Tribal Shaming and Finding Your Path

Recently I learned about something called “tribal shaming.” This is what happens when someone leaves a “tribe,” either by location or by doing something that is deemed different than the norm. Certain members of the tribe can’t or won’t accept the decision, whether consciously or not, because the person doing the leaving or making the unconventional decision challenges everything the tribe stands for. How could they leave? How could they do things so differently? In theory, they cannot be successful doing things differently, because if they are, the tribe is compromised.

At first it sounded like lunacy to me. We are not tribes anymore! We’ve evolved, haven’t we? But once I read about it, so many things clicked in my mind, mostly the realization that this was familiar – that I’ve experienced that sinking gut-punch feeling of being tribal-shamed.

Most people who know and love me accepted my decisions and took the time to understand them (or at least wish me well), to ask questions, to recognize that while my path may be different, it is exactly that: my path. I pose no threat to them because they are secure.

But there were a few who felt the need to tribal shame. Before I go on, here’s an excerpt from the post (which was posted by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love):

“If you dare to leave the tribe, or if you dare challenge the tribe, the weapon that they are most likely to use against you is SHAME. The tribe will shame you by saying things like, ‘Now that you’re a big fancy city girl, you think you’re better than us, don’t you?’

Or:

“Now that you’ve got a college education, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you don’t drink anymore, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you’ve lost all that weight, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you’re happily married, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you have a good job, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you speak French, you think you’re better than us…”

“Now that you live in California, you think you’re better than us…”

“You think you’re better than us.”

I have never in my life thought I was better than anybody; in fact, it was the complete opposite. I’ve been a people-pleaser since I was a kid, always being taught to serve, not to rock the boat. To second-guess every decision I ever made, because what would they say or think? Who the heck did I think I was? This isn’t the way we do things. They’ll think I’m weird, strange, or stupid. In the past I haven’t been so nice to myself, and have believed that I’m weird, strange, stupid. But eventually, little by little, I followed my heart and made some big and maybe unconventional leaps.

When I made these different choices I was simply living my life, which was mine and only mine to live. Nowhere in these large, life decisions was there room to make choices for the purpose of trying to be better than anyone else. To think I was doing anything because I thought I was “better” than anyone was ludicrous. Think about your own life for a moment: what decisions have you made? Have you purchased a home? Had a child? Gotten married? Relocated to a new state for work, or for a spouse? Did you do any of those things because you think you’re better than another person, or to prove a point? NO! You did them because those were the decisions that were right for you. And you thought – you really hoped – that you’d have the support of those who love you.

Gilbert continues, about those who partake in ‘tribal shaming’ and the effects of shame in general:

“They will remind you that you weren’t there when Dad died, that you weren’t there when your nephew was born, that you can never be counted on for anything. They will mock you, and then brush it off, saying, ‘Hey, don’t get so upset — we’re just joking. It’s all in fun.’

But it isn’t all in fun.

It’s dead serious, and it’s potentially deadly, because shame makes people sick.

Shame can literally take years off your life.

At best, it just makes you terribly, lingeringly sad.

Your tribe of origin is letting you know in no uncertain terms: ‘YOU ARE NO LONGER ONE OF US.’”

And for a while I was questioning everything. Why wasn’t I content staying put, working these hours, doing these things? Was there something wrong with me? What if I fail? Am I really going to be ousted?

The older I became, the more I realized that maybe it in fact had nothing to do with me. Maybe seeing others do things differently plucks at the nerves of those who might now allow themselves room to do those things, or who falsely believe that they can’t do things different. Maybe they have their own fears of being tribal-shamed. Maybe they tie themselves with their own imaginary ropes to their own imaginary docks, maybe the sight of another ship setting sail leaves too much salt water in the wake, and maybe it hurts.

Whatever the reason, the realization that it wasn’t about me was freeing. Because I don’t think that a person who is secure and happy could find it within themselves to shame another for making a life decision that doesn’t even pertain to them in the first place.

Maybe none of it even matters at all, and maybe I’m happy I’m at the point where I can honor my own choices, carve my own path and continue to love those who may not understand, or know that they love me even though they may not understand or agree with my choices. To accept that I can’t run around proving myself or worrying who disapproves of or ridicules my choices.

“We break ourselves in half and exhaust ourselves completely (and maybe even bankrupt ourselves, or give ourselves chronic diseases) trying to prove that WE ARE LOYAL, and that WE ARE STILL PART OF THE TRIBE, and that WE HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG, and that WE HAVEN’T CHANGED AT ALL, and that WE WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU BEHIND, and that WE ARE STILL ONE OF YOU!

But it doesