On Belonging and Individuality

By Angela Marie Henriette
By Angela Marie Henriette

Do you remember how it was when you were a teenager and you were unsure of who you were? Social situations were a clumsy affair whether at home or further afield. You wanted to be understood, but communication was not always your forte. You preferred to hide away in your room with your nose buried in a book, or the company of confidantes. Clashes of personalities, even in your loving home, fuelled flickers of annoyance or full blown rage. High-pitched giggles when you rounded a corner at school made you wonder if it was you they were laughing at. Then there was the way that clothes fitted your changing body. Are these trousers too tight? This top hangs in all the wrong places… You listened to Alanis Morissette or Nirvana, while your poor parents stuffed their ears with cotton wool downstairs, wondering when someone would finally get you. Oh growing pains. Then something magical happened. You started to feel more comfortable in your own skin. You gravitated towards those who had similar interests and you had more power to decide who you wanted to see and what to do with your time.

I left those feelings behind a long time ago but they resurfaced unexpectedly a few weeks ago. I found myself feeling like a teenager, prone to sulking and close to outbursts. It was sobering to walk in those shoes again. I’d like to think I know who I am, what my boundaries are and how to communicate effectively. So what did trigger my behaviour? I think the answer is that certain situations cause us to fall into familiar patterns we left behind a long time ago. For me, it was a holiday with my extended family. I have a wonderful family. They are loving, kind, generous and a little bit crazy. When we all come together it seems as though everyone is an extrovert. Nobody waits their turn to speak and the voices get ever louder. There is always huge saucepans on the stove filled with spicy curries my gran has made. The television is on in the background. Everyone sits in the same places around the dining table. The children run around and are fed sweeties secretly. My aunt and uncles tell Indian jokes that take ages to get to the punchline. There is spoon-playing and spontaneous singing. It is wonderful and almost always exhausting.

By Jon McGovern
By Jon McGovern

I am blessed to have a supportive family, but sometimes I don’t want the trappings of food and gifts or the roundabout of visits to one another. I want to say to them: stop. I don’t want the roles of mother, daughter, father, son, aunt, uncle, grandmother to dictate how we behave. Those are just layers we add to our core. My dad is more than a provider. My mum is more than a nurturer. My grandmother is more than a feeder. I am more than a daughter, wife and mother; I am the sum of all my parts. I don’t want to dig through layers of routine and social construct every time I meet friends and family. Next time you meet me, show me who you really are, not the role that has been prescribed to you by others, the one you accepted out of a desire to please and to serve. Let’s laugh together and just be, and reveal the whole. If we don’t, one day, we’ll realise that the mould we have filled will be too strong to break, and our true desires and thoughts will have faded in the background.

Slipping back into the murky waters of teenage insecurity was a reminder to me about how wonderful it feels to really connect. The world moves quickly and time is fleeting. That is all the more reason for us invest in those we love. Do you ask questions and really listen to the responses or are you like me, guilty of already mentally moving on to what you are going to say next? Do you look to perceive the truth at the core of your friends and family or is the image you have of them an assumption? I treasure the moments of complete connection I have with family and friends: finishing each other’s sentences, shared mirth at a joke, knowing looks across a table, a hand at my back, weighted with familiarity, those discussions early into the morning that you don’t want to end. We are, by our very nature, tribal.

Do you remember the stories after Avatar was released, about how it triggered depression in some of the audience members? They were so taken with the beauty of Pandora and how effortlessly all living organisms were connected, that the real world seemed grey in comparison. Belonging is associated with better self-reported physical and mental health; conversely loneliness and isolation can lead to depression. However wonderful belonging is, it should never be at the expense of individuality.

12 thoughts on “On Belonging and Individuality

  1. I love this post. You explore a complex issue with depth and understanding. I agree that the connections are important, but so is the individuality. It is important to recognise each for who we are, not just for the role: so true. Will have to explore that a little more.

  2. I only picked this up today. Lovely post Nillu. Really brought some stuff home to me (so to speak!) It’s interesting what you say about certain situations triggering behaviours you thought you’d long left behind. Like you I also love spending time with my family but it’s interesting how we all seem to revert to type when we do. With my siblings for example, I once more become the oldest, the responsible, sensible one. When I’m with my parents though I notice I revert to a teen again and I become the child, sulky and sullen. I don’t like myself then as there seems no reason to my behaviour, it’s just habit! (I’ll even still put my headphones on and listen to Nirvana!!)

    I love your ending about the feeling of having the hand of familiarity at your back. So true. A very thought-provoking and uplifting post. Thank you for sharing. Really enjoyed. :)

    1. I just realised the response I thought I wrote to you, was actually just the hazy one I wrote in my mind when I was barely awake this morning :). Thanks for your comment, means a lot. I’m still working out the answers to many of these questions, but I wonder if it happens with family because we do care so much, you end up being buffeted by their winds and it’s easier to lose ourselves. And yes, I still do listen to Nirvana while rocking out in the kitchen. My kids are going to be so embarrassed of me one day :)

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  4. Dear Nillu, thanks for adding your warm thoughts about a perennially relevant human topic. I find intriguing and amusing that this has been subject of inquiry since antiquity, but a definitive solution has never been found. The inner tension between individuality and belonging is as fresh as it has always been. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that much of what we humans feel, think and do has its origins in that dilemma. All the best, Marcus.

    1. Hi Marcus, you’re spot on there. It is an age old topic that has retained relevance. There is no easy solution and I agree entirely with your last sentence. I guess the best we can do is equip ourselves so that we are both robust in our own needs, but unselfish in giving. Not an easy balance. Best wishes to you too and thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nillu

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