As I write this morning, I am sitting in my favorite coffee shop. Gathered around me are different groups—a large circle of women discussing a book; friends chatting in hushed voices over steaming pumpkin-spiced drinks; and businesspeople analyzing marketing plans. I recall a time that sitting here, observing all of this connection, would have made me feel alone—unseen, misfit, outcast.

Not today.

Naming that evokes varied emotions: deep sorrow for the young woman who felt so alone and profound gratitude to be the woman sitting here today.

I distinctly remember another day in another coffee shop. I had dropped the boys, ages 2 and 5, at Mother’s Day Out across the street, and I stopped in for a cinnamon crunch bagel and a Diet Coke. I sat alone, slathering embarrassing amounts of cream cheese on my bagel and eavesdropping on conversations from nearby tables. Women who appeared my age gathered in pairs and groups; I recognized a few of them from drop-off fifteen minutes prior. I had a deep ache to be sitting with them.

I willed someone to look up, see me, and invite me over. No one did. To be fair, there were other times that I was included in groups—Kindermusik, Pep Moms, and Bible studies—and I felt just as alone. I didn’t understand why. We shared things in common: some were neighbors; many were my age; plenty of them were women of faith; and several had young children. Yet, I sat in their midst and felt…alone. In time I came to the conclusion that something must be wrong with me.

I was looking for a place of belonging in their midst, and I wasn’t finding it. It wasn’t their fault, and now—a dozen years later—I know the truth: I would never have felt a sense of belonging there. The reason was simple—I didn’t feel like I was enough to be welcomed, fully accepted, and enjoyed by them, or by anyone. I wasn’t enough…interesting enough, cute enough, creative enough, clever enough, talented enough, or devout enough.

Perhaps no one explains my dilemma with as much wisdom and clarity as research professor and author Brené Brown. She writes, “Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable, and imperfect.” I experienced belonging to the degree that I accepted myself and let myself be deeply known; that’s why I most often felt like I did not belong.

Thankfully, over the past twelve years, I have experienced deep restoration, which has led to self-acceptance. Some of this has taken place in the context of family, with a husband and sons who say “We see who you are, and we accept you, like you, and love you.” Some has occurred in company of safe, trustworthy friends who affirm my gifts, passions, and presence. Much of the restoration has happened in quiet, solitary moments when I am invited to offer this same acceptance, love, and affirmation to myself. All of it has taken place in a presence of Divine Grace, with a loving Father who faithfully speaks words of identity until I am able to embrace them.

Now I understand that my younger self was trying to fit in, which is very different than belonging. I diminished who I was to become who I thought others wanted, and that only increased my feelings of isolation.

It is only when I offer who I am—my authentic, vulnerable, and imperfect self—and am received by others that I truly experience belonging.

On that lonely morning so many years ago I remember thinking that someday I would be the one who would look up and notice the woman sitting alone. I wouldn’t avoid her gaze or pass her by. I try to honor that intention. However, now I know that what she needs most isn’t simply my companionship; she needs to encounter someone who knows that she is enough, for this gives her the permission to believe the same about herself.

“Let yourself be seen. Love with your whole heart. Practice gratitude. Lean into joy. Believe you are enough.” – Brené Brown

Susan Tucker spends her days mothering her two teenage sons, teaching middle school English, and savoring rare moments of quiet and solitude. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her sons and her husband of 23 years. Susan finds life in a beautiful story, an authentic conversation, worship music, and ultimately, in Jesus, the giver of all good gifts.