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The Belonging Wound: Navigating Mixed Identity and Healing Through Somatic Practice

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Throughout history, the need to connect and belong has been as crucial as air and water. Our ancestors thrived by forming bonds, sharing survival strategies, and uniting in the face of adversity.


Fast forward to today, and studies show that belonging is still tied to our well-being. A recent report from the U.S. Surgeon general reveals that social connection influences our cardiovascular health, our chances of contracting infectious diseases, our mental health, our health behaviors, and more (OSG, 2023). 


Belonging matters.


But here’s the thing: belonging isn't a one-size-fits-all deal. It's not just about having people around; it's about having connections with those who get your life experiences, interests, and goals. 

mixed person in anguish

Among the many definitions of belonging are “feeling accepted” and “feeling at home.”


This is where it gets tricky for a lot of mixed folks; many of us grew up being (or still are) the only mixed person in our family, school, or community. And even when that’s not the case, many of us still feel distinctly different and misunderstood. We are no stranger to rejection.


Mixed people are more common than ever, but that doesn’t mean that we are beacons of a new world. Many studies have shown that multiracial young adults are more likely to struggle with mental health and that they are also less likely to seek support (Miller B, 2019). Potentially, this is because they aren’t confident that others will understand their experience and concerns. Knowing how much mental health influences other aspects of health, we can assume this puts multiracial people at greater risk of many health outcomes.


There’s a lot to be done on a systemic level to address the needs of mixed people, and there are also steps we can take to empower ourselves. In this blog, I introduce my concept of The Belonging Wound and offer insight into how somatic practice can help mixed people heal their own belonging wounds.


Belonging and The Mixed Experience


Outer Belonging


As mixed people our layered racial and cultural identities mean that we have the potential to belong to many different groups, while simultaneously being at risk of being viewed by others as outsiders (Brackett et al., 2006; Gaither, 2018). 


Many of the clients I work with constantly battle feeling like “too much” or “not enough” of their identities to claim them as actual identities or build community with others. At the same time, they also say they have the ability to adapt to different groups and spaces very easily. 


While it sometimes feels like a gift to be so open to different human experiences, it seems that, in part, this shape shifting behavior also feels compulsive and burdensome. Of course, these kinds of tensions are experienced by some more than others. Mixed people are not a monolith.


Research suggests that how mixed people experience connection and belonging is influenced by how we self-identify as well as how others perceive us, and that these two factors interact.


While some of us find belonging through our mixed identity, not all of us identify as multiracial (Parker, K, 2015). For instance, multiracial people who feel they look like one race tend to identify with one race, whereas multiracial people who regularly received feedback that their appearance doesn’t “match” their background tend to identify as multiracial (Parker, K, 2015).


Our perception of who we are and where we belong differs across unique mixed blends and phenotypes, and is influenced by other factors such as our proximity to different racial groups, social-historical legacies (e.g. the one-drop rule), and more (Parker, K, 2015; Jasmine, B, 2023). 


And, of course, mixed people hold additional (and sometimes marginalized) identities that also provide other opportunities and complications for belonging. We are not just mixed, we are mixed AND: mixed AND Queer, mixed AND neurodivergent, mixed AND adopted. 


Inner Belonging


Inner belonging is a connection to yourself. Beyond social constructs of identity, it is a feeling of knowing who you are and a deep belief that you have a right to be here. 


In my experience many mixed people also struggle with inner belonging as a result of our experiences of outer rejection.


When we lack inner belonging, we tend to either isolate ourselves, hurt others (whether intentionally or unintentionally), or abandon our values and needs in desperation for connection. Yet, in this kind of connection we are not able to truly experience others in an authentic and mutual way that builds belonging, we are actually seeking approval.


As infants, we learn that we matter through our interactions with our caregivers and others in the world. This is how we build our sense of Self, self-worth, and self-trust. 


What is difficult about lacking inner belonging as adults is that on a neurobiological level we do need others to heal, but we also hold personal responsibility in building a sense of inner belonging, self-worth, and self-trust.


