What are the conditions to feel like we belong to ourselves, with each other, and in broader community? Safety comes first. We cannot be in a state of trust and connect when we are activated in fight/ flight/ freeze.

Our brain gathers data through our senses, associates it with past learning, and makes an unconscious perception of threat. The advantage is that we react quickly to avoid danger. It activates fight/flight/freeze survival responses and overrides our higher level brain functioning. This was helpful for tigers lurking in the bushes. In modern life, there are many downsides to this system.

Our brain is evidence based and our primitive brain has a negativity bias. How much of the threat we perceive in this moment is due to conditioning and past history? Our threat perception in the past was seen and experienced through conditioning. We are vulnerable to stereotypes, fear of people “not like us”, and the “better safe than sorry” motto of the primitive brain. This evidence we have been collecting throughout our life is highly influenced by societal conditioning, beliefs, and experiences. We remember the people with whom we felt safe. We remember when we were hurt. When we don’t have direct experience, we revert to conditioning and stereotypes.

How much of our assessment is factual and based on the present moment? This is where our higher level conscious brain comes into play. It is not as fast and may take a few seconds (or longer if we are emotionally flooded) to come online. This is where we can broaden our view and use our higher level brain functioning to be more accurate.

Women associate a man on the street at night as dangerous, and will have an immediate threat response. Part of our evidence is cultural. We live in a rape culture where it is common for men to prey on women. Women also have personal experience of objectification and levels of violence. Catcalling. Comments on our bodies. Manipulation and social coercion. Sexual assault. Objectively we know that not all men are rapists. The primitive brain doesn’t know. Its job is to signal possible danger in a not nuanced way.

This is at play with other groups of people who are “not like us”. When a white person sees an image of a black man in a hoodie, we are highly conditioned to associate this with danger. See 56 Black Men project.

Sometimes these alliances are political or idealogical. Most people who voted for Trump would never have stormed the Capital on January 6th. If you voted for Trump and/or if you know a lot of people who did, you have a bit more evidence to balance out this view. When we don’t have that personal experience, we fall back on conditioning and stereotypes.

“Social location a practice used to reflect on the groups you belong to because of your place or position in history and society. It is a tool used to clearly see your proximity to power based on identities you embody. All of us have a social location that is defined by race, gender, gender expression, social class, age, ability level, sexual orientation, geographic location and context.” Michelle C Johnson, The Art of Skillful Facilitation

Community belonging goes much deeper than our physical safety. We need also to feel free to be and authentically express who we are. Again our primitive brain makes these assessments. If we know that “Uncle Jack” is homophobic or racist, we will likely manage what he knows about us. We may consciously decide to confront him, knowing the cost. We may cut him out or ignore him. We don’t feel true belonging with him.

We lose so much when our primitive brain is making our decisions. We live with heightened fear and anxiety. We judge people unfairly. We are less likely to be open and vulnerable with someone we associate with threat. We trust less and become more isolated.

What is the connection between safety and courage? Am I automatically unsafe when I feel uncomfortable? I decide to have an honest and challenging conversation. I may feel intensely uncomfortable, experience dread and some catastrophic thinking, fear and anxiety. Brave space does not necessarily feel comfortable or easy.

What do I feel like when I belong? What does it feel like in my body, breath and mind? What are the cues of safety in community? What does it feel like to be accepted to be who we are or perhaps even to be appreciated?

Dorothy Riddle is a feminist psychologist who developed a scale in 1974 to measure homophobia. The Riddle Scale shows the nuance of the continuum of response from repulsion and pity, to tolerance and acceptance. Many people would stop at acceptance but she moves on to identify support, admiration, appreciation and nurturance, or a heartfelt welcoming of diversity. We all lose when we are blinded by stereotypes or limiting ideas about who people are.

“The body either has a sense of safety or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it will do almost anything to establish or recover that sense of safety.” Resmaa Menakem, trauma therapist and author of My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

We live in mammal bodies and are subject to the assessments of our primitive brain. We also have higher level brain development and access to human qualities and connection. We are exploring belonging in community this week.


You are welcome to join us Sunday at 10AM Eastern for our free community class.

Join me live on Insight Timer for a 1/2 hour inquiry into Belonging in Community. 4PM Eastern Saturdays.

Belonging in Community
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