Shaping Identity: Belonging

by Sara Whitestone

With a splash, I step off the anchored boat. Bobbing in the warm Atlantic waters, I check my equipment one more time, making sure my mouthpiece and mask are in place before I let the air out of my scuba diving vest. Then I descend into the sea.

Even though there are divers all around me, I feel separated. Alone, but not lonely, as the physical spaces of my body and the emotional spaces of mind move together in this other-world of underwater freedom.

There is both depth and width to the ocean, and some days reveal more clarity than others. In this dive, even though I am over 70 feet down, I look up to see the sunlight shafting through the water.

As I fin myself forward into this luxuriance, I feel as if I am flying into an unbounded place which is not limited by trying to belong to a group, or by comparing myself to others, or even by any desire for approval.

I breathe slowly through my regulator—in and out. In and out. And I am simply here—just being.

When I swim though a school of yellowtail snappers, they surround me before gracefully parting a path for me. And for a few moments, a spotted eagle ray—whose wingspan is easily 10 feet—flies alongside me.

But it has only been recently that I have learned to evoke this serenity. And even now, when I look down to a group of juvenile sharks piled together on the ocean floor, I can’t help but wonder at their seeming contentment with where they are and with who they are.

It was not so for me when I was young.

When I was 3 years old, I was like one of those small sharks, piled all together with my siblings. It seemed my sisters and I were always crammed into the car, because when our mother had to go to a meeting or to teach a college class, she put us in the station wagon and left us in it to amuse ourselves. Mary was 5, Judith was 7, and Leah was 9. You’d think with all the forced time we spent as a group together in the tight space of that car, we would have felt close.

We did sometimes play together—like when we made animals out of our hands (called Little Fellers) and flew them to fantastical adventures which had no physical confines. But most of the time, my sisters and I were away from each other—solitary in our own minds, while our bodies were trapped together in the car.

I envied that my sisters could read. They could escape to worlds where I could not follow. And their need to escape was so great—so intense—that I don’t even remember asking them to read out loud to me. Rather, I knew that someday soon, I also would enjoy this very individual, very personal thing. And until then, I created my own worlds and stories in my head—flying Little Feller, like an eagle in the air and a manta under the sea—but almost always flying alone.

What gives us our identity? Is it already fully formed when we push out from our uterine waters, or is it shaped, little by little, through our desire to belong?

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, talks about our primal needs for safety and belonging. When we feel safe—when we belong—we tend to emulate the actions of the those we identify with.

But what happens when we can’t find a group to belong to? What happens when we don’t feel safe? Coyle writes, “This signal can alter the child’s relationship to the world, redefine his identity, and energize and orient his mind to address the dangers and possibilities of life.”

When I was first learning to dive, I couldn’t find balance in my buoyancy. I would load myself down with too much lead weight and sink like a ship’s anchor, much too fast for my ears to equalize with the pressure of the water. Then I would overcompensate by filling my buoyancy control device with so much air, I would pop to the surface like a cork.

One time, I flailed into a huge green turtle, my air tank clanking against his shell. Another time, I was supposed to take a safety stop at 15 feet to regain the right nitrogen/oxygen chemical balance in my body, but instead I rocketed out of control straight to the surface from 30 feet below.

In those early dives, I was so overwhelmed by all the unknown variables, I couldn’t orient my mind to the ocean. So I didn’t know how to alter my relationship to it or to myself in order to feel safe. But now, many dives later, I have learned to distribute my lead weight more evenly and to subtly control my buoyancy so that I no longer feel in danger. Instead, I am energized with possibility, as I rise on the intake of a breath and lower on its exhalation. And in this freedom of finesse, I am so in sync with myself, I don’t even have to think about myself.

Lately I have been able to transfer this buoyancy of authentic identity to my life at large by simply enjoying time alone, or activities with others, without the unbalanced weight of needing to belong. But when I was young, I couldn’t find this equilibrium. Instead, I flailed against outside forces of anger which fed inner fears. And with each family crisis, my sisters and I were plunged into even further disorientation and disconnection.

