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Written by Milly Sinclair 2023 

“The need to defend and define our pitch lies deep….such that crossing of boundaries has always been sacred and dangerous.”   Andrew Rumsey


Belonging is important.  It’s no secret that we have a deep desire to belong to something, to be part of a movement, a group of people or a system of beliefs.  Belonging helps us feel safe, connected, stimulated and cared for. This deep need to belong isn’t new, and hasn’t changed since the dawn of time.  It is not surprising that the forefather of Systemic Constellations, Hellinger, placed ‘Belonging’ as one of the bedrock ordering forces, or ‘invisible architecture’ of systems.   It is fundamental to our survival.


However, because of its importance it also is the cornerstone of most conflicts, both personal and systemic.   Simply put, to belong to a group often means others don’t belong.   There is a line drawn and a line will always, by its very nature, exclude others.  In our ancestral past, we would go to ‘war’ with those that didn’t belong to our tribe or group, and this ‘warring’ of ‘belonging groups’  is still happening now.  Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Ethiopia and Eritrea to name only a few.


“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

― Bertrand Russell, 




BELONGING is a primary human (and mammalian) instinct.   We are hardwired to belong as it is fundamental to our survival as individuals and as a species.   Our primary place of belonging is with our birth families.  When we are tiny infants, to be excluded from our family would mean certain death to us.   We see this unconscious knowledge in babies when their primary caregiver leaves the room, and they wail in terror in the fear they will not return.   


As I said, belonging means security, protection, care and survival.   Children who have never known ‘true belonging’ can be chaotic, vulnerable and susceptible to mental health problems in the future.   They often become adults whose sense of ‘belonging’ is so fractured they will either do anything to belong (we can see this in violent gangs of youths) or sabotage any relationship, any place of work or community before they themselves are excluded. We need to belong to survive AND thrive. 


 In our evolutionary past, to be excluded from our group or tribe, even as an adult, would mean almost certain death as we would be at the mercy of other belonging groups without protection.   Many studies with brain scans  have been done to prove that ‘exclusion’ lights up the same regions of the brain as acute physical pain.   Any of us that have experienced exclusion, either from our family, or community, or school or at work, will attest to this being true.  It is a visceral agony, and on one level, akin to death.  No wonder we will spend much time trying to avoid this feeling.




Our need to belong is so innate, primary and powerful that we may DO or BELIEVE anything to safeguard it.  Hellinger talks about this as the ‘personal conscience’ that  serves to bind us as individuals and safeguard our belonging to our group of reference (originally our family of origin, then organisations and other groups which we join).


This conscience is sensitive to what is allowed and what must be tolerated. In other words, it dictates how we need to behave or be to belong to the group. It ties those most vulnerable and sensitive, usually children, most firmly.


We feel this conscience directly, and experience it as innocence or guilt. It provides us with feelings of innocence if we take actions that will keep our membership of the group (even if they are highly counter-productive) and guilt if we take actions that threaten membership of the group.  This is why many previously peaceable Germans followed the dreadful tenets of Nazism, or Hutus that lived for generations by the side of Tutsis committed genocide in Rowanda.  To belong to the group and survive, certain beliefs had to be held and certain groups had to be destroyed.  


War is an extreme version of ‘belonging’ conflict of course.  However, we see these belonging group wars writ large in our social media age.  Often, like in a civil war, the most vitriolic of our ire is to those people who in many ways are similar to us, but diverge in some of their thinking.  Think of the culture wars around the trans debate, or vax debate, or climate, Brexit, abortion, or Black Lives Matter.   Often we are talking to the very small group that think exactly like us, and ‘de-friend’ ‘cancel’ or ‘de-platform’  those that diverge even the smallest amount.  Nothing is transformed but only calcified.




“We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours”

― Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life


Andrew Rumsey, in his book ‘English Grounds’ says crossing the divide is ‘Dangerous and Sacred.’  If we are to work with conflict in a transformative way, in ANY context, whether in our personal, community, organisational or international level, we have to face the powerful draw of our own ‘belonging systems’ and what we may have compromised to belong.  We need to understand that in almost any conflict that we are tasked to help, we will have a ‘side’ that fits more closely with our own ‘belonging system’.   To face this is courageous and sacred work.   It is only then we can loosen the boundaries  that blind us to ‘the other’ and be able to see them more clearly.   


