My baseline is not calm. Yours likely isn’t either. We, the hypervigilant, are always on guard, waiting and preparing for something to happen that will justify our elevated threat-assessment skills. We don’t expect a bear attack, but instead something more internal: a threat to our belonging, or as Lisa Diamond puts it, our social safety.

What happens if our sense of belonging is yanked away — or if it was never there to begin with? How do we cope with social rejection?

I don’t think any of us would be shocked to learn that belonging is good. But Diamond, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah with a doctorate degree in human development, takes it further than simply good.

“If you don’t have anyone in your life that makes you feel like you matter, that’s an emergency,” she said.

This need to belong may explain a lot of tensions dominating the news today, from political tribalism to school violence and the declining mental health of America’s youth. Belonging is not just good. It’s not just a happiness boost. It is vital to survival.

Diamond spoke to the Deseret News/KSL Editorial Board recently about the human need for belonging. “Because humans evolved in such a dangerous, adverse environment, our baseline status, actually, is watchful, weary and somewhat afraid, until we get into the social group that protects us,” she said. “And then we’re like, OK, here I’m OK.”

Calm is not our default, but belonging is what we crave.

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In 1995, two researchers, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, wrote a paper titled “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation.” It has been cited more than 30,000 times. Why so much attention? In an interview with the authors in 2021, published in Educational Psychology Review, both expressed their surprise at how many people had found their research impactful. “I do not regard this paper as a brilliant new idea” Baumeister said. “At best, we took an idea that had been in the background and moved it into the foreground.”

In their original paper Baumeister and Leary argue that belonging is not just a want, but a fundamental need. When there is a lack of belonging, they find that people “suffer higher levels of mental and physical illness and are relatively highly prone to a broad range of behavioral problems, ranging from traffic accidents to criminality to suicide.”

Their findings resonate with Diamond’s assertion: lack of belonging is an emergency that cannot afford to be left in the background.

What does social rejection feel like?

During his later research on belonging, Baumeister studied the connection between social rejection and emotional distress, the interview states. He was surprised to find that emotional distress was not the immediate product of rejection.

Enter, emotional numbness.

As Baumeister explained in the interview, when an animal is injured, its body will likely react with immediate numbness to give the animal time to escape the danger before pain sets in and slows it. When an animal is rejected or excluded, research has found that the animal reacts in the same way — with numbness first. Intrigued, Baumeister and a colleague ran a study on humans and found that when we are rejected, we also show a “loss of sensitivity to pain” as reported in the interview.

According to the Berkley Well-Being Institute, feeling emotional numbness often leads to an inability to understand or express our feelings, leading to further disconnect and isolation. In a numb state, we can sometimes feel particularly intense emotions, such as rage or anger, without being able to access other emotions.

Being aware of our responses to lack of belonging can help us feel self-compassion and understanding after experiencing social rejection. “Exclusion and rejection are an ongoing, inevitable part of social life,” Leary said in the interview, and the more we understand about it, the better we can cope in those situations.

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How do we reestablish belonging?

I asked Diamond what someone could do if they found themselves in a situation where they were feeling social unsafety, or lack of belonging. Her response was that we each need to ask ourselves this question:

“Who are the people that give you that feeling that you matter?”

Once we’ve identified that person, a sister, a spouse, a neighbor, we need to “prioritize that relationship” and let them know they’re someone who helps us feel belonging. Then on bad days when we feel that lack of belonging, we can turn to them to find it. Diamond calls this kind of one-on-one interaction a “connection intervention.”

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If you don’t have a person who makes you feel like you matter, Diamond suggests turning to resources like therapy for help. A lack of belonging should not be treated as trivial. “Humans have always needed the protection of other people; not just laughter and smiles, but ‘I’m going to grab your arm if you fall. I’m going to pull you back up.’”

Diamond also points to mindfulness as a way to help our brains unclench from hypervigilance. For those of us who are poor relaxers, she recommends finding or creating a space that is safe, calm and removed from distractions to practice mindfulness.

Belonging is not something we can afford to ignore. As the interview with Baumeister and Leary emphasizes, “Research on belonging now has an important role to play in addressing some of society’s most complex challenges, such as loneliness, caring for an aging population, various forms of social and political ‘tribalism,’ and school violence, all of which are rooted partly in a desire to belong.”

It starts on an individual level. It starts in homes and small communities. If we can each help someone else feel that they belong, our own sense of belonging will be strengthened, too. “This is really about the way humans have always lived,” says Diamond, “in small groups looking in each other’s eyes and taking care of each other.”

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