Feeling you belong is the key to happiness
- Credit: Supplied
Hampstead-based child psychiatrist Dr Holan Liang has followed up her bestselling parenting book with an exploration on belonging.
A Sense of Belonging: How To Find Your Place In A Fractured World (Short Books £12.99) sprang from personal experience - just like her 2017 book Inside Out Parenting.
"Like everyone else I struggled with parenting which was a bit amusing because I should know what I am doing," says the mum of two.
"The new book is quite personal because of my own anxieties and mental health experiences. It's very much about how I can be struggling with those problems when I am a psychiatrist myself."
Dr Liang believes our identity crisis around belonging cuts to the heart of the modern epidemic of anxiety and depression. Being liked, understood and accepted for who we are is difficult, but vital for mental health.
The book shares her life story alongside patient case studies.
"It stemmed from my personal journey and the realisation that everyone seeks so much to belong that they hide or change things about themselves," she says. "I realised there were parts of myself that I had not been accepting. With me it was being an immigrant. Race had been an issue and accepting that and moving on made me feel a lot better."
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Dr Liang arrived in Swansea from Taiwan aged three when her father started a PHD.
"Wales was not very diverse. I couldn't speak a word of English, and the first word I learnt at school was pardon because I would speak to people in Chinese and they would say 'pardon'."
She remembers the annual trip from Wales to London "to buy soy sauce," before the family moved to Golders Green when she was eight.
"My parents didn't know anything about the whole schools arms race. Our headteacher in Wales had told them about Henrietta Barnett School; but they were clueless. We arrived after my sister should have sat the 11 Plus and went to Whitefields and Wessex Gardens, but within a year she was at Henrietta Barnett and my other sister was at Garden Suburb Junior School."
Hauled out of class by a teacher complaining her parents had only chosen Henrietta Barnett for her, she told them "they've already bought the uniform."
She did get in and recalls how her parents found a subculture in London where there was a larger Taiwanese community and her mum could work.
"They were a lot happier, and you notice that as a child."
But over the years she's experienced bosses implying she's not British and her CV being ignored because of her name.
"I grew up fairly British and fluent, but my parents never learnt to speak English very well and I was exposed to a lot of racism directed at them. Towards the end I started seeing there was racism directed at me too. Even though culturally I felt British, that's not how people saw me. It made me angry. My husband is a white south African who came to this country in his 20s and even though I became British 20 years before him, I saw we were treated differently. The only difference was our skin colour."
Dr Liang's book lays out the causes of why we might feel like outsiders, struggle to connect, or not feel accepted by our family, such as life trauma, neurodiversity, disability, or homosexuality. But she says whether at work, school or home, our sense of belonging can be "really nuanced." People might feel they don't fit into their families because they are not academic or sporty. Societal prejudice - around race, sexuality, or diversity - can exacerbate the feeling, but it's how we internalise it that matters.
"We often don't recognise it's our acceptance of ourselves which is hampering our ability to get better," she says.
"Yes there are things that society can do better. You can make your voice heard, speak out on things, but also work on yourself. The majority of feeling better is going to come from internal acceptance. True acceptance is knowing who you are warts and all and saying 'I'm Ok with that'."
But that requires self awareness, says Dr Liang, who warns of the pitfalls of people pleasing and changing yourself to fit in.
"Sometimes it's better not to belong. If your family is dysfunctional and toxic, it's better to be out of it."
Liang herself went into medicine to please her parents but realised it was "a very poor choice for me".
"I thought about leaving then found a speciality I could enjoy."
She chose child psychiatry - and wrote the parenting book about building self esteem - because "things are easier to change earlier on, they are less entrenched."
Much of her work is with parents themselves, who arrive with their own issues around mental health and wellbeing.
"We have to train them first to effect change in families." One example is how parents rarely tell their children what they are not good at.
"That can be flawed and harmful because it affects the child's self awareness. It's never right to be cruel, but there's no point telling them they are cleverest person when they are not. Rather than give them a false sense of themselves, reflect back the reality of who they are and say 'we accept and love you just as you are.'"
Dr Liang hopes the book will help readers understand the causes of loneliness, prioritise the things that matter, and find their tribe. For her it was also "therapy and catharsis".
"The first versions were a lot more angry and I'm thankful for having the time to rewrite it. I feel I was happier with myself and it put to bed some of the issues that were making me angry. Publishers always ask who would want to buy your book. It was mainly for myself but also anyone who has felt a lack of belonging."