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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Is there a right way to 'belong'?

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Ritu Bhasin

Why is belonging such a critical concept right now?

I think for many of us, the dramatic shift over the past few years in how we’re living, working and leading has given rise to all kinds of new insights. With the increased spotlight on inclusion and equity, we’ve done some deep soul searching around who we are, what we want out of life, and how we want to work and lead going forward. What has been revealed is that for a long time, we haven’t felt accepted for who we are. We’ve struggled to be seen and to bring our differences to bear in our interactions — both in our personal and professional lives.

And what we’ve ultimately realized is that we’re searching for belonging. We want to be honoured for who we are. We want to feel seen, valued and respected for who we are. And belonging gives us a path to living a life that we can love.

About 15 years ago, you realized that you hated the life you had created for yourself. Please describe the situation.

Like many people, I had been fed the corporate dream and I bought into it. As a young woman of colour born in Canada of Indian immigrant parents, I thought that getting a good education, becoming a lawyer on Bay Street, doing my MBA, and progressing to the leadership team of a preeminent Canadian law firm would unlock tremendous happiness for me. But it didn’t — especially since it was on the basis of conforming to a white male normative. What I realized is that by trying to fill my “joy cup” with external forms of affirmation that weren’t in alignment with who I am at my core, I was experiencing momentary spikes in joy, but I wasn’t feeling joyful on a whole in how I was living.

Something deep within me kept saying, “No, Ritu; there is something more fulfilling for you out there. You deserve to be more joyful.” And I decided to heed the call.

Let’s zoom back to well before that. Many people believe our childhood experience impacts our sense of belonging as a adults. Can you touch on that aspect of your journey?

I had a quintessential upbringing as a child of immigrants. My parents immigrated to Canada over 50 years ago from India. We are Punjabi by culture and Sikh by faith. My father wears a turban and my mom has long hair, and so do I. My parents came to the country with very little money. As members of the Sikh community, we stuck out, and I saw the oppression they experienced on a daily basis.

I also had my own experiences with racism. I am a survivor of relentless childhood bullying that was deeply traumatizing. Thankfully, I’ve done decades of therapy and self-healing work to help me tend to those wounds, but my healing journey hasn’t been easy. Plus, I experienced cultural confusion growing up struggling to reconcile Indian culture with white Canadian culture. I really grappled with my identities growing up. I learned how to shift cultural codes and ‘perform’ by putting out a curated image of who I am.

Sadly, this experience continued when I entered corporate Canada as a young woman of colour lawyer, where I found that the messages of cultural conformity were everywhere. No one said directly, "change who you are to get ahead," but it was understood through subtle, nuanced messaging.

For example, I felt pressure to Anglicize my name and accept not having it pronounced properly. I felt pressure to wear navy and grey and black as opposed to colours I prefer, like hot pink, red and yellow. And I felt pressure to be more direct and assertive around what I needed and wanted to get ahead, even though that’s not how I prefer to behave. I just felt constant pressure to change myself, which was really stressful.

Over the years, you began to build up and lean on your “core wisdom.” How do you define this term?

Core wisdom is the knowledge that we hold deep within us that helps us tune in to what our body and mind are telling us. We ask ourselves questions like: What are my body and mind signalling to me right now? Where am I holding tension inside me and why is this happening? What negative thoughts are swirling through my mind? What do I need to do to settle and release whatever it is I’m holding on to? What can I do to calm myself? What can I do to be to feel more resilient, so I’ll be less activated in a moment like this going forward?

Our core wisdom helps calm and soothe our body and mind so we can make better decisions, understand how we’re judging and impacting others, feel more empowered, practice greater empathy, use our voices to name inequities we’re experiencing and so much more. In a nutshell, our core wisdom will help us be more regulated and calm in the face of difficult situations.

If you asked me, “What is the number one thing I can do to live a better life, be a better leader, a better human being, a better parent and to feel greater joy?”— I would tell you it’s tapping into your core wisdom. How do you build it up? It essentially entails using body and mind-based practices that enable you to track, understand, release and settle sensations, feelings and thoughts inside of you.

In teaching about belonging, you talk a lot about the “performing self.” Can you describe what this is?

I developed the “Three Selves Framework™” as a way to help people bring their authentic self into how they live, work and lead. The “performing self” sits on one end of the continuum in the “zone of disempowerment” and it’s the self you show up as when you feel like you don’t have a choice but to conform or hide who you are because otherwise you believe people will reject, hate or judge you. The goal is to push yourself out of the “performing self” toward the “zone of empowerment,” which is where your “authentic self” and your “adapted self” are.

Your “authentic self” is who you would be if there were no negative consequences for your behaviour. This is how you’d express your emotions, how you’d speak, what you’d do with your body language, how you’d dress, etc. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly of who you are, but because it’s the truest reflection of your core self, it feels the best to put out. To experience belonging, you want to show up as your “authentic self” as much as possible.

That said, sometimes you need to show up as your “adapted self,” which is perfectly fine to do because it also lives in the “zone of empowerment.” Your “adapted self” is who you are when you willingly choose to adjust your behaviour from how your “authentic self” would show up, because the moment calls for it. It’s a choice, it feels good to do, it serves you and it serves others. But it’s important to pay attention to the following: when you keep adapting your behaviour, and it starts to feel like you’re now conforming or masking who you are, you’ll have slipped into the “zone of disempowerment.”

In using the “Three Selves Framework” to experience greater belonging, you’ll want to use your core wisdom to help make choices that enable you to show up as your “authentic self” and “adapted self” as much as possible, instead of living life as your “performing self.”

Talk a bit about the power of “cloud relationships.”

As a professional speaker, I travel a lot for engagements and I love to gaze out the airplane window to stare at the beautiful, poofy clouds. I often think to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to fall into one of those clouds and float around?!’ It is that same sensation I picture when I think about the relationships in my life that are rooted in belonging — relationships with loving people with whom I have healthy, deep and meaningful ties, who we can rely on to lift us up and share joy.

These are our cloud relationships. With these people, we can just let go and be because we feel safe to be fully authentic. We feel cared for, loved, seen and supported. Everyone needs a few cloud relationships in their life.

You have said that the path to belonging is both beautiful and difficult. What are the first steps toward feeling like one belongs?

Many of us have been conditioned to believe that life is only supposed to be beautiful. I certainly was, and when I started to realize how hard life can be, I both railed against the difficulties coming my way and worked even harder to be perfect. But through a lot of self-growth work, especially in my thirties, I realized that life is both beautiful and hard, and we can hold both truths at once.

I have the same sentiment about the journey to claim belonging — it is both beautiful and hard, but it’s so worth it. The first step is to learn to belong to yourself. When you belong to yourself — i.e. you accept and honour who you are for your own soul — you will feel empowered to claim belonging with others. But it’s more than that: you’ll accept that life can be hard but, because you have deep core wisdom, you will always feel anchored. This is an important goal — and it’s what the beauty of belonging is all about.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Subscribe today.

Ritu Bhasin (MBA '10) is an award-winning DEI and leadership expert, speaker, coach and author of We’ve Got This: Unlocking the Beauty of Belonging.