Racism and The Mixed Experience


One of the first components of any healing journey is normalizing what you’re struggling with. When it comes to addressing wounds related to relationships and belonging, it’s validating to know that you are not alone; that there are others who share your experiences. It’s also particularly powerful when others can put, or help you put, words to your experience.


Microaggressions


Studies by psychologist and researcher, Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal (2011 and 2013), shed light on often overlooked microaggressions experienced by mixed people. Dr. Nadal’s studies have investigated microaggressions perpetrated by family members as well as the general public. 


The microaggressions studied include:


Questioning of Authenticity


Facing doubts or skepticism about the legitimacy of your identity. e.g. Being questioned about your relation to your family or judged for not speaking a certain language.


Denial of Multiracial Identity Experiences


Encountering resistance or disbelief from monoracial people about your identity and experiences. e.g. Being expected to “get over it” or being made to feel sensitive about receiving unwanted stares in public.


Exclusion or Isolation


Feeling left out or isolated from social groups. e.g. “You’re not really Black!” or being called names like an “oreo.” Feeling isolated within your family. Not feeling entitled to participating in cultural traditions.


Exoticization and Objectification


Experiencing being objectified or treated as an exotic “other.” e.g. Strangers inquiring about your mix. Being told “you’re so exotic” or “you have good hair.”


Pathologizing Identity or Experiences


Being stigmatized or treated as abnormal. e.g. Nadal shares an example from his study where a “[monoracial Asian woman] said she was disgusted by Asian women that..demean themselves by being with White men because they thought that it would move them upward in society.”


Assumption of Monoracial Identity


Others presuming a singular racial identity rather than acknowledging the complexity of being mixed. e.g. Being spoken to in languages you don’t speak, being assumed to be a completely different identity than you are.


Favoritism


Experiencing preferential treatment or bias within your family or workplace, for instance. e.g. Being treated differently based on skin tone, hair texture, or languages spoken.


Additional Microaggressions


It should also be noted that mixed people do experience microaggressions based on racial stereotypes typically attributed to monoracial people, such as being assumed to be a criminal (common for African Americans) or a foreigner (common for Asian Americans) (Nadal, 2011).


Systemic Racism


In addition to the interpersonal examples provided above, there are also unique systemic ways that mixed people experience racism, such as filling out demographic forms where you can only check one box or having to prove relation to receive services.


Overall, regardless of the source of racism, many studies on racism and racial trauma have identified a significant relationship between microaggressions, systemic racism, and health outcomes, including mental health outcomes.


Trauma and The Mixed Experience


Complex trauma offers a framework for making sense of the impact of these aggressions and other challenges experienced by mixed people.


Complex Racialized Trauma


Complex trauma results from exposure to multiple and/or chronic traumatic experiences. It is often interpersonal and occurs in childhood, but this isn’t always the case. 


Some interpersonal examples of things that can cause complex trauma include abuse, emotional neglect, and psychological maltreatment. These are not single incident events, but are a thousand small (or sometimes big!) wounds inflicted over time.


Complex trauma can also arise from systemic factors such as poverty, poor medical care, and other forms of oppression, such as microaggressions. Circumstances like war and genocide are also sources of complex trauma. For marginalized people, trauma is often ongoing. 


Many trauma experts agree that racism and racial trauma are forms of complex trauma. In addition, that many - if not all - interpersonal forms of violence are influenced by systemic traumas, and a general culture of trauma (Duran, 2006). Many anti-racist thinkers would even argue that racial categories in and of themselves are inherently oppressive. 


That said, many mixed people live with complex trauma as a result of past and ongoing experiences within their families, in their broader communities, and navigating systems.


What’s important to note is that because complex trauma is such a persistent and/or early life experience, the brain doesn’t store the memories in the same way you might remember a single-incident mildly stressful event or what you did yesterday; instead the brain stores the memories as emotional data.


Emotions are data that help us figure out how to navigate our experiences and interactions quickly. As a result, complex trauma survivors don’t experience flashbacks in the way we often seem them portrayed in the media. Instead, complex trauma survivors experience emotional flashbacks. Intended to sound the alarm and protect us from further harm, these flashbacks often make it  difficult to discern how “real” or imminent danger really is, which therefore makes sussing out belonging and other relationship issues difficult.


