Will I fit in?

Will I meet people I can relate to?

Will I make friends?

How long will it feel uncomfortable for?

When will it all become familiar and normal to be here?

Will I lose touch with where I came from, my friends and family?

Do I have to stop being me and become someone different in order to belong here?

These are some of the questions that run through our minds when we start somewhere new. Going to university is one of the biggest transitions we make in our lives. Not only does it mean, for most students, moving away from home, sometimes to a new country, and leaving behind family and friends, but it also means encountering multiple new groups of people. There is a group of flat or housemates to get to know. There are much larger groups of fellow students on your course and in your department, and then smaller groups taking particular modules and in seminars. There are groups of varying size in the clubs, societies and sports teams that you think about joining. Everywhere you go, university is about groups.

But joining a group isn’t easy. Everyone – yes, everyone – finds it difficult, however confident and at ease they seem to be.

As human beings we are fundamentally social beings. We need to feel attachment, not just to a small number of intimate others – our immediate family and close friends – but to the people we meet out there in the world, away from home. We need to feel connected to wider networks, to intermediate groups, to the institutions and communities of which we become part, and to society more generally. To belong is a basic human need.

It might seem, therefore, that belonging should come naturally, that it should just happen. And to some extent it does. Over time, new people and strange places become familiar. We recognise faces in the crowd. We find the people we can relate to. We start to understand the culture. We learn the rhythms of our new life. We settle in. And suddenly, one day, we realise that it feels ok. Or better. It’s feels good to be here.

But before that happens, it often feels uncomfortable, unsettling, or worse. We might feel alienated and alone. We might feel utterly separate and different from everyone else. We might feel that no one notices us, or recognises us for who we are. We might feel lost in the crowd and that we do not belong.

In my work as a group analyst, I run therapy groups, and I have spent many years witnessing up close the struggles that people have in joining a group. They want to join the therapy group. They have chosen to do it. They think it’s the right thing to do at this point in their lives, and they are committing to do it. It will cost them time and money. It will involve sacrifice. But they think it will be worthwhile. They hope that they will learn and change through it. Yet, still it is a deeply ambivalent process. It is scary, at times, to even show up, let alone to speak. The whole thing feels odd and unnatural. They experience strong psychological urges to resist really joining the group and connecting with the other members. They focus on how different they are from everyone else in the group, and how impossible it is that anyone will understand them. Paradoxically, they also fear that they will merge with the group and lose their own identity, that they will change too much, and no longer recognise themselves, that they will become distant from the people who matter to them. So they back away from the group. They don’t participate. They are late. They miss sessions. They start wondering if it was a good idea in the first place. They undermine the very thing that they wanted to do, and the hope that they were investing in it for the future.

Now, a therapy group is certainly not the same as a group of flatmates, or a seminar group, or a university club or sports team. But there is the same basic, powerful tension at work for us, whatever group we are entering, between wanting to be part of the group and wanting not to be. We are all, when we join a new group, unconsciously torn between the desire to fit in, to be accepted by, to bond with the other members, and the desire to maintain our separateness, our difference and individuality. And that tension can be difficult to live with. It can be painful. It can sabotage our best intentions.

But, the good news is that if we recognise this, if we acknowledge that it is difficult to join a new group, and that we are not the only one feeling this, it can and does become easier. If we manage to stick with it, if we tolerate the early period of discomfort, then the feelings change. If we summon up the courage to say hello, if we dare to smile, if we risk sharing something of ourselves with people we don’t yet know, we will be rewarded. If we look for groups of potentially like-minded people, as well as challenging ourselves to reach out to people we think we have little in common with, we will find ourselves connecting. Because, if we participate, we will become part of things. We won’t agree with everyone we encounter. We won’t become best friends with everyone we meet. We might not even like everyone or everything we try our hand at. And that’s ok.

Gradually, over time, we start to feel at home. We start to feel like we belong.

Welcome to Essex. We are a diverse and friendly community, and you don’t have to stop being you to be one of us. Be brave, be you, and, in time, belong!

Sasha Roseneil is a group analyst and a sociologist. She is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and a Professor in the Department of Sociology.