Finding a Sense of Belonging When We Struggle to Fit In

Do you struggle to find true belonging? Do you ever find yourself working hard to fit in even though you don’t quite fit? As the parents of kids who struggle with their mental health, we get that it’s not always easy to fit in, especially when our kids may be struggling with their own sense of belonging. Join us, the Mental Health Mamas, as we explore the idea of finding true belonging in a world that’s all about fitting in.

Notes and Mentions

Episode Mentions:

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

Cultivating Unconditional Self-Worth Ted Talk by Dr. Adia Gooden

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Tina: Hi Everyone! I’m Tina.

Serena: And I’m Serena

Tina: And we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to, “No Need to Explain”. We are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First a quick disclaimer; we come to you not as mental health providers or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You can find a variety of mental health resources in the episode notes and on our website

Tina: Coming off of our previous episode about judgement, we touch a bit on self-judgement. I wonder, Serena, if we could delve into that a bit more and talk about belonging verses fitting in and thinking about it with the context of self-judgement and normalizing mental health struggles.

Serena: Absolutely. I think, as parents of kids who struggle we have a great need to fit in, just like everybody else, right? Especially when our kids don’t necessarily fit in in the ways we might have expected them to. In some ways, I have to confess, it takes me back to some middle-school type feelings when it was so important to be like everyone else.

Tina: Yes it seemed so very important to have the same Nike sneakers and Calvin Klein jeans....and I guess I am dating myself there. I totally agree with you. We certainly went to great lengths to fit in, my family did. And to mask our true struggles. And quite honestly, it was easier to fit in than to help normalize our struggles and expect people to understand.

Serena: Right. True self-acceptance, which I think is another way to think about the idea of belonging, it’s, I think it’s hard under normal circumstances. I certainly struggled with that growing up. And then when we add in small humans who are trying to find their own sense of belonging. As parents, we definitely raise children with ideas about a variety of hopes and dreams and those may or may not become a reality or maybe they’re not even a possibility.

Tina: Wow, that is a lot for sure. Yes. Yeah. So, I remember when OCD first entered our world (obsessive compulsive disorder for those of you who don’t know). It was right after my dad died of pancreatic cancer. We were struggling, to say the least, and struggling to understand everything that was coming at us. And it was so very hard to explain why my child was experiencing some of these things that were going on in her brain in very outward ways. So, an example; her class had a pizza party because they won, they won it after raising the most money for cancer. And she was hesitant to eat that pizza because at that point, her brain would spiral around anything she considered poison and cancer at that point was certainly one of those things. If she ate the pizza, would she infect herself with cancer cells? And that may sound really weird to those of you who haven’t experienced OCD in your world. It totally makes sense to me at this point with all we’ve experienced. So, how could I explain this to the teacher who was, really did not understand this child’s "issues" or her behaviors? It was just so much easier to say that she just wasn't hungry and she didn’t want the pizza than to try to really explain, explain this whole situation.

Serena: That, that must have been such a hard thing to be dealing with during such a difficult time for your family.

Tina: Yes, it was certainly a hard time.

Serena: We too had a lot of issues around food. When my second daughter was little, we were constantly dealing with vomiting. And I mean, constantly. Like, every day. We worked really hard to figure out what was going on and although we never completely figured it out, we got better at figuring out what sorts of things would set her off. So, holidays and other special occasions were (and honestly, they sometimes still are) one of her triggers. One piece of that, I think, was just the excitement around an event. And the other piece was eating foods that were different from the usual foods we ate. And of course, I always wanted her to be able to participate in these activities, sometimes just something as simple as sharing birthday cupcakes with her classmates and yet I knew what we’d be cleaning up later. So, I think I was often seen as a helicopter parent because I was, I had some sense of constant vigilance. And of course, you’re not going to see that in any of my family photos.

Tina: Right-o. Hmm. Never. So that whole helicopter parent thing. I have a story from the doctor’s office and I never really felt like a helicopter parent, what I felt like was that I was protecting my kid from these people who didn’t understand her. And so, she had strep. We were pretty sure of that and she had had strep five times before we moved here and we didn’t know this doctor very well. So I went in with my daughter and was trying to explain to the doctor about her anxiety, about things going into her mouth and the doctor dismissed me from the room. Told me to leave and proceeded to give my daughter a strep test. Very traumatic for everyone involved. Yeah.

Serena: Yeah, it’s so hard when we’re just trying to do the best for our kids. And, you know, we, we have also had some really difficult experiences with medical appointments. And I’m thinking that could be a topic for another podcast.

Tina: I agree. I think that’s probably true. And I guess part of the reason that I put that kind of “FaceBook family” forward. That whole perfect face, right? Is that it is much easier for people to believe us to be the perfect family than to feel that judgement (and truly the self-judgment) about my parenting around the behavioral issues that stemmed from kind of this extreme anxiety that was so hard to understand. There is nothing worse than to feel like you do not have a handle on your child's behavior and a kind of deep understanding about what she is going through. Which I honestly now admit that I didn’t know what she was going through, but I was trying, trying very hard to understand. So hard.