These emotional flashbacks can last for brief moments of time, but they can also be chronic states of being that are then interpreted as personality. They can also shape our core beliefs about ourselves, as well as the world. These are some examples of what these states can look like, whether brief or long term.


This chart shows different trauma responses

Many survivors of complex trauma struggle with shame, isolation, constantly questioning themselves, a lack of identity, feeling defective, and relationship issues like people pleasing or trying to fill a void. 


Attachment Trauma


Attachment trauma sits under the umbrella of complex trauma and results specifically from early life relationship experiences such as abuse and neglect. 


Early life experiences involving abuse and neglect stunt creativity and curiosity and instill fear. When we feel unsafe or unloved we develop thoughts, feelings and behaviors that leave us feeling insecure and inadequate. 


As a result, we don’t get to explore who we really are. We don’t learn how to regulate our emotions. We don’t feel safe in our own bodies. And we don’t learn how to be in healthy relationships (e.g. have healthy attachments) with other people.


Often, discussions about attachment and attachment trauma focus on caregiver-child relationships as well as the impact on our intimate relationships in adulthood. But attachment disruptions can actually impact many aspects of our lives, including our friendships and our relationships to institutions and systems.


Mixed people are often constantly assessing safety and belonging every where we go. Because of our attachment disruptions with people, cultures, and institutions, the struggle for security can span across many life domains. We aren’t sure who or what to trust; sometimes, we aren’t even sure if we can trust ourselves.


Healing Complex Racialized Attachment Trauma


While the medical industrial complex tends to view these symptoms as problems - and indeed that can present a number of challenges to our daily functioning - what’s important to remember is that these are all actually adaptations. Trauma is not what happened/happens to us, it is the outcome and adaptation resulting from what happened to us.


And that is what makes complex and attachment trauma so complex and so difficult to heal from. It’s not as simple as rewiring one thought or one way of seeing the world; it’s an intricate web of mental, emotional, and relational responses to being harmed. It’s wired in us to prevent us from experiencing harm again.


For our bodies, maintaining these adaptations is key to our survival. That said, healing complex trauma cannot happen solely through cognitive restructuring or talk therapy; it has to happen on a whole body, whole ecosystem level.


Somatic approaches help people address complex trauma by:


  1. Rebuilding safety back into the body through somatic coping strategies

  2. Processing trauma that is stuck in the body through attuning to emotions, sensation, impulses, and more

  3. Cultivating new somatic shapes, behavioral patterns, and ways of being in relationship with ones self, others, and the world

The Belonging Wound


Many, many studies on mixed people highlight that greater acceptance and less rejection from others leads to more life satisfaction and better health outcomes.


Yet, essentialist views about race are still very present in our society and continue to inform how monoracial people interact with mixed people, as evidenced by Nadal’s research on microaggressions.


Furthermore, research and theory on intergenerational trauma suggests that these views aren’t always consciously held or explicitly expressed, they are also informed by intergenerational shaping passed down through language, mannerisms, emotions, and other subtle pathways  (Menakem, 2017). 


These perspectives are a symptom of a much larger issue; the trauma culture that stems from the legacy of capitalism and colonialism (Linklater, 2014). This context and the ways it manifests in our interpersonal relationships leaves many mixed people haunted by at least two questions:


This graphic illustrates the pathway for the belonging wound.

Who am I?


AND


Where do I belong?


The unique way that colonial and racial trauma impact mixed people results in what I call The Belonging Wound: deeply held insecurity around identity and belonging that shapes our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships.


You might be wondering…why not The Identity Wound? Well, this is because we often build identity through belonging (inner and outer) and we often find places to belong through our identity and related experiences.


This chart depicts how The Belonging Wound happens. In reality, life is not so linear, but this is one way to conceptualize the pathway.



Rejection Sensitivity and Mixed People


Extrapolating on research focused on racial trauma, mixed race identity, and health outcomes, I believe that many of the symptoms mixed people experience, especially in my own arena of mental health and relational health, are at least in part shaped by racial trauma and the marginalization of mixed people. 