While our mother was at work, we were supposed to have cleaned our rooms—rooms so piled with clothes, stuffed animals, and books, that the floors weren’t even visible. At ages 11, 8, 7, and 5, my sisters and I were so weighted down by the chaos, we could only argue about who should be cleaning up what mess. Then, when our mother walked through the door—already angry—we threw all we could, as fast as we could, into our closets and ran for cover.

But it was too late. She already held the belt in her hand. And as she whipped through our rooms, throwing open the offending closet doors, our mother screamed out our names—“Leah, Judith, Mary, Sara! Get in here right now!”

Despite my fear, or maybe because of it, I was often the first to arrive for punishment. And always, I was the first to shed tears—mostly because I was so disappointed in myself. No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t find acceptance, much less approval. Our mother hated those tears. “Why do you have to be so sensitive?” she would yell as the belt bit my behind. “You cry so much, I can’t even tell whether you’re sorry or not! But now I’m really going to give you something to cry about!”

Judith often came next—her face set in the tight, stubborn look our mother hated even more than my sensitive tears. Judith always felt the belt-punishment unjust and refused to release her tears until the beating became too much. But then our mother would say, “You’re only crying to manipulate me! You’re not sorry at all!”

As the oldest, Leah was a master escapist. Rather than show up for the punishment, she would disappear. And hours later, after our mother’s anger had ebbed, Leah would emerge, dry-eyed with a book in hand.

Only Mary’s tears were accepted as genuine. “I’m so sorry, Mama!” Mary would say. “But I promise I’ll do better next time.” And as she put the belt down and walked away, our mother would ask me and Judith, “Why can’t you two be more like Mary?”

In her book Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa writes of the discovery of a behavioral gene that transmits serotonin. The gene is expressed in 3 different variations, and about 15% of the population have the short/short variant, which results in highly reactive sensitivity. When traumatized, the bodies of these extra-sensitive children respond by pumping large amounts of stress hormones into their systems. This either revs these children up, or shuts them down.

It didn’t take my mother’s constant reminders for me to understand I was sensitive and that I was different from my sisters. But the truth is, we were all different from each other, and then, we were isolated even further by our own need for self-preservation.

Leah inhabited her own world—almost to the exclusion of the real one. When she did engage with us, it was unpredictable. Leah could be excitedly teaching us about the constellations in June’s night sky, but the next morning, she could be chasing us with a broom, ready to smack us if we didn’t spill out of her way. Leah is still passionate about the sciences. And while she wouldn’t raise a hand to anyone now, she is still unpredictable—sometimes present and ready to talk, and at other times, disappearing.

Judith’s stubbornness was borne out of her innate sense of justice. Even as a child, she had every gift of an attorney—with sound arguments coupled to clap-backs of sarcasm. And although she didn’t choose to become a lawyer for her profession, Judith now uses these qualities to champion justice causes as an articulate and fiery academic.

And then there was Mary. Why couldn’t I be more like Mary? She was somehow able to intentionally work all the systems—at home, at school, and at church—perfectly turning them to her advantage, while still being genuine in her commitment to their values.

Leah escaped questions, Judith outwardly challenged all faulty reasoning, but Mary accepted her version of what was. And more than that, as Mary got older, she sought to bring the rest of us into the peace of this acceptance-at-all-costs. She wasn’t often successful. And even when she was, it was a peace that roiled uneasily on the surface and churned in deep dissonance underneath.

Perhaps it was because of that extra-sensitivity gene that it was hard for me to find balance or to maintain any kind of emotional control. As a child and into adulthood, my constant, silent questioning of my outward world, along with my distrust of my inner self, formed waves of doubt and fear that crashed through me and my sensitivities, leaving me more vulnerable—more exposed—than my sisters allowed themselves to be.

But despite this sensitivity—or maybe because of it—I was able, as I grew, to continue to stay open to possibilities.

Once again, I am diving in sunlight that filters down through 80 feet of water. There are fish all around me—angelfish, butterflyfish, squirrelfish, and sunfish—vibrant with all the colors of my incessant curiosity. I smile as I breathe into my regulator—in and out and in and out—blowing bubbles upward.

But then, from 3 feet away, a barracuda swims toward me. Don’t barracuda bite? Fear chemicals surge through me, and I completely overreact—my breath heaving fast and ragged as I kick my fins up and away.

