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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

On Longing and Belonging

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

Connection. It is at the heart of our longing to belong. We experience it as a felt sense of being seen, heard, valued, not alone.

When clients interact with their horses, they describe connection as an energy being exchanged between them. A warmth in their chest. A feeling of electricity in their body. Joy. A sense of belonging.

We yearn for this connection, this sense of belonging. Deep in our soul, we know we are meant to belong to each other, to nature, to the universe, to the Divine as we understand it.

Beginning in the womb, we are connected by an umbilical cord to our mothers, through which we are nourished with oxygen and nutrients, but which may also merit consideration as “the route of love and care during pregnancy.” [1] It both tethers the baby to the placenta and uterine wall and provides the primary avenue for blood to circulate between them. Cells from the baby cross the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream and become part of her tissue. She will forever carry threads of her baby in her body, even as her baby individuates into their own discrete person.

After birth, the cord is clamped to stop this flow of blood, and then cut. Mother and baby, untethered. For the first time since conception, the baby must seek and be provided nourishment from the outside world. Irish poet John O’Donhue reflects that “to be born is an incredible event, a great disturbance. You are cast out; thrown from the cave into the light. It is interesting that your first moment of experience is a moment of disturbance. In its abrupt dislocation birth already holds the echo of death. The rhythm of this moment prefigures the subsequent rhythm of your life: parting and coming together. There can be no union without separation, no return without parting. No belonging is permanent. To live a creative and truthful life, it is vital to learn the art of being separate and the generosity of uniting.” [2]

In this “casting out,” we become keenly aware of being separated, literally disembodied from the one who carried and held us, to be thrust into a world filled with the immediacy of sensory input no longer filtered by our mother’s body; sound, light, air, touch reaching directly to our eyes, ears, skin with no buffer or shield. Oxygen no longer arrives in the blood via the umbilical cord. Babies gasp their first breath into lungs unaccustomed to taking in and expelling air. The oneness we so naturally shared, took for granted absolute -- shattered. Newborns placed on their mother’s chest will naturally mold against her body and root for her breast, seeking to reconnect with the warmth, nourishment and comfort provided in the womb.

Newborn foals can become ambulatory with an hour of birth, while newborn humans typically require upwards of 6 months of further development before they can even sit upright without support, and a further month or more to be able to crawl, and a full year before standing upright and taking steps is possible. Biologically, newborns are wired with an understanding that they must seek care from the environment in order to survive. In other words, abandonment is the equivalent of death, so it must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, babies adapt their care seeking strategies to the environments they find themselves in, using whatever behaviors “work” to bring a caregiver who will meet their need for nourishment, protection, comfort and care. If a behavior such as crying does not get their needs met, or results in a painful outcome, the baby will modify or extinguish that behavior. A baby’s nervous systems is incapable of calming without the co-regulating effect of a caregiver’s nervous system. “Self-soothing” is a myth. Babies who “learn not to cry” have essentially dissociated into a state of collapse or dissociation since crying did not get their needs met. These babies still long for connection and care, but learn to suppress that longing. This may lead a baby to develop a dismissive attachment style, which allows them to disconnect from their need in order not to feel the pain of it. They are not only disconnected from their caregiver, but also from themselves. The longing for connection does not go away, however, it goes under.

A desire for belonging is hardwired within us. O’Donohue writes, ‘It is the nature of the soul to belong.”[3] To be cast out from our family as an infant leads to an actual physical death, to experience rupture in relationship at any age activates this primal pathway of fear on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy frames connection as “a fundamental human need – the feeling of deep connection with social groups, physical places, and individual and collective experiences.” His study on the health impacts of loneliness and lack of connection found that it was associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. He concluded that loneliness is currently one of the greatest threats to our well-being as a society.[4]

We spend our lives pursuing a place to belong: a tribe where we experience being seen, held, felt, understood. We must be offered connection by another before we can be connected to ourselves. We must be connected enough before we can be separate enough to form a healthy sense of an individual self.