Therapist and racial trauma expert Resmaa Menakem says that, “trauma in a person decontextualized over time can look like personality. Trauma in a family decontextualized over time can look like family traits, trauma decontextualized in a people over time can look like culture.” 


Working from this understanding, mental health diagnoses and symptoms such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidality, and more are all decontextualized symptoms of a much larger relational, political, and systemic issue.


In my own practice and in my many conversations with mixed people, including other therapists and coaches who work with mixed people, one of the primary themes I’ve noticed is insecurity related to belonging, how others perceive you, and what you have the “right”  to when it comes to identity or tradition. Indeed, the research I described early in the blog points to how others perceive us being a primary driver of our own identity, and subsequent sense of belonging.


In particular, I notice that many mixed people struggle with things such as social anxiety and imposter syndrome, which lead to behaviors like people pleasing or trying to fill voids with relationships that are actually harmful. It can even fuel behaviors of rejecting or hurting others before they can reject or hurt you. Overall, mixed people can struggle to find the right balance between self-protection and connection.


As discussed in the attachment trauma section, The Belonging Wound can touch every aspect of a mixed person’s life because belonging is important everywhere, not just in our friend groups. This can show up in our personal relationships and it can also show up at work. Maybe you struggle with advocating for yourself at work, or at the doctor, for instance. Maybe you struggle to feel grounded or justified to participate in movement and organizing spaces.


Many individuals with ADHD report feeling hyper-sensitive to rejection. While it’s not a symptom listed in the DSM, it’s theorized that what is colloquially referred to as rejection sensitive dysphoria is the longterm result of early and repeated life experiences of being rejected, being told they are “too much,” too hyper, too loud, or “not enough,” not focused, not smart enough, and so on.


I believe that something similar happens for many mixed people. As a result of microaggressions within and beyond our family units, a lack of representation, and likely many other factors, many of the mixed clients I work with are incredibly preoccupied with avoiding rejection. So much so that they often anticipate rejection or read interactions as rejection even when it’s not the case. 


These patterns are protective strategies shaped by complex trauma. They are in part very real - mixed people continue to be marginalized and experience discrimination, even perpetrated by people they share blood with. But, they are often also emotional learnings as a result of complex trauma, and therefore will often arise in situations where there is no emotional danger, including integrating into our overall personality or somatic shape.


Depictions of different somatic shapes

Of course, again, this is all generally very decontextualized. I’ve worked with clients whose protective defenses worked so well that they actually obscured deeply held fears of rejection and abandonment. As we pull the pieces together, clients often realize just how much they do make sense.


Healing The Belonging Wound


healing hands

I often work with clients on sharpening their ability to discern situation-to-situation whether they are experiencing (or at risk of experiencing) rejection or if it’s a habitual feeling shaped by their trauma.


Because here’s the thing: if you allow your fear of rejection to lead your life that often means you miss out on actually finding the people who accept you fully as you are, in all your layers and complexity.


A friend of mine and marketing expert always gives the advice in business to “attract the best and repel the rest.” 


What she means is, when you are authentic you will naturally weed out the people you don’t jive with, and naturally attract those you do. In fact, you might attract someone to you based on the very thing you thought was most appalling or rejection-worthy in you.


Yet, because for many of us the belonging wound is deeply embodied as an adaptation to complex trauma, it’s not always as simple as making a quick choice to be yourself. 

In fact, many survivors of complex trauma - mixed or not - struggle with the question of, Who Am I? This is because trauma keeps us preoccupied with protection and avoiding harm, rather than helping us stay open to connection and self-expression. It also makes imagination difficult, which is more necessary to a thriving life than one might expect!


Healing The Belonging Wound therefore requires:


  1. Understanding critical social, historical, and political context surrounding the mixed experience

  2. Rebuilding safety back into the body through coping strategies

  3. Processing, grieving, and releasing trauma (embedded survival strategies)

  4. Exploration and experimentation with aspects of one's identities and values to build confidence

  5. Positive connections - old and new - that gently challenge the rejection narrative, and the cultivation of new ways of being in relationship with ones self, others, and the world

You can read more about my take on the unique embodiment needs of mixed people here.


