What is belonging? What does it mean to ‘normal’ secure people? What does it mean to survivors? Two very different things. Is belonging a positive or a negative? For survivors, a craving for belonging surfaces in rushed intimacy, married- in- a -year puppy love. That schoolgirl yearning to feel safe with someone can lead us into more and more vicious cycles of abuse. We often pick a tireless stream of carbon copy boyfriends who we are far too old to call ‘boyfriend’ and far too attuned to our weaknesses to shake off in the early years. Belonging is a trap.
At work (if we can even hold down a job as the ‘other’ in the office) it can lead survivors to say and do things we think we should do – drink too much, spend too much on clothes to ‘look right.’ We waste our time trying to fit in. In the early days of survivorship belonging is impossible in the workplace. We have no power and ‘they’ set the rules. We are seen as a ‘loose cannon’ and a system threat. This is because after abuse we can no longer interpret social rules. We could do it before and hold down decent jobs. But now, blinking into the light, we have lived too long in a dark wonderland with twisted and wildly changing rules. We don’t belong. We can’t belong.
So where can we go – apart from the counsellor’s couch – to feel like we belong? I’ve been part of an altogether different sort of work environment over the last 3 years. A project called Power Sharing with SMK (Sheila Mckechnie Foundation – a London charity) At the end it and through the looking glass, I am looking back on belonging. How did they get it right?
Making mistakes and owning up to them
Along the yellow brick road, a group of people with such diverse backgrounds (activists, upper management, OBEs, CEOs, volunteers) are going to disagree. Whether it is ‘offensive’ (to some) teaching aids or ‘too much to read,’ membership of a group like this requires us to take criticism on the chin and do something about it. Belonging to a group where accountability is high is no cake walk. But with that accountability comes a sense of belonging (why AA recovery ‘works’.) The fact that facilitators owned up to mistakes and acted on feedback meant that power sharing happened in real time. This was not a group where the leader was ‘always right.’ Adopting this approach in the workplace would help us to feel we belong. But is this too scary for behemoths like the NHS?
Be honest with yourself for a moment. How well do you listen in meetings? How often do you listen to a completely opposing view without butting in or getting angry? Do you feel pressured to contribute in a meeting so that people will be impressed by your ‘performance’? We all certainly started off this way 3 years’ ago. Being part of this project has taught me that listening and not reacting is important. Survivors process information differently. This can really impact us in the workplace. Hardwired to react from years of baiting and now trigger happy and free, we are only listening to you to see if we can hear a threat. In this minefield of the mind, we get lost before we begin speaking in a group. This ‘fight or flight alert’ can take years to unlearn. Being involved in this project was a start.
Beyond the rainbow
Belonging and power sharing go together like bacon and eggs. Although I am a vegetarian. The question for any survivor is – do you want to be out in the cold forever? Because activism fire is more of a spurt and it’ ends with burnout. If the people with power won’t share (and currently they will not) then survivors like me will remain ‘outsiders’ and therefore system threats. SMK is pioneering a different way to move beyond the rainbow.
Alice Smith 2022
Alice Smith is a teacher, writer, mother and optimist. She is the founder of 361 Life Support, a 100% survivor led organisation committed to providing emotional education to survivors and society as a whole. Together we ask – victim, survivor, what lies beyond? More information at 361lifesupport.co.uk