Are You Kicking Belonging to the Curb? How Unconscious Bias Can Sabotage Belonging
What does belonging mean? Consider that for a moment.
Now let’s get an “expert opinion”. The Cambridge dictionary describes the word belonging as “a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a relationship with other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you.”
It’s important to keep that definition in the back of our minds while we look further into this topic.
As humans, we always look for ways to educate ourselves on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). With this blog, we’re going to explore a few topics that we normally wouldn’t think are related to belonging. We are going to dive into the depths of our conscious and unconscious realms.
Did you know that our sense of belonging is deeply embedded in our unconsciousness? In fact, it can influence us in the form of biases. Let’s look at how that’s possible.
First, we have to start by taking a quick spin through the conscious and unconscious brain. This will help us understand biases and how they can affect belonging.
What is the unconscious?
It’s everything that goes on in our minds that we have no awareness of. Picture it as the mission control part of our brain where functions occur involuntarily, and we don’t even have to think about it. You know, like breathing. Our unconscious is working without our effort when we’re awake, asleep, working, brushing our teeth, talking, walking, jumping, and sneaking a cookie out of the cupboard.
When we consider all our going-Ons, it’s easy to imagine that our unconscious mind has a lot to handle…but did you know that around 95% of our brain function happens in the unconscious? 95%! We know this from many sources, but Dr. Sigmund Freud popularized it as the founder of psychoanalysis and as a neurologist. His curiosity about unconsciousness led him to believe that our unconscious desires and motivations could find lodging inside our unconscious and that they can influence our behaviors. Can that be possible? Let’s have a look.
Think of it this way. Our brain is like a computer and our unconscious works as a backup to our conscious because our conscious can’t or won’t process everything happening inside and outside of us – our conscious mind’s capabilities are limited. That’s when the unconscious comes to the rescue and stores away information. With this system where the conscious mind doesn’t have to work as hard, just imagine how much information is stored away.
Well, research shows that our brains receive 11 million pieces of information a second and our conscious minds can only handle 40 of those details in that one second; so, the rest of it falls to the unconscious. Isn’t it a little easier to see that some of that content floating around in our unconscious brains could possibly come out and affect us in our conscious worlds?
Before going further about the relationship between unconscious biases and belonging, it’s important to stress the function of the conscious mind, here. In a nutshell, our consciousness is where we actively make a calculated choice to act in a certain way. We understand what we are doing. We know what’s behind the motivation when we make those decisions.
On the other hand, unconscious biases influence behaviors and actions or even inactions that cause us to perform unconsciously. When we follow through with our unconscious biases, we have no idea we are acting in a way that favors some people and excludes others. And since these behaviors are unrecognizable to us when demonstrated, it can be challenging to combat them.
That’s why it’s good to put content like this out there – to poke at our unconsciousness. To rouse our awareness so we can start recognizing areas we need to work on, to combat them.
The main point of this poke is that unconscious bias just might be influencing our own sense of belonging and sabotaging others as well. Kicking belonging to the curb.
Don’t despair. Research comes to the rescue and tells us that there are several things we can do to put our unconsciousness on a diet, you know, like banning carbs but in this case biases. Here are a few ways we can change our behaviors, allowing us all a longer reach for belonging.
First, we have to be willing to have an internal conversation with ourselves. Allow our ‘unconscious bias awareness’ to come forward.
Notice how your thoughts and language come into play when you don’t feel like you fit in, or when you believe others do not. Ask yourself “Why don’t I feel like I am accepted in this group? Or why don’t I want that person to be included?”
- Shared dialog
Shared dialog is the number one effective tool for fostering belonging. Don’t discount traditional training though, it still holds value. We all need that education. Why would something as simple as a conversation be number one? Because it triggers the emotional side of the brain where behavior change occurs.
By implementing thoughtful conversations into shared dialog, we learn a lot about others that help disrupt belonging busters. And this goes both ways here. We need to be willing to share our stories with others as much as they need to with us.
- True Belonging
Many of us are probably thinking, that if we had conversations where we shared our true selves, belonging certainly would be kicked to the curb. But think again.
Science shows that the yearning to belong is deeply primal. We try our best to get it by fitting in or getting approval. In other words, faking it. These can be empty replacements and often barriers to belonging. Here’s why. True belonging only happens when we show up to the world as our authentic, imperfect selves.
But that’s a scary thing to do, right?
At first, yes. But if we start with the realization that our sense of belonging has to come from within, it’ll impress upon us that our sense of belonging in any group can never exceed our own self-acceptance. And listen, it’s work we must do on our own, we can’t get there with the help of others. True belonging can only begin once we do the work to accept ourselves and believe in ourselves. We can’t truly belong in any group until we fulfill that sense of belonging inside ourselves. It starts out as a solitary process that blossoms into an amazing win for everyone.
Research shows that meditation can help us suss out the things about ourselves and or what we think about others that may prevent us from seizing true belonging.
Many around the world profess the brain-altering power of meditation and its effects are backed up by current scientific research. Meditation takes discipline and it’s one way to delve into this issue. But it’s worth the effort since our sense of belonging inhabits our unconscious minds, so doing the work to get true belonging within ourselves, extends to making others feel they belong.
