The Importance of Belonging

Mammals, if not all life, rely on individual innovation to alter collective behavior. For instance, today Macaque monkeys in Japan wash their food. But researchers chronicled how the practice started when one female decided to clean a sandy piece of fruit in the sea. Like the Macaques, the lone human regularly initiates social change — whether Jane Goodall discovering chimpanzees also use and make tools or Boyan Slat designing an ocean plastic-cleaning machine. Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz concluded, “all innovations … arise from the independent spirit of enterprise of individuals who try out something new at their own risk.”⁠1

Our openness to pursuing unique ideas, behaviors, and inventions ensures the continued adaptation and survival of all, especially when we are collectively faced with a threat or scarcity of resources. Ultimately, however, we need the collective to give meaning to our individual creative acts. Even the mythical journey of the hero/heroine is considered incomplete until insights gained independently are shared with the group.⁠2 According to Jung, “The unrelated human being lacks wholeness, for he can achieve wholeness only through the soul, and the soul cannot exist without its other side, which is always found in a ‘you’.”⁠3 Our need for a sense of belonging is so profound that when alone we naturally imagine engaging with others, our dreams and fantasies anticipating our eventual return to the collective, if not driving our impetus to seek connection.

Before becoming change agents, we spend years assimilating to our families and communities, gaining awareness of social norms and a sense of belonging. Having a strong sense of belonging is often the impetus to courageously venture forth on our own. When we feel we belong, we are also more likely to seek support if threatened.

The significance of this communal sense of belonging is often absent from discussions of recovery from trauma. More often attention is given to attachment, and the capacity to securely bond with a caregiver. Attachment is important to address, especially given the problems many have with intimacy following sexual trauma. However, the lack of a sense of belonging can also debilitate. We need secure attachments and a robust sense of belonging. Both are necessary for recovery from sexual trauma.

When the sense of belonging is threatened by traumas like sexual abuse, the consequences may be similar to when a caregiver fails to respond to an infant’s innate need for protection and nurturing. Studies show that early life neglect by a caregiver increases reliance on dissociation as a defense against threat.⁠4 Yet dissociation also reveals that the infant no longer anticipates support, and consequently neither solicits nor identifies it. Similarly, when the collective fails to provide needed protection (or worse, blames victims), we may also stop anticipating or seeking collective belonging. Nevertheless, we continue to long for feeling part of the tribe.

Early in human history (and in some parts of the world today), alloparenting was the primary form of child care. The entire community contributed to raising the young, regardless of who gave birth to a child. In early foraging societies, alloparenting was likely necessary. Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote, “For foragers who are constantly on the move, caring for even one baby is difficult for the mother, so others had to be involved in child care.”⁠5 Others theorize alloparenting arose as long as two million years ago when our hominin ancestors began to hunt in groups, marking a shift towards a diet rich in animal protein.⁠6 Males and females were more equal in size. The first hunts likely involved both sexes, with the choice of hunters based on speed and acumen rather than gender — especially if spears were the preferred weapon.⁠7 Joseph Campbell wryly observed everyone can pick a banana (or any other kind of fruit or berry), but hunting takes skill.⁠8 Those who lacked the necessary prowess are thought to have stayed behind, gathering other food sources and caring for children. 

In some egalitarian societies, promoting social bonds was also considered a core spiritual achievement. For example, the Mandans and Hidatsas, pueblo peoples of the American Southwest, followed what anthropologists called age-grades, formal steps for securing belonging along with prestige in their communities. For these societies, the emphasis was not so much on attaining skills as increasing life force, what the Mandan and Hidatsa clans called Xo’pini. Increased  Xo’pini was evidence that, like the celestial spirits, they could be trusted with maintaining the interconnectivity of all life. Thus, to be like the spirits was to demonstrate the ability to excel at practices that ensured continuation of the clan and its values and norms (Flannery and Marcus, 2012).

As a result of millions of years of alloparenting and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of egalitarianism, humans seem to have developed an innate expectation for the type of belonging that emerges through distributed attachment relationships and spiritual practices that promote group cohesion. We may naturally anticipate a sense of belonging to a community in which our survival is inseparable from the survival of the group.

When sexual trauma happens, whether to us individually or to someone in our community, it signals the very nature of the society we live in — that it is a society that tolerates the most profound betrayal of social trust, and that belonging is something we must pay for with our bodies, if not souls. 

The opposite of belonging is scapegoating, which is a core injury of sexual trauma that causes us to feel alienated from both ourselves and our communities. Perpetrators have used the threat of scapegoating for centuries to assert power over their victims. During the next several posts, I look at social and historical origins of scapegoating. I believe scapegoating is a core wounding caused by sexual trauma precisely because of its threat to our innate need for a sense of belonging.

I’ll also be discussing how the path towards individuation chronicled by CG Jung in The Red Book was initiated by scapegoating. Jung’s creative illness reveals that recovering a sense of belonging sometimes must happen within ourselves before we can find our way back to the collective. 

Questions to ponder: Has sexual trauma affected your sense of belonging? If so, how? What emotions, body sensations, beliefs, and/or fantasies do you associate with belonging? What in your life gives you a sense of belonging? Do you need to find people and places where you experience belonging? If so, how might you create a greater sense of belonging in your life?


1 Franz, Marie-Louise von. (1994). Archetypal dimensions of the psyche. Boston, MA: Shambhala, p. 250.

2 Campbell, Joseph. (1949/2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.

3 Jung, “Psychology of the Transference,” in The practice of psychotherapy, Collected Works, 16, para. 454, p. 244.

4 Kerr, Laura K. (2010). Dissociation in late modern American society: A defense against soul? (M.A. 1486190), Pacifica Graduate Institute, CA, USA.

5 Bellah, Robert N. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, p. 85.

6 Key, Catherine A., and Leslie C. Aiello. 2003. “The Evolution of Social Organization.” In The evolution of culture, edited by Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Also see recent article (Nov 2017) on the upper body strength of women during the Paleolithic.

7Boehm, Christopher. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

8 Campbell, Joseph. (2013). Goddesses: Mysteries of the feminine divine (S. Rossi Ed.). Novato, CA: New World Library.

Flannery, Kent and Marcus, Joyce. (2012). The creation of inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jung, Carl G. (1989/1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York, NY: Vintage Press.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).