This doesn’t mean we have to ‘agree’ with the other.  Their views may be abhorrent to us, and we may need to speak strongly and clearly about injustice; think of Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Extinction Rebellion and countless others.   However we have to understand the blindness that our belonging can foster; the blindness to the humanity of the other.   Our primary objective has  to connect with the ‘others’ common humanity, otherwise our conflict intervention will not transform anything at all.  


If we cannot do this work with some level of objectivity, with an ability to cross ‘both sides of the divide’ and connect with the ‘others’ common humanity, we cannot work with this particular conflict.  There is no judgment in this; some conflicts I cannot work in because it would be too dangerous, too compromising and too painful.    We need to know what these ‘red lines’ are.




We must recognise that those of us whose identities have been vilified and excluded; for example for their sexual orientation, gender, race/ ethnicity, culture,religion, politics; will have experienced trauma.   Trauma can tie us very strongly to ‘belonging’ to a group of fellow ‘survivors.’ as we more deeply identify with a group that shares our wounding.   Crossing the divide to those that have vilified us takes an exceptional courage that few of us have.  It may be too difficult and dangerous.


Those that do manage to cross the trauma divide to reach those that ‘vilify us’ are exceptional and reverberate  through the whole world.  We can  see this in the Civil Rights Movement in the US, or in the Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa.  Watching a black South African mother ‘cross the divide’ to embrace a former white supremasist who has murdered her son and they both weep is a sight so moving, so profound that it fills us with awe and shakes us to the core.  The ‘Forgiveness Project’, created by the journalist Marina Cantacuzinothat shares the stories of exceptional people across cultures, who have ‘crossed the divide’ into reconciliation and healing of those who have harmed them reminds us that such dangerous and sacred paths have been trod before us.



In my work with an Interfaith and Intercultural Peace activist charity, called Spirit of Peace, that primarily works in Israel/ Palestine, I have seen second hand how dangerous this work is.  An extraordinary Imam has spent years ‘crossing the divide’ between Israelis and Palestinians, and has had endless death threats from his ‘own people’ and those ‘across the divide’ , and more than once been hospitalised.   He told me 


‘The irony of Peace work is it is rarely peaceful; it is full of conflict and you can find yourself torn apart by both sides.’  


Again, an extreme case, but In any conflict, it takes a certain courage to be a ‘bridge builder.’  All sides (and there maybe more than two) will want to co opt you to their way of thinking.  


We need to be well resourced within ourselves, and have some positive places of ‘belonging’ to do transformational conflict work.  It asks a lot of us.  Ironically, we have to securely belong enough, to be rooted enough, to be able to loosen the boundaries and to cross the divide.  Martin Luther King calls this the ‘Beloved Community,’ that he imagines the other side of his work in civil rights.    


“This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”


The work is ‘Sacred’ because it asks us to draw on wider and wider identities of ourselves.  We do not have to lose our places of belonging, but we are able to both include and transcend them.   We are able, even if we profoundly disagree with what a group or person is doing, to connect with them in our common humanity.  We start to notice things we had failed to notice; the Victim in the Perpetrator, the Poverty in the Oppressor.  We find ourselves more at ease at the edges of things.  Transforming conflict is about moving through the pain, the difficulty, the division to find the ‘beloved community.,’ or as Rumi beautifully put it;  “Beyond rightdoing, and wrongdoing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.’


We can see things a little more clearly to make the intervention that needs to be made. 


“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”Mother Teresa,



Systemic constellations at its best is a process of ‘radical inclusion.’  One of the first questions a systemic practitioner asks is;; ‘Who or what has been excluded that belongs in this system?.’   In our conflict transformational work, It is often the excluded element when re-integrated that unblocks the whole system.      Everything can be included in the system; Rage AND Vulnerability, The Perpetrator, AND The Victim,  The Voiceless AND The Heard,  The forgotten AND The remembered,  All can have their space and place in the constellation.   


As systemic conflict practitioners, we can widen our ways of seeing the world and be able to recognise the truth of what is, include more in our field of vision, and then with humility make the one true move that can support movement and growth.  We can do the ‘sacred and dangerous work’ and cross the divide.

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