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Achievement and Belonging

It's been really well established, and should come as no surprise, that belonging is important (Bowlby 1969/1982, 1973). What I'm referring to is the feeling of "being a part of", that you "fit in"; you have a spot at the table, that you're "on the team". Where you fit helps to define who you are. Even at times when the fit feels far from perfect, belonging (or not) allows you the chance of learning more about who you are and who you are not. We all want to belong, yet sometimes we tell ourselves we don't. Sometimes we want to belong too strongly, and that presents its own set of problems. Regardless of the want, we still need people in our lives to ground, secure, comfort and restore us.

The notion of achievement enters the picture at different times and in different ways for everybody. From meeting developmental milestones to earning diplomas to creating a career, regardless of when it occurs, the need to compete and compare will show up sooner or later. When it does, life starts changing, at times dramatically. Discovering what you're good at, how you measure up, along with where you don't are amazingly important lessons learned as we mature and grow. Figuring out just what to achieve, and how, is not necessarily an easy task. Yet, working and playing to discover those things can be its own reward.

Over the course of a lifetime, we are going to put in a lot of effort to achieve, and still come up short. We are not going to meet our own expectations, let alone other's, and we will be disappointed. When that occurs, it's an opportunity to assess and correct, or haul ass in another direction. Keeping the same course is always an option, but the value and cost might change. It's all worth paying attention to, because through it all, not only do we learn how to manage our limitations along with successes, we find out more of where and with whom we belong.

So, from very early on, the concepts of achievement and belonging are rooted in our common experience as individuals (Mikulincer 1988). They are and continue to be two crucial themes in everybody's life.

What do I do well?


Where do I fit in?

We live in a culture that promotes both - sometimes for the wrong reasons. Answering those two questions can be both rather simple (an easy task completed), as well as a take a lifetime to sort out. Even if you're uncertain about what it "means", the answers to those two questions can explain a lot regarding how you make decisions and about how you see yourself as an individual. Bear in mind that the answers to those two questions can, and undoubtably will, change over the course of one's life. As they should, because as we age and change, so too does our outlook, our perceptions, and opinions about ourselves and others.

Now, shift gears and apply this thinking to your close relationships as well as your romantic ones. What I want you to consider is this:

Do I achieve so I can belong?


Do I belong so I can achieve?

It deserves mentioning that we all have a number of very different types of relationships depending on how and where those relationships formed, along with the ways they're maintained. Keeping in touch with an old high school or college friend can be as important as staying in contact with the boss while working remotely, and yet for very different reasons. Those are examples of two markedly different relationships that are important, where one is morelikely explained from a concept of belonging, and the other from the notion of achieving. Yet both conditions occur at the same time. Being a part of a high school athletic team is just as much about achieving as feeling a sense of belonging with the people on the team. Both can and do reinforce each other.

So bear in mind that there is no one right way to answer those questions. Namely because both conditions are happening in concert with one another, hopefully. When there is alignment between the two you belong so you can achieve and you achieve so you can belong. It's keeping momentum going that's the trick.

All long term relationships will be stressed and challenged from time to time. Questioning, and even at times doubting the belonging, along with frustrations with all the achieving, or a lack of it, contributes to uncertainty (Shaver, Mikulincer 2002). That is natural, and in so many ways to be expected as each person grows, changes, matures, and ages.

Relationships flourish and diminish in proportion to the individuals that create them; so obviously does to the sense of belonging and achievement. For that reason, not all relationships last, nor should they. Those that do, adapt and build upon the successes along with the correcting for mistakes. Those that don't do so for many reasons.

However, if those mistakes seem to be mounting, and the sense of belonging for you or your partner is of concern, consider talking to a professional. If even for a short period of time, counseling can help clear the air between you and allow each person to take stock of where the problems lie so you can fix them.

Just remember, mental health matters.

Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.

Mikulincer, M. (1998). Attachment working models and the sense of trust: An exploration of interaction goals and affect regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1209-1224.

Shaver, P. R., Hazan, C., & Bradshaw, D. (1988). Love as attachment: The integration of three behavioral systems. In R. J. Sternberg & M. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 68-99). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shaver, P. R., & Mikulincer, M. (2002). Attachment-related psychodynamics. Attachment and Human Development, 4, 133-161.