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Turning Inward: Why Thought Leaders Need to Belong to Themselves

Over the last few years, I have made some of my best relationships with people who work in the community space who care a lot about the word “belonging.”  One friend recently reached out about an Instagram post I made, saying: “I see belonging in a space you are loved and accepted.” In conversations with others, I often hear them talk about belonging as something that is achieved through “out-groups”: the workplace, a sports team, relationships, or church.

I used to live in this camp, too. I saw belonging through the same lens and never thought to look elsewhere for it, even though for the past two years I half-heartedly tried to share a message around it. Only recently did I really understand how it connects to who I am and our business’ mission.  

Over the past six months, I’ve taken a rather emotional and spiritual journey that has required an evolution of self. It’s one that’s required me to learn how to stand alone and not attach myself to anything. It has been a journey of how to love and value myself—and learn what I believe in too—and stand up for it in the face of critics. Perhaps I had my own self-biases—I thought I did belong on my own terms—and perhaps because I didn’t, I could never fully grasp my new understanding. 

Through the books I’ve read, the writing I’ve done, the personal development conversations I’ve had, I’ve started to unlearn and relearn the definition for belonging, too. 

And it begged the question: How can we attain true belonging if the way we get there is only through external groups? 

Our communities constantly shift. And when we’re not careful, our self-worth and direction in life can shift along with it as well.

But what if we can shift this conversation? What if true belonging can be thought about in relation to how we feel about our OWN acceptance of self and worth? If we looked at it through that lens, I believe we’d be able to achieve it. 

In Braving The Wilderness, Brene Brown says a few things that really hit home:

  1. “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
  2. “Being ourselves means sometimes having to find the courage to stand alone, totally alone.”
  3. “As I dug deeper into true belonging, it became clear that it’s not something we achieve or accomplish with others, it’s something we carry in our heart. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves, true belonging is ours.”
  4. “Belonging to ourselves means being called to stand alone—to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism.”

Claiming the Belief in Belonging But Being Scared to Belong Yourself

Over the past three years, we have worked with 70+ clients across dozens of industries. While so much has changed since we started, there are generally two constants: 

The first is that the people who come to us want to share a message and have something to say. They have the expertise, and they want to create their thought leadership online, and then monetize it by connecting to an audience.  

But when the rubber hits the road and their message is defined, an internal stopping mechanism can sometimes prevent them from fully putting themselves out there.

And my theory is the fact that they don’t belong to themselves. It’s part of my own story too, until now.

But why is this my theory?

It’s hard to get behind, promote, and share a message when you’re scared to face the fact that you may be criticized. It’s also hard to share a message that relates to your personal story because it’s vulnerable, it’s raw, and it forces you to show up as your full self in front of others. And it’s also hard to share your message because in the need for validation, you hope others will follow along, and continually putting yourself out there requires facing the idea that you may not be liked.

But as Brene Brown beautifully says, “it’s about your own level of self-acceptance.” People who have a message have to accept who they are first and be okay deep down that some will follow and others won’t. 

Simply, thought leadership is only possible and fully achieved in its fullest and most impactful expression when the torchbearer of a message belongs to themself first. 

Building a Business Under the Foundation of Belonging and Pathfinding

I’ve had a lot of people question me the past two years on how belonging relates to what we do as a company. It hasn’t always been the easiest message to relay, nor has it been a comfortable conversation. And it has also created a lot of internal friction within our team until the past couple months until I started to share my own journey more personally with our team.

For one, how could I give away something that I didn’t have myself? For fear of losing their interest, I never stood my ground, backing off the conversation around belonging and how it related to our company, therefore avoiding the conflict. 

But now, as I have assembled the puzzle pieces of my own story and learned how to stand alone myself, it’s become easier for me to carry the torch of this message too. If I can do it for myself, it’s easier to guide our clients to do the same—in their messages, helping others follow along for their ride, but also comforting them if not everyone does.

For Thought Leaders
Bryan Wish

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