthwaite can be found carvings of unrequited love. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do we need?  William Glasser proposed that when people are suffering it is due to a failure of need attainment.  In this process, he identified five basic needs that all people strive for:  The need to belong, the need for power, the need for freedom, the need for fun, and the need for survival (i.e., food, shelter).  These needs are not met and then a person continues on, it is an ongoing drive to continually meet these needs.

The need for belonging is often a good place to start when looking at what may be driving a person.  The need for belonging encompasses a person’s desire to love and be loved in return by an individual or group, to feel a sense of fitting in somewhere.  Frequently issues in social relationships de-rail an otherwise well-functioning individual, and for those with nothing but dysfunctional relationships, it can prevent a person from getting needs in other areas met because they spend so much time working on improving these ailing relationships.  Attempts to meet this need can be seen in staying in unhealthy or non-reciprocal relationships, or investing a considerable amount of energy into a cause.  The overcompensation to feel belonging can have negative consequences for meeting other needs by taking energy away from them; so much of a person’s energy is dedicated to belonging or making a relationship work that there is none left over for the other needs.  It is through successful resolution of the need of belonging, through healthy reciprocal relationships, that individuals find satisfaction and can begin finding satisfaction in other domains.

The need of belonging is one that frequently appears in writing, and can be a powerful drive for characters.  The challenge as a writer is to think about how our characters seek out the need to belong.  Often times we can become mired in the traditional thoughts of belonging of wanting to be with other people or through relationships, without thinking about the larger sense of belong as part of movement or organization.  Stories about the military, knighthood, patriotism, etc., would fall into this category.  Characters may sign up with a movement or an organization to meet a sense of need or belonging that isn’t being met elsewhere (think unrequited love, dead parents, or rejecting parents).

As writers, we should look for new and exciting ways to make our characters ache for belonging and different ways that they can meet that need.  A challenge we can throw to our characters is the false sense of belonging, such as joining a relationship or movement that they think they want to be part of until they don’t, and then challenging them to find a way out and into a more fitting sense of belonging.  There is also the possibility of recognizing having had belonging and lost it, such as through breaking up with someone the character truly wants to be with, or having been forced out of an organization.  The resolution could be either happy or tragic; the character could gain the sense of belonging, recognize the loss and return, find a new sense of belonging, or realize that they cannot obtain the belonging they want any more (e.g. a relationship that has moved on, or a person who has died).

Writing Prompt:  Being uncomfortable spurs a person to change or to action, think about something that would make you uncomfortable, what would make you lose your sense of belonging, and how far would you go to reclaim it?  Channel this into a character in a short story, give a genesis for the lost sense of belonging, the challenge the character must face to overcome it, and how the character ultimately finds his/her sense of belonging.


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