These words have put language to something I’ve felt in my bones for years. As a counsellor I see many folks who wrestle with a sense of being unrooted, uprooted, or rooted in unfortunate places on a regular basis. I bear witness to stories where roots could not be found, and encounter people who are searching out a space to belong.
Rootedness seems to be related to a sense of connection or belonging, the need we have to feel like we fit in, and the desire to identify as part of a group. It seems most of us have an innate desire to connect and belong somewhere; just yesterday I saw a group of gamers in a cafe as I picked up my coffee – huddled together at their tables working together, connecting around a shared interest. I sensed the group identity of the servers at Stella’s, as each seemed to fit a prototypical style/look – suggesting perhaps an unofficial corporate dress that signifies a sense of group belonging. I see it with my kids, as they move in rhythm with others at school and seek to build up community around them.
I think of my own childhood and the spaces I found to be most rooted. I didn’t have a strong sense of family connection with either extended or nuclear networks, in many ways I was adrift in that area. My need for rootedness was met instead at school – rooting in my identity as a diligent and conscientious student, and was also found in my experience at youth group and camp. These were places where I was able to feel a sense of kinship with others, and where I felt the most ‘at home’. These are instrumental spaces in my early narrative that have shaped and grown me into the person I am today.
MacMillian’s dictionary offers two definitions of the word rooted.
- if one thing is rooted in another, it is based on it, has developed from it, or is influenced by it
- strong and difficult to destroy
Excuse me while I retrieve my exploding heart and insert it back into my chest.
These definitions both capture the essence of what I think Weil was talking about. Being rooted is what enables us as people to understand on what we are based, where we have developed, what has influenced us – really, who we are and what we are about. When we are deeply rooted and have a secure sense of who we are and where we belong, our sense of Self is strong and difficult to destroy.
An article in The Atlantic a few years ago spoke to this important idea of being rooted, as it shared data from a study that revealed how, “adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.” What was notable about the article is that the quality or positivity of the family narrative was inconsequential. Crappy family stories, when shared with kids, actually also helped contribute to the formation of a more robust and secure sense of personhood. Having a sense of where we’ve come from, and being able to place ourselves in a forest of similar trees seems to be part of this rooted experience that Weil speaks of.
In therapy it’s safe to say a lot of clients come with issues that can ultimately be traced back to broken or insecure roots. When we aren’t rooted safely in early childhood, we miss out on understanding ourselves well – and can grow into people with a fragile sense of who we are and what we are about. Poor rooting early on can also lead to people placing roots down in the first available soil, which for many isn’t always the healthiest or most secure spot to latch on and identify. Couples, too, can present with concerns connected to an inability to feel rooted with each other. Often there is a longing to be that safe harbour for each other, but a lack of skill or capacity to do just that.
Sometimes in session I’ll describe the feeling of being unsettled with some frenetic hand motions – waving up high in the air. What I am doing with my body is showing what it feels like to be without roots. Flighty, disconnected, up in the air, not on the ground. The contrast to that sense of scatteredness is the motion of hands out, latching on to the ground like claws. Rooting. To be firmly planted, sunk in, feet on the ground and the earth steady. This sense of groundedness is what many folks long for and haven’t found.
Being able to wrap words around the feeling of unrootedness can be a therapeutic and healing experience. When people explore the struggles they had to root systemically – looking at their own story and the early barriers to rooting – and can practice compassion with themselves in that narrative, it can often be a very powerful and healing experience. Naming what was missed, grieving unmet needs, and practicing compassion with hurt or vulnerable parts makes room for movement forward, and hopefully the development of new spaces in which clients can be seen, known, and put down roots.
We aren’t all fortunate enough to have landed in families, communities, or safe spaces that allow us to form a clear sense of identity. I am grateful as a therapist to witness first hand the ways in which counselling can help to heal some of those broken spaces, and I’m privileged to help people discover a sense of who they are and what they are about through the course of working together.
Rooted. Where are your roots? What are you based on or influenced by? What are you about? Developing a cohesive story of where we have come from, what’s impacted us, and what we are about is an important part of feeling safe and secure in the world. Can this be risky to ask these questions? Definitely. But so is walking through the world feeling disconnected. It’s not too late, either. Reach out. Fill in the gaps. Ask your parents. Ask your siblings, a long time friend, a grandparent, or find a therapist to help you piece your own story together so that your feet can firmly plant and so you can meet the need that so many of us have to feel securely rooted in this often shifting world.