When I was first starting out in my career, I was lonely. I enjoyed going to work for the work itself, but it wasn’t necessarily a place I enjoyed being. While other people chatted about their weekends in the coffee room, I sat alone at my desk, working. I knew I was a good engineer and technologist so it was easy to tell myself that I worked alone because I didn’t “need help” like other people did.
The truth is, I was lonely because I didn’t know how to be nice to people. I had always felt like I didn’t belong but I had never understood why. So I just accepted it and justified the situation in my mind.
As smart, capable people, it can be hard to admit that interpersonal relationships don’t always come easily to us. We allow ourselves to feel out of place because it is easier than admitting that we feel like we don’t belong socially. That’s awkward and embarrassing to admit, even for me.
But relationships matter — they are the key to your success. So in this post, I want to tackle what can make you feel like you don’t belong and then help you overcome that to start building amazing relationships.
Where are these feelings coming from?
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” — John F. Kennedy
It took a lot of time and work, reading books and self-diagnosing for me to pinpoint that my own feelings of not belonging had to do with my fear of rejection. I was carrying a lot of baggage from growing up, and ultimately I was scared to make friends. And this fear coupled with a desire to always feel smarter than everyone else (since that was the one thing that made me special) made me a terrible friend and coworker.
As soon as I realized that my issues were internal, not external, I had to make changes accordingly. I had to learn to be nice to people because no one likes a know-it-all. I stopped taking every chance I got to prove how smart I was. I stopped arguing just because I wanted to prove I was right.
I know a lot of smart people who struggle with this. In school, we are praised and encouraged to succeed as individuals and to be smart all on our own. But in life and in work, almost the exact opposite is the real key to success.
Once I discovered this, I began treating others the way that they deserved, and wanted, to be treated. I made a concerted effort to be nice to others – even when the feelings and sentiments were reciprocated.
I filled secret notebooks with note-taking templates so I could reference what specific people had said to me. I had bookmarks to help me remember the names of my colleagues’ children and spouses. I went to networking events and forced myself to form connections with new people, and to build up friendships with peers, which didn’t come naturally to me as an introvert.
It took a lot of effort, but people appreciated my attempt to get to know them better. And slowly I began to feel like I belonged.
Before you can get to a place where you feel like you belong, you have to know what is holding you back from feeling like you belong right now. Ask yourself: why don’t I feel like I belong?
Does it come from an internal insecurity? Is it external? Do your peers make you feel excluded? Or are you excluding yourself?
If you think your feeling of not belonging is internal or caused by your own self-excluding actions, ask yourself:
- Is it because I feel awkward when interacting with people at work?
- Am I afraid my peers will judge me if I try to get to know them?
- Am I intimidated because I feel less smart or capable than my colleagues?
If any of these questions resonated with you, chances are you feel like you don’t belong because of an internal insecurity that is holding you back. It doesn’t matter whether that insecurity is from fear, intimidation, or inferiority, because all of them can be overcome in the same way: realizing you are not __________(awkward, less intelligent, etc.) and making an effort to join the group and form connections with your peers.
How are you holding yourself back?
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent Van Gogh
For most of us, our biggest critic tends to be in our own head, filling us with self-doubt and stopping us from stepping out from our comfort zone. If your internal monologue is telling you that you don’t fit in or aren’t good enough, odds are you are going to act that way.
If your emotions and thoughts are keeping you from making friends at work, start correcting this by taking small steps first.
For example, make it a goal to strike up a conversation with someone every single day at work. Exposure to the people and the situations that you’ve been afraid of will make you realize that you are more like your colleagues than you’d imagined in your head. Sure, some of them may be judgmental or unfriendly, but most of them will be driven, passionate, intellectual individuals you should be getting to know, and who want to get to know you too.
You have to shut that voice inside your head down. It gets easier and easier once you start; you realize the voice inside your head is simply wrong. Till then, fake it till you make it! If you can’t get the voice in your head to go away just yet, simply ignore it for a period at a time, like during lunch hour so that you can sit with your colleagues and get to know them.
You can also try journaling or externalizing your thoughts in some way. Sometimes our fears and inner critic take on a larger than life size in our head, but when we write them out or talk about them we realize that they weren’t nearly as big, or daunting, as we thought.
Remember that you are not alone; everyone has self-doubts, but overcoming them is an individual task. You deserve to feel like you belong, but you have to make it happen.
Maybe your feeling of not belonging arises from how others treat you at work. Are your peers leaving you out of their social gatherings or conversations? Do people seem hesitant to spend lots of time with you?
If you get the feeling that your colleagues don’t want to be around you, then you need to re-evaluate your interactions with them.
Have you gotten any feedback as to why people don’t want to work with you or find you difficult?
For example, it could be that you say “no” to the ideas or suggestions of others quickly, or that you don’t seem interested in what people have to say. If this is the problem, become someone who actively helps people to voice their opinions, and become an active listener. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with bad ideas—it just means you should ask more questions and offer suggestions to improve their ideas rather than just shooting them down.
People want to be around people who are positive, encouraging and supportive. It takes work to become the kind of person that others want to be around, but getting along with your peers correlates with more success, money, and opportunities. The payoff is huge though, sotrain yourself to be more positive.
What do people look like when they are interacting with you?
Bored? Anxious? Engaged? Excited?Another way to evaluate your relationships with people at work is to be self-aware of non-verbal cues.
Whenever you are engaging in a conversation with someone, try to read their signals and give them more of the non-verbal cues they need as well. These can be hard to be aware of if you’re not already tracking them, so here are a few tips.
You should maintain eye contact, actively listen, mirror their body language, and be open when other people are talking. Begin to seek out clues that will help you interact better with that person in the future. Maybe people feel you’ve been intruding in their personal space or they feel like you’re not paying attention because you don’t make eye contact while speaking to them; these can all be remedied if you are self-aware of body language and what it conveys.
If you aren’t sure, ask.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” ― Winston Churchill
You can always seek out feedback from someone who witnesses many of your interactions with your colleagues: your manager. It is their job to help you succeed, after all, and they want a team that is harmonious and productive.
This works best in a candid conversation, but if you aren’t comfortable with that, here is a template email to help you get that feedback:
In an effort to improve my relationships with my colleagues, I’d like to get feedback from you about my role, behavior, and actions in our workplace. You oversee a lot of interactions and discussions that take place at work and I would so appreciate your thoughts on how I could improve. Here are some questions I have been thinking about:
- Am I contributing to a productive and supportive work environment? How could I be better team player?
- Are there any examples where I have been perceived negatively? What could I have done differently?
- What are some ways I could improve my interactions with my teammates?
These questions are just starting points, and if you have any other suggestions or observations, I’d appreciate that feedback. I want to be a good fit for this team, and any thoughts you have on my communication, conversation, or relationship-building skills would be incredibly helpful.
In the end you have to keep in mind that improving relationships takes time. It took me years of consistent effort to become more comfortable at work, develop relationships, and build sustainable new habits.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if all of these things don’t come together overnight. You will come to find your place at work as long as you are willing to pinpoint why you feel like you don’t belong and then resolve the underlying issues. It is small investments, over time, that will build the long-lasting and meaningful relationships that are at the core of every successful career.
If you have other tips or ideas please leave them in the comments. Or if you are struggling to build better relationships at work, feel free to share – I am sure you are not the only one wrestling with these issues.
For more on building relationships at work
- Carol Kauffman shows us how to “Set the Tone for Trust” in her video for Harvard Business Review.
- Learn why professional relationships matter and how to map your developmental network in “Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life.”