This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My executive coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.

Experiences of belonging

March 10, 2024
I've been reflecting on belonging the last couple weeks, a topic that I have written about before but recent experiences have brought to mind once again.

I attended the California Conference for Women on Leap Day, February 29th. Unsurprisingly but still disappointingly, only about 1% of the attendees were men. The surprising thing for me was that I didn't feel like an outsider. Yes, I was in the extreme minority to the point I couldn't find a bathroom because they had converted most of the restrooms into women's restrooms. But I knew a couple other people there, and even those I didn't know appreciated my presence as a man who was there to support women and not take center stage. I felt as if I belonged because I chose to be there, and the larger community welcomed me.

Another experience of belonging occurred this past week as I attended the first week of the Trauma-Informed Coaching Certificate program, run by Thomas Hübl and Amy Elizabeth Fox of Mobius Executive Leadership. Thomas identified three human needs of Being (as we are, rather than Doing to earn our place), Becoming (embracing our purpose) and Belonging (as our whole selves, not cutting off parts of ourselves to fit in) (he explains more in this podcast). When those needs are not met, especially in childhood, it leads to trauma.

One particularly poignant observation about trauma is that it creates filters through which we view the world, filters that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hübl observed that until we change our filters, we can't create a different future. An example from my own life is that I never felt like I belonged, that I always had to make an effort to fit in. This filter made sense in my younger days, when I struggled to fit in as a half-Korean kid in an overwhelmingly white town, and as a half-white kid when we moved to Korea for two years, and as a socially awkward geek after we moved back. But the filter then created its own reality; my belief that I could never belong meant that I never made an attempt to connect, which was reciprocated, which reinforced that belief that I didn't belong.

Somewhat surprisingly, I felt as if I belonged from the opening session of this week's in-person workshop, despite not knowing any of the other attendees. I put down my filter, and trusted that the people I met would be like-minded seekers and open to courageous and vulnerable connection, and my trust was rewarded with belonging. I met many new friends and forged deep connections in only a few days because I showed up as my whole self, and didn't feel I had to hide parts of myself to fit in.

It was particularly poignant for me, as the conference was held at a hotel in Boston near TEP, where I first found belonging and acceptance as my whole self. On Friday morning, I walked by TEP and reflected on how a scared and anxious teenager was given the gift of belonging by finding TEP's "High Weirdness Area" when he felt desperately alone. Meanwhile, my present self was given the gift of belonging by choosing to attend this workshop, and dropping my filters to open myself to more connection. Time is a flat circle.

I will share more in future posts after I have processed the profound experiences I had. In the meantime, you can check out my updates from this past week where I shared one key concept I learned each day:
And now for the normal personal development content…

Book-related content:
LinkedIn: These are ideas that have helped my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience, and archive here.
  • It's not about you. That disproportionate reaction you're witnessing? It's theirs, not yours. You haven't necessarily done anything wrong, but are reminding them about some past painful experience. Rather than defend against the attack and take it personally, try to calm down, and let their experience run its course.
  • Maybe you should ask them. When you're struggling to figure out how to handle another person, get curious about identifying the real problem. Instead of being locked in conflict across the table, get on the same side of the table and work on the shared problem together.
  • How will you increase the quality of your time? Time appears to be a zero-sum game: one hour spent working is an hour not spent with family, with friends, with passion projects, or on our health. But it can be exponentially more valuable to spend one quality hour than several meaningless hours. Pay attention to the quality, not quantity, of how you spend your time.
  • What is your intent as a leader? Many people misunderstand leadership as getting more people to follow them. They do whatever what it takes to get people to follow by telling them what they want to hear. But I don't see that as leadership, as they are following what others want. Leadership in my view is about identifying a future possibility and inviting other people into an effort to change things to reach that possibility.
Here are a few links on the theme of connection and belonging:

    • My friend Lina Srivastava started a newsletter called Notes on a Present Future, Narratives for Social Transformation, to curate "a space of shared hope highlighting the individuals, networks, and communities shaping our world for the better, and uplifting stories of people who are reframing the past, rebuilding the present, and reimagining the future." I also loved her Medium essay titled Love as a Verb: "Integrating love into our social systems is a political act. Infusing societal values of joy, care, and solidarity into our interconnected networks helps dismantle oppression and promote collective well-being. Love is a catalyzing force, especially if, as bell hooks wrote, it is used as a verb."
    • Black Success, White Backlash, by Elijah Anderson in The Atlantic. "To survive in white workplaces, Black newcomers must perform an elaborate dance in which they demonstrate their distance from the ghetto. ... This need to constantly perform respectability for white people is a psychological drain, leaving Black people spent and demoralized." The price of fitting in instead of fully belonging means that anybody who doesn't look like the default white male in such environments is paying a mental, emotional and physical tax that prevents them from reaching their potential.
    • Lean Into Negative Emotions. It’s the Healthy Thing to Do, a NY Times article by Melinda Wenner Moyer, who also writes the excellent parenting newsletter, Is My Kid the Asshole? "When you experience a bad feeling, you don’t have to love the feeling, just try to feel neutral about it. ... emotional acceptance could make change easier: If we aren’t focusing our time and energy on critiquing our feelings, we have more time and energy to better our lives and change the world." This feels particularly relevant to me this week since one of the key techniques of trauma-informed coaching is to tune into the emotions and sensations present in the body, rather than suppressing or repressing those emotions to fit in.
    Thanks for reading! See you in a couple weeks!
    Boston's not my home but it still holds a special place in my heart.
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