Help for Mixed People


Root to Rise Somatics exists as a safe container for mixed folks to heal their Belonging Wound. Here are a few ways we can work together:


  1. Take my free 3-day minicourse: Embodiment Essentials for Mixed People. When you sign up, you’ll receive three days of somatic practices for coping with triggers and building confidence directly in your inbox. Learn embodiment basics that will help you feel build community with less anxiety and more joy. 

  2. Attend a Mindful Mixer: a free monthly online gathering I host where you can connect with other mixed people. Each mixer starts with yoga and mindfulness before transitioning to group discussion.

  3. Schedule a free no pressure consultation to work 1:1 with me. I provide somatic trauma therapy to Michigan residents and identity and belonging-focused coaching to mixed people worldwide.


Works Cited


Allen, K.-A., Kern, M. L., Rozek, C. S., McInereney, D., & Slavich, G. M. (2021). Belonging: A review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(1), 87–102. doi:10.1080/00049530.2021.1883409


Duran, E. (2006). Healing the soul wound: Counseling with American Indians and other native peoples. Teachers College Press.


Fenella Fleischmann & Amina Op De Weegh (2022) Majority acceptance vs. rejection of ‘being both’ facilitates immigrants’ bicultural identity blendedness and positive affect, Self and Identity, 21:5, 506-526, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2021.1929437


Greenfield, Meira. (2022) Healing Racial Trauma from a C-PTSD Perspective. PTSD Therapy, Autism & EMDR. https://urimrecovery.com/healing-racial-trauma-as-c-ptsd/ 


Haim-Litevsky, D., Komemi, R., & Lipskaya-Velikovsky, L. (2023). Sense of belonging, meaningful daily life participation, and well-being: Integrated investigation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(5). doi:10.3390/ijerph20054121


Huh, H. J., Kim, S.-Y., Yu, J. J., & Chae, J.-H. (2014). Childhood trauma and adult interpersonal relationship problems in patients with depression and anxiety disorders. Annals of General Psychiatry, 13(1), 26. doi:10.1186/s12991-014-0026-y


Jasmine B. Norman & Jacqueline M. Chen (2020) I am Multiracial: Predictors of Multiracial identification strength among mixed ancestry individuals, Self and Identity, 19:5, 501-520, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2019.1635522


Jasmine B. Norman, Marisa G. Franco & Jacqueline M. Chen (2023) Multiracial individuals’ experiences of rejection and acceptance from different racial groups and implications for life satisfaction, The Journal of Social Psychology, 163:4, 459-479, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2021.1996322


Linklater R. & Mehl-Madrona L. (2014). Decolonizing trauma work : indigenous stories and strategies. Fernwood Publishing.


Menakem, M. (2017). My Grandmother's Hands. [United States], Central Recovery Press, LLC.


Miller, B., Rocks, S., Catalina, S., Zemaitis, N., Daniels, K., & Londono, J. (2019). The missing link in contemporary health disparities research: a profile of the mental and self-rated health of multiracial young adults. Health Sociology Review: The Journal of the Health Section of the Australian Sociological Association, 28(2), 209–227. doi:10.1080/14461242.2019.1607524


Nadal, Kevin & Author, Corresponding & Wong, Yinglee & Griffin, Katie & Sriken, Julie & Vargas, Vivian & Wideman, Michelle & Ajayi, Kolawole. (2011). Microaggressions and the Multiracial Experience. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. 1. 


Nadal, Kevin & Sriken, Julie & Davidoff, Kristin & Wong, Yinglee & Mclean, Kathryn. (2013). Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People. Family Relations. 62. 190-201. 10.2307/23326035. 


Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2023-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK595227/


Parker, Kim, Horowitz, J.M., Morin, R., Lopez, M. H. (2015). Multiracial in America. Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/


Schwartz, Arielle. (2020) Complex PTSD and Attachment Trauma. https://drarielleschwartz.com/complex-ptsd-and-attachment-trauma-dr-arielle-schwartz/


Theisan, Angela. (2022) Is a sense of belonging important? Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/is-having-a-sense-of-belonging-important


Photos by Kat Love

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