What is belonging? What does it mean to ‘normal’, secure people, and what does it mean to survivors? In my experience, two very different things. Is belonging a positive or a negative?
For survivors, a craving for belonging surfaces in rushed intimacy, married-in-a-year puppy love. That schoolgirl yearning to feel safe with someone can lead us into more and more vicious cycles of abuse. We often pick a tireless stream of carbon copy boyfriends who we are far too old to call ‘boyfriend’ – and far too attuned to our weaknesses to shake off in the early years of a relationship. Belonging is a trap.
At work (if we can even hold down a job as the ‘other’ in the office) it can lead survivors to say and do things we think we should do – drink too much, spend too much on clothes to ‘look right.’ We waste our time trying to fit in. In the early days of survivorship, belonging is impossible in the workplace. We feel powerless against the rules ‘they’ set. We are seen as a ‘loose cannon’ and a system threat. This is because, after abuse, many find that we can no longer interpret social rules. We could do it before and hold down decent jobs. But now, blinking into the light, we have lived too long in a dark wonderland with twisted and wildly changing rules. We don’t belong. We can’t belong
So where can we go – apart from the counsellor’s couch – to feel like we belong? I’ve been part of an altogether different sort of work environment over the last 3 years. A project called the Power Project with SMK. At the end of it, and through the looking glass, I am looking back on belonging. How did they get it right?
Making mistakes and owning up to them
Along the yellow brick road, a group of people with such diverse backgrounds (activists, upper management, OBEs, CEOs, volunteers) are going to disagree. Whether it’s careless, and to some offensive, use of language or images, or concern that there is ‘too much to read’, facilitating a group like this requires us to take criticism on the chin and do something about it.
Belonging to a group where accountability is high is no cake walk. But with that accountability comes a sense of belonging (which is, arguably, why AA recovery ‘works’.) The fact that facilitators owned up to mistakes and acted on feedback meant that ‘power sharing’ happened in real time. This was not a group where the leader was ‘always right.’ Adopting this approach in the workplace would help us to feel we belong. But is this too scary for behemoths like the NHS?
Be honest with yourself for a moment. How well do you listen in meetings? How often do you listen to a completely opposing view, without butting in or getting angry? Do you feel pressured to contribute to a meeting so that people will be impressed by your ‘performance’? I think we all started off this way 3 years’ ago. Being part of this project has taught me that listening – and not reacting – is important.
Survivors process information differently, in a way that can really impact us in the workplace. Hardwired to react from years of baiting and now trigger happy and free, we can find we are only listening to you to see if we can hear a threat. In this minefield of the mind, we get lost before we begin speaking in a group. This ‘fight or flight alert’ can take years to unlearn. Being involved in this project was a start, for me.
Beyond the rainbow
Belonging and power sharing go together like bacon and eggs (although I am a vegetarian!).
The question for any survivor is – do you want to be out in the cold forever? Because the fire of activism can be more of a spurt, which ends with burnout.
The question for those in positions of power, is will you share the power you have? Because if you do not, then survivors, like me, will remain ‘outsiders’, and therefore threats to the system.
SMK is pioneering a different way. We’ve set our feet side by side on the yellow brick road – in the full knowledge we’ll make mistakes and hit dead ends – so that we can move beyond the rainbow, together.
To download the It’s All About Power guide follow this link here.