Tribal shaming is one of the most powerful ideas I’ve been introduced to in the last years. A friend sent me a Facebook post by the author Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love). Here’s a link to that post. You don’t need to be on Facebook to read it, just press “Not Now” when it asks you to sign in.
It’s a long post, but it’s also life changing. Get ready for insight and clarity you’ve never had before about your tribe on every level, from family to country.
In (very) short, the concept comes from Dr. Mario Martinez, who wrote a book called The Mind-Body Code. Gilbert provides a link to a podcast by Dr. Martinez in her post. Gilbert was so stunned by Dr. Martinez’s work that she posted about it, and now her post is all over the net. Clearly, others find it as significant as I do. As the political situation unfolds day by day here in America and all kinds of people react in all kinds of ways, I keep thinking about the power of tribal shaming.
In this context, the word “tribe” means any group with which we identify. Tribe is family, church, community, culture, nationality, team, workplace, etc. Tribal shaming examines the power of the tribe. It’s not a new idea, of course. We’ve studied cults, gangs, religious sects—all kinds of groups in order to understand the choices we make and how they’re influenced by those around us. What I hadn’t thought about before was the invisible destructive power our tribe(s) have over our ability to live well.
One of the greatest motivators for us is the desire for connection to others. Our earliest experience of connection takes place in our family of origin, or in the context of whoever raised us, even if just people in an institution. From infancy on, we’re each surrounded by tribal cultures and norms, tribal rules, and the differentiation of our tribe from others. This shows up in an overwhelming number of ways: Economically, geographically, religiously, educationally, etc.
Tribes provide us with connection, identity, meaning, and, hopefully, security and safety. They help us define ourselves and shelter us from an unkind world. Connection is a deep need for human beings, and without it we don’t survive. We know there are all kinds of consequences for people who have no early sense of tribe, from attachment disorder to failure to thrive to severe mental illness—and those only if the child survives in the first place.
Tribal connection works very well for people who feel they belong in the tribe(s) in which they find themselves.
But what happens when we don’t fit into our tribe? What happens when we ask questions and break rules? What happens when we don’t accept the tribe’s authority? What happens when the tribe abuses us?
Tribal shaming, that’s what.
Now, you might say, so what? So you break away from your family, group, church, whatever. Big deal. People do it all the time. It doesn’t matter.
That’s true. It’s also true that at a casual glance we’re all just fine. We move, we change jobs, our beliefs and views change, we get divorced, people come and go out of our lives. We spend time on social media, catch a movie, watch TV, have a drink, take a pill, buy a pint of ice cream, light up another cigarette. Maybe those closest to us see a shadow of addiction, workaholism, people pleasing, depression, insomnia and anxiety, but that’s nothing, right?
I don’t believe that for a single second.
It does matter. Tribal estrangement is a deep wound that never stops bleeding, and it doesn’t much matter why the estrangement exists. If we feel cast out from our tribe, it hurts. We may grieve, we may rage, we may become ill, but there will be consequences for this kind of amputation. One hundred friends on Facebook can’t make up for it.
It hurts so much, in fact, that many of us self-sabotage so we can go back, because the thing about tribe is that they’ll always take you back if you fail. Now think about this for a minute. You can always go back if you fail.
The power of tribal shaming touches us all. I’ve seen it play out very powerfully in my family, and I bet you have, too. Right now, huge populations of people are on the move in the world, compelled by war, politics and the basic necessities of food and water. Millions more will be displaced by climate change. Social, geographic and economic boundaries are threatened. Our sense of self and tribe is undergoing intense pressure as we fight for space and resource.
Through this blog, I’ve made a friend in Nigeria. Her experience as a woman in a large city in a foreign (to me) country is eye opening. It’s easy to forget how life is for many other people in many other places. Today we might be able to eat, have a job, or have a roof over our head. Today we might have a tribe, no matter how small, or maybe several tribes that give us a sense of belonging and comfort, but tomorrow is another day, and much of the world is closer than we are to the precipice of famine and chaos.
The concept of tribe, like the concept of resource, is fluid. We define it ourselves. Right now in America, we’ve made money the most important resource. What will happen when a cup of clean water or a mouthful of food becomes the only resource that counts? What will happen if tribal shaming becomes tribal sharing and we decide to create a tribe of all life on earth, including the planet itself?
In the meantime, though, we clearly feel it’s effective to create small, rigidly defended tribes with small, rigidly defended rule sets and spend time making bombs of all kinds to throw over our palisades. Whatever happens, we must not allow the threats of education, science, literacy, critical thinking, equality or any kind of difference to exist. People must toe the line or get out—one way or the other.
Us against them and the outcasts in between. It works so well, doesn’t it?
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