I work with leaders and teams to create cultures of belonging.
My parents divorced when I was two. I grew up with my mom who was working a couple jobs and long hours to make ends meet. My dad moved to a different city when I was five. Most of my childhood I spent on my own, in a netherworld of uncertainty––never really knowing where, to what, and to whom I belonged.
My circumstances dictated that I become independent; that I gain resilience; that I persevere. I did all those things. And, what I really wanted was to belong.
The shit hit the fan when I was fourteen and my dad told me he was gay. This new reality only exacerbated my sense of not belonging. I had no friends who were gay (that I knew of), no friends with gay parents (that I knew of), no publicly gay role models (that I could, or wanted to, relate to), and no friends who I could talk to about having a gay dad (an incorrect assumption, it turned out).
A decently popular kid with a respectably intellectual head on my increasingly overburdened shoulders, I was flung deeper into the chasm of un-belonging that I had been wanting so desperately to escape.
When I was twenty years old, after going through the rest of high school and half of college in this midriff of belonging (played sports, had plenty of friends) and not belonging ("I sure as hell hope no one ever finds out I have a gay dad"), I had an epiphanous moment.
You see, I had been looking at things backward the whole time. I had been sabotaging my own belonging without even realizing it (until I did), and therefore unable to create any sort of belonging for other people. Once I shifted my narrative, things opened up for me. I began to see a clear path to belonging.
This path is lined with five principles that I have come to hold dearly. They are my guide on my endless journey to create a sense of belonging for myself and for others. I invite you to adopt these values as well so you can create cultures of belonging wherever you go.
I was camping with my best friend Amy. I wanted to tell her that my dad was gay, but I couldn't. She said I was being weird, which I was. Finally, I said, "Amy, my dad's gay." She said, "Big fucking deal." I was never the same again. In that moment, a whole new set of possibilities opened up for me.
Like a barn full of cattle, I had been harboring this bullshit narrative for over five years, and it had started to stink. I was telling myself a story that wasn't true, attaching myself to false views that prevented me from any sort of deep exploration of my authentic self. But not anymore. I was starting to break free.
What false narrative are you telling yourself? What opportunities are you not able to explore because you don't even give yourself a chance? How are you holding yourself back?
Five years before that camping trip with Amy, and about a year after my dad told me he was gay, my dad called and told me that his partner John died of AIDS. He was bawling and flinging the bloody entrails of his heart directly through the telephone line, and all I could do was mumble a few trite condolences.
Because I was trapped in a prison of impossibility––guarded by the stern soldiers embarrassment, confusion, and shame; and their ready-to-use weapons ridicule, mockery and scorn––I never took the time to be curious about my dad's sexual orientation, who his partner was, the details of their relationship, or the wider LGBTQ community. So, when he died, I was a little sad, but not sad enough to do anything about it––because it wasn't really my world.
Five years later, after my epiphany, I begin to think about about everything else I was missing out on because I hadn't taken the wee bit of time and energy to move in unfamiliar circles. What a bunch of missed opportunities. It was time to start exploring.
What do you do when you're faced with uncertainty, unfamiliarity, or comfort zone-expanding opportunities? Do you reject them out of hand, like I did, or are you brave enough to lead with curiosity and see what unexpected gems you might find?
Had I been just a little bit curious about my dad, his partner, their relationship, and the ten trillion other things that he was trying to teach me, perhaps I would have had more empathy for him, for John, for other people in general. But because I was unable (and unwilling) to understand and share the feelings of other people––precisely because I saw them as the "other"––on anything other than a superficial level, I inadvertently put myself in an emotional silo, intensifying the abyss of my artificiality.
I just didn't care enough to be vulnerable, to come anywhere near matching the emotional states of people in their times of despair. I wasn't curious to explore the possibilities. At times, I was down right cold. It wasn't just my dad I wasn't curious about. It was everyone. I was kind of a dick.
As I got older, and in my ever-evolving journey of self-actualization, I began to care––actually care!––about people. Even the people who weren't like me––especially the people who weren't like me. The transformation was on! And I was liking who I was becoming.
Where do you find yourself not being empathetic because it would just take too much effort? Or because you feel like you have nothing in common with another person or group? What is preventing you from being vulnerable and trying to relate to people, situations, and ideas that are unfamiliar to you? How do you think things would change if you transformed yourself into an empathetic person?
If empathy is a feeling, compassion is the action that arises from it.
Once Amy gave me permission to be open to life's possibilities, I realized that I was actually a very curious person. I had just been suppressing my curiosity with all my might; squeezing all the empathy out of my skinny, youthful soul with a human-sized citrus press until all the good juiciness sat dirty and contaminated in a puddle on the ground starting to evaporate.
But along came compassion and scooped up that puddle of empathy, turning it into something solid that I could hold onto and share with others. Wow! All the new opportunities that were opening up to me––a deeper relationship with my dad, new friends with decidedly different lived experiences than mine, new understandings about myself and the world. I saw every new encounter as a chance to grow.
I became ten feet tall. I ducked through doorways. My feet hung off the end of the bed. I dunked from the free throw line without even jumping. I was in the clouds and I was enjoying the rarified air, giggling playfully as the cumulonimbus bumped gently into my side ribs. I cared about people, and I was putting my feelings into actions. And it felt good.
How have you experienced personal growth––and maybe even euphoria––when you have been openly compassionate toward another human being? What was that like? Did you notice how it made others feel?
Once I was willing to be vulnerable and let other people peek under my hood, they saw an engine that was revving not to get away from other people, but to zoom toward them. I was seeking connection this whole time. I wanted connection when my parents divorced. I wanted connection when my dad moved away. I wanted connection when there was no one to talk to about having a gay dad. I wanted connection when I lived a superficial life as a jock party guy in college.
When Amy opened me up to see life's possibilities, it started a chemical reaction. Possibility led to curiosity, which led to empathy, which led to compassion, which led to connection. Which led to belonging. Which is what I wanted in the first place.
Once I started to feel connected to other people, to other communities, to other ideas, to other journeys, I started to feel a sense of belonging. For so long, I had thought that my lack of belonging was the result of other people's actions, of their exclusionary behavior, of their shortsightedness, of their mean-heartedness, when all along it was me who was depriving myself of belonging. What a jerk I was––to myself.
Until I was willing to do the work on myself, understand who I was and what my purpose was, to attempt to uncover why I give a flying hoot about any of this stuff in the first place, there was no way this whole belonging rigmarole was ever gonna happen.
And, that leads me to the point. Before you can create a sense of belonging for others, you have to create a sense of belonging for yourself. There's just no way other way about it. Don't even try. You'll never get close. Do the work on yourself and for yourself, so you can do the work for and with others. It's so worth it––for yourself and for others.
A culture of belonging––where everyone feels welcomed, included, and safe to share their perspectives––is an awesome culture to be a part of. In the workplace, a strong culture of belonging leads to more innovation, greater productivity and efficiency, higher retention rates, and an overall better team cohesion. In life, well, it's just better that way, when we're all interconnected and seeing each other's and our own possibilities.
This transformation to a culture of belonging starts with you, the leader. So are you going to step up? I know you will.
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