Back on the boat, I tell my fish story to the captain, who laughs at me. “I’ve been taking diving boats out for 40 years,” he says, “and not one person has ever gotten bit by a barracuda.”

Forty minutes later, I descend for my second dive, having chosen to alter my unfounded fear by reorienting myself to the possibility of the captain’s experienced reality. Yes, the barracuda is still down there. But this time, I finesse my chemical response by breathing in and out—deep and slow.

I look at the barracuda. He looks at me—without swimming toward me. I am at peace with him (albeit from a distance) while also allowing my curiosity to stay open to what I can learn from him. And in this, I am my true self.

We are in midlife now—Leah, Judith, and me. Mary would have turned 57 this year. But instead, she succumbed to a long-running illness. My two remaining sisters and I attended Mary’s memorial service. Our mother was there as well.

Even as adults, Mary had continued to try to bring us together as a family by advocating for peace at the surface level. And for her sake, because I didn’t want to disappoint her, I sometimes still allowed myself to be tossed into unhealthy situations at family gatherings and to fall into my old patterns of stress responses.

But with Mary gone, I am now better able to live out my true self with my family, feeling (surprisingly) no need to further compare myself to my sisters or to seek any kind of approval from my mother. And in this balance, I can now accept what is real, while no longer fearing any attacks against my authenticity.

For me, acceptance means looking deeply into the past so that I can make sense of it and bring value to it. And to be at peace sometimes requires choosing distance, while also staying open to possibilities. Through this openness, I have recently been able to develop closer relationships—not so much of belonging, but of friendship—with my two remaining sisters.

As a child I wanted to read so that I could escape to other worlds. Now, as an adult, I read, and I search, and I dive, and I write—not to escape—but to learn.

Nakazawa wrote Childhood Disrupted both to educate and to encourage. She says that while those of us with the short/short sensitivity gene feel more deeply (and as a result, often hurt more intensely), we can also experience a greater height of positive emotions—if we choose to seek out, and then to soak in, the joy of all that is good.

But still, I have questions. If I had been born into a stable, nurturing family, would I have been able to recognize, and then to inhabit, my own unique identity earlier? Or perhaps it is because of this very absence of belonging that I am now able to so fully orient myself to the vulnerable curiosity that is at the core of my authentic identity—this questioning, feeling, thinking, and remembering—that Nakazawa describes in her book as “creative sensitivity.”

For several years I have pondered the truth that I am the only person who will live this life with me in its entirely. While there are a few who understand me well and who love me deeply, none can fully know me. Perhaps this is where our desire for belonging goes wrong—when we load onto someone or onto a group our impossibly heavy weights of needing to feel completely connected, and then when we flail in the resulting imbalance of our unfounded disappointment.

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

That quote from Maya Angelou is how social scientist Brene Brown begins her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. In her introduction, Brown also talks about her own childhood, and how her desire to find belonging was, until recently, at odds with Angelou’s assertion that freedom requires us to belong no place at all.

Ever since I was a little girl, my faith has been important to me. And despite all my questions of belonging, I never once wondered whether or not God accepted me. I just knew. Now, as I read Brene Brown’s book and empathize with her own search for identity, I am reminded of how I feel the most in balance spiritually when I am my most authentic self.

Brown writes, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

On another dive, I playfully blow bubbles toward an eagle ray that flies overhead. I am effortlessly buoyant because I have so fully embraced who I am, I now don’t even need to think about how to live out the authentic me. Instead, I am simply open to this moment—with all my senses alive in its joy.

The sea is full of possibilities, and I feel no limits. Because I belong—nowhere and everywhere.

Whitestone diving profile pictureSara Whitestone is a novelist-in-progress, an essayist-in-practice, and an un-tortured-poet-in-process. Her words and artwork have appeared in many print and online magazines and journals, and her current long-form project is a duet of novels titled Counting and Falling. To learn more about Whitestone’s inner and outer adventures, visit and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @sarawhitestone.

Author’s note: I have changed the names of my sisters to honor their privacy.

Header photo credit: Sara Whitestone

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