How to put the “BE” in Belonging

Out of Place Series – Sarah E. Westfall’s Story

Involvement makes acquaintances, but often fails to produce soulful relationships. Connections are many, but thin, and we end up fitting in everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

At least that’s my story.

As far back as grade school, I can remember feeling almost “in,” but not quite. I gave the appearance of belonging—member of the volleyball team, class president, soprano in the choir. Being a little bit in every circle meant I was never fully in one. I was the afterthought rather than the first invite. No one would have guessed I ached for friendship. But I did. Breadth of friendship failed to produce the depth for which I longed, and I began to build walls around my heart, to pull back rather than press in.

A floundering sense of self

Please don’t get me wrong. Many kids have a much worse school experiences. I wasn’t overtly teased, bullied, or shut out. I had friends. I had fun. But being something we are not creates internal discontent. The sense of self flounders, and deep relationships fail to take root. Little voices in our heads spat, “You will never be enough,” so we learn to live only in part.

By the time I went to college, morphing from group to group had made me weary, and I determined not to be involved at all. All I wanted was to go to class, make a few friends, and hang out with my boyfriend (not necessarily in that order). But the struggle to find my place followed me.

My sense of isolation grew, exacerbated by the death of my grandfather that first semester my freshman year. In turn, I became more guarded than ever. Anxiety and depression loomed, and instead of revealing my hurts, I kept quiet. I’d sit in the dining commons next to my suitemates, eating my bowl of Lucky Charms and smiling at all the right times. I went to class and wrote things in my planner. But all the while my stomach churned and my heart threatened to beat right out of my chest. I walked around in a fog.

Eventually, I saw a doctor and went to therapy, which helped curb my declining mental and emotional health. But it did not address my desire to belong. Those walls remained intact for several more years. Even my most sacred relationships—with God and eventually with my husband—were held a little at arm’s length, not because they hadn’t proven themselves loving or steadfast, but because the same nagging question lingered, “Am I enough?”

Broken open

Not until the unexpected diagnosis and death of our infant son did the barriers begin to crumble. Grief wrecked my guardedness. Raw and unfiltered, I became too broken to pretend. Too needy not to ask for help. Too shattered to shield myself from people wanting to come near. I gave up trying to do anything but just be right where I was. While the pain gutted me, living in unfiltered relationships with God and with people brought a new kind of freedom.

Freedom from the expectations I had put on myself.
Freedom from trying to be something I was not.
Freedom from lies that said the worst of me was not worthy of love.

The chasm left by loss did not amplify my emptiness but created a new openness. And in that space, here’s what I found: Fitting in is not about becoming something else, but living in to who we are. Being and belonging go hand in hand; the relationship is reciprocal. As we develop deep connections, we find freedom to be who we are, and the more we embrace who we are, the deeper connections grow.

Fitting in is not about becoming something else, but living in to who we are.

But first, we must learn to be: to show up with our whole selves, to trade our many circles for deeper ones, and to drop our protective habits and embrace a life of presence with God and with people.

God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them,
just as he wanted them to be.
If they were all one part, where would the body be?
—1 Corinthians 12:18–19 (NIV)


If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive these scripture cards and adult coloring pages about belonging in the kingdom of God:

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Thanks! I can't wait to connect with you!

Sarah E. Westfall is a fan of good words, good conversation, and big earrings. She lives for lazy Saturday mornings at home, sipping coffee with her husband Ben and watching their four sons play. Sarah is an author, speaker, and host of the Not My Story podcast. You can find her at SarahEWestfall.com and connect on Instagram and Twitter.

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I'm a missionary kid turned ministry leader, helping moms live out their Kingdom calling by finding missional moments right where they are.

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