Since science shows us that it’s possible to reshape our unconscious minds, change the direction of thought processes, and even uproot the most ingrained habits, we have the help we need to protect ourselves and others. It’s all about retraining our brains! By recognizing that our behavior may stem from a biased default, we can plunge into the process of challenging ourselves to grow in ways that may be uncomfortable.
So, to what extent do we need to feel discomfort to retrain our brains? That depends on us and what we’re trying to achieve. It’s about breaking down walls which is uncomfortable in itself. But it also means having intentions about what we find within our unconsciousness about ourselves and others who seem different from us.
- Wall #1
The first wall of belonging busters to be broken down is to recognize the reasons for not belonging, either within ourselves or allowing others to belong with us as a group.
- Wall #2
The second belonging busters wall that needs to be demo-ed is to intentionally go about changing those reasons.
Now that our unconsciousness has more of an open floor plan, there’s still a bit more work to do, but so worth the effort!
It’s necessary to become vulnerable, to become friendly with the discomfort of being with people, and of being fearless of their judgments. To do this without sacrificing our true selves takes tremendous resolution. It’s courageous to intentionally walk into hard situations. It takes courage because we risk rejection or ridicule.
Not convinced to do the work? Take a moment to look at why the risk and rejection are worth the price.
Being marginalized, or pushed out to the fringes rather than safely embraced in the center of things are signs that our brains are attuned to. Distinctly attuned to.
Let’s call those ‘being marginalized’ and ‘pushed out’ experiences exclusion. Researchers found that exclusion actually lights up the same regions in the brain as does physical pain. Let that sink in for a minute.
Think of how the pain of a slap in the face or a punch in the gut feels. Exclusion registers in your brain as physical pain as intense as a slap or punch. So, maybe, just maybe you or someone you know is walking around with their exclusion regions all lit up. Social pain is real and thankfully there is a balm for it.
Warning! The balm does have a price. The currency is work. If each of us can’t do the work to accept all of ourselves, then our ability to truly embrace others is seriously impaired. This is diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging from the inside out.
So, once we’ve turned ourselves inside out, we’re done, right? Not quite, there’s more.
Here’s a reminder that when we stand alone in excessively critical surroundings or even with others with differences, we need the one tool required to accomplish our goal: Trust.
Learning how to trust yourself and others in this context is crucial for success. But as Maya Angelou tells us, “The price is high. The reward is great.”
What does trusting ourselves and others look like? Here are a few examples of when trust needs to come into play given this topic:
- Learning how to have conversations that are difficult
- When practicing patience to listen
- When we share the pain of life
- When we share the joy in life – Situations don’t always have to have tough circumstances to require trust. i.e., sharing marriage news.
These examples show how we have to give trust to be more curious than defensive. It takes trust while seeking moments of togetherness. Creating in essence a psychologically safe platform for belonging.
Let’s open this up a little wider and get more personal. Notice how the following examples kick belonging to the curb. Have you ever reacted or thought this way?
- Based on your new co-worker’s accent you ask what country they come from, saying “Your English is so good!”
- As a new employee, you walk into a meeting where all the big names of the company are gathered and you feel out of your element – like you don’t belong.
- You consistently ask your differently-abled colleague if they need help with their tasks or rush to open doors wide enough for their wheelchair.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we all have thought or acted like the above in similar ways. And maybe that’s as far as we got. We let it lay there wiggling on the floor of our unconsciousness. Some of us may have asked ourselves, “How could I have thought or acted any differently?” Remember that thing about shared dialog and trust? Recall that if we implement thoughtful shared dialog into our conversations, we could learn a lot about others that could help disrupt belonging busters. And this goes both ways here. We need to be willing to share our stories with others as much as they need to with us. If we tack on trust, things may play out differently for both ourselves and others.
What if we added awareness, shared dialog, and trust to these scenarios? We could kick unconscious bias belonging busters to the curb and begin to create psychologically safe spaces. Check it out:
- For the first scenario, “Your English is so good!”
- In reality, the African American co-worker was born and raised in New York City, her parents reached American shores from Ghana and became American citizens. They and she do belong.
- The powerhouse meeting story
- Yes, your new company sports some amazing people who have incredible influence in the industry. But you were hired as a key piece of the puzzle to drive the success of the latest venture. You know this and so does the rest of the team. You do belong.
- The incapable story
- What you don’t know about your differently abled colleague is that she is a triathlete and has medal collections that span years, displayed on shelves she built. You assumed and she let you. She does belong.
See? Isn’t it cool to think that a simple thing like poking our awareness, being open to conversations, and a little bit of trust can broaden our own sense of belonging and those around us?
In truth, some situations will need a lot of dedication from those of us who are willing to upend unconscious bias within and around us. But regardless of the degree, we are now conscious (pun intended) of how unconscious bias can gate our ability to live fully, to belong anywhere with anyone. Think about that old declaration ‘physician, heal thyself’ it applies here, too. Now that our self-awareness has been poked, it’s time to begin the restoration of belonging from within and without. Here are our tools –awareness, meditation, shared dialog, and trust – cornerstones in the bridge of belonging.
– By Patsy VanDyke.