Serena: Yeah. Yeah. And there’s that self-judgment that keeps popping up, right? I think there’s so much pressure to sort of curate all of the things we put out into the world and show our “best” selves only. Yet, I would say, at least for me, it’s not often my true self. And it makes me think about sort of the pervasiveness of social media. Is it, do you think it’s rooted in that or is it, does it go further back?

Tina: Well, I would say that social media certainly makes it worse, for sure. But I think back to my childhood and my mom's, kind of, spitting on her thumb and cleaning of our faces. There was no social media back then, but that was important.

Serena: Right, right. And you know, while we were thinking about this episode, I was thinking about the infamous holiday letter. You know the one, right Tina?

Tina: Oh, yes. Yes, yes. The one, the yearly brag and the one you send out only the rosy, happy things. The “FaceBook family” letter.

Serena: Right, the one in which the children are all perfect and the house is always clean. So, just for fun, I took a shot at writing a “real” holiday letter. And if you’d like to read it, you will find it on our website, We would love to hear your real 2020 stories as well, if you’re feeling brave. Send us an email and you can send that right from our website and we might even share some of your thoughts on a future episode.

Tina: Absolutely. And what I wish I had were the pre holiday pictures before the one picture that ended up going on the holiday card, right? The ones that everyone was screaming or kicking someone. I will not go on.

I have certainly struggled with true belonging. And much of the hesitation to be who I am comes from my feeling of not being enough. Does that make sense?

Serena: Mmhm.

Tina: I feel as though being the mom of a child who struggled, I was constantly hard on myself and never thought, I never felt as though I was doing enough or trying hard enough or reading enough. I guess I kind of think of it like, you know, things were coming at us all the time and like that gopher bop-it-on-the-head game. The arcade game, right? So, you have no idea where things are coming from and you’re trying your best to win the game, right? Like I’m trying my best to figure it out.

Serena: Yeah, I love that. I love that image of the gophers popping up although I have to confess that that game always stressed me out!

Tina: Yeah and that’s the point right?! Totally stressful. So, I feel like we need to talk about owning our truth and belonging. Brene Brown, one of, as you know, my true faves, says in her book Braving the Wilderness, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are but to BE who you are.” So powerful. And I will say it right here, sometimes it’s just too scary to be who I am and share my real truth. Being true to who I am and confident in my parenting is so important and so HARD. Because I never say to myself, “Self, you’re doing the best you know how to do.” So, it’s easier for me to slip into that perfect “FaceBook family”, and fit in rather than really look for that truth and belonging.

Serena: Mmhm. Yes. It’s like what I say about should really feel good now and later. So, I think that working to fit in often, or it might, feel good in the moment, but when we look at the bigger picture, it doesn’t feel so good if, by trying to fit in, you haven’t been true to yourself. Finding a sense of belonging should always feel good. So, I guess the question is, how do we do it?

Tina: That is a big question Serena. I guess for me, I got a bit weary of pretending that all was well in my world. I started sharing, bravely I think, little bits of my world and how I was feeling with other people I felt safe to do that with.

Serena: Yeah, I’ve certainly found that opening up just a little bit about my, uh, shall we say, family adventures? It allows others to let down their guard and share a bit as well.

Tina: Yeah, so my favorite line for a while (and I might still use it every once in a while) was when someone casually would ask, “Oh, so how are you, Tina?” And I would say, “Mixed”. I got a lot of giggles, and some real headshakes, and truly out of that came some really true connections. I have truly connected around the mental health of my family with so very many people including quite unexpected connections!

Serena: Right. Yeah, so we’ve said it before and I’m gonna go ahead and say it again. We all have mental health, just like physical health and we all need to take care of our brains as well as our bodies. The other day I was listening to a Ted talk given by Dr. Gooden about cultivating unconditional self-worth and how one of the ways to do this is to be there for yourself when life gets rough. She talks about how we tend to abandon ourselves when things are hard and this is so very true for me when things get hard, not only myself, but when things get hard for my kids as well.

Tina: Mmhm. And while we could talk forever about this, we do want you to tune in to the next podcast for more. We’re choosing to end today with another Brené Brown quote from Braving the Wilderness—we highly recommend the book and you can find it on our website

Serena: And just a quick reminder...if you like what you’re hearing, please subscribe, leave us a review and share our podcast with others.

Tina: So, Brené writes, “We’ve gotta stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that we don’t belong. We will always find it because we have made it our mission. We have to stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that we are not enough. We will always find it because we have made it our goal. True Belonging and self-worth are NOT goods. We don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Protect our wild hearts against constant evaluation, especially our own.”

Serena: So, as always, we would like to gently remind you to make sure you are taking good care of yourself while also taking care of your people.

Tina: See you next time!

Serena: Bye!