Relationships involve a natural cycle of rupture and repair. Intimacy is about regulating the closeness and distance between us, physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. In his famous poem On Marriage, Kahlil Gibran states, “let there be spaces in your togetherness.”[5] Most of us do not learn how to maintain connection in the face of conflict. If we have a more entangled attachment style, we may seek to soothe the discomfort of the discord with appeasing or pleasing behaviors, or go into “fight mode” to at least keep the interaction going, not allowing the other person to withdraw and therefore abandon us emotionally. Those with a more avoidant style will shut down and withdraw, essentially ejecting from the relationship to still the painful feelings activated by the disagreement. The brainstem, responsible for our survival, signals that this situation is not safe and steps must be taken to neutralize the threat to our safety.

As Aundi Kolber writes in her book, Try Softer, “essentially, we leave ourselves to stay safe. We do this because, brilliantly, it keeps us as protected as possible for a time. We become ready to react, respond, neutralize, overaccommodate, or dissociate from a relational threat as often as we need.”[6] We may also leave others, isolating ourselves from the chance this painful situation might happen again.

How can we develop a secure style of relating that allows us to stay connected to ourselves and others in times of miscommunication and conflict? Natural Lifemanship has developed a comprehensive model for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy whose central tenet holds that healthy relationship is the vehicle for healing and change. Two central principles are the concepts of attachment, or connection with closeness, and detachment, or connection with space. When our sense of safety is threatened by a real or perceived relational rupture, we may need to step back, literally or figuratively, to create some space between ourselves and other person or people involved in order to emotionally regulate and regain a sense of perspective about the situation.

Detachment can be a struggle for those of us who developed an insecure attachment style. Someone who leans towards the dismissive side may prefer a greater distance from others as relational intimacy has proven to be unpleasant or even dangerous for them. They are comfortable asking for space but do not know how to hold connection, so they disconnect or eject from the relationship, emotionally abandoning their partner. They have so successfully suppressed their longing for closeness that they do not even see their natural need for connection any longer. It may seem messy, inconvenient, inefficient and unnecessary. Those with a more preoccupied or entangled attachment style find detachment uncomfortable or even threatening, as this space represents potential abandonment. They want to keep their partner as close as possible, both physically and emotionally. Any amount of space activates their nervous system into hyper-arousal.

From the time of our birth, we are navigating the journey of longing and belonging, the dance of coming together and moving apart from the oneness of the womb to the separateness of the world, negotiating distance and closeness again and again as we navigate the complicated web of relationships in our families, society and world. It is a journey as often filled with complications as exhilaration, joys and sorrows, challenges and delights, confusion and clarity.

When our family lived in England, my then ten year old son became a huge fan of the British football team Liverpool. At every match, the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” was sung by the crowds, whether the team won or lost. Hearing the crowds roar, “When you walk through a storm/Hold your head up high/And don’t be afraid of the dark/Walk on through the wind/Walk on through the rain/Though your dreams be tossed and blown/Walk on with hope in your heart/Because you’ll never walk alone.”[7] The hope and promise of this song touches on the true longing of our heart to belong with and to those who will not abandon us in our struggles but accompany us on this often confusing and challenging journey of life.

Everyone needs connection with other people who long to belong, a safe community where the wounds of relational trauma can begin to heal and the internal and external ruptures that inevitably accompany us on our path from the womb into the world can be repaired. We are all interconnected. Healthy relationships are worth pursuing, worth the work of investing in and repairing when they break. No one ever needs to walk alone.

[1] Basta M, Lipsett BJ. Anatomy, Abdomen and Pelvis: Umbilical Cord. 2022 Jul 25. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan–. PMID: 32491321. [2] O’Donohue, J. (1999). Eternal Echoes. Perennial. [3] O’Donohue, J. (1999). Eternal Echoes. Perennial. [4] Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community ( [5] Gibran, K. (2018). Little Book of Love. Hampton Roads Publishing. [6] Kolber, A. (2020) Try Softer. Tyndale. [7] Longdon, Victoria. “Here’s how a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater ballad ended up as a symbol of Liverpool Football Club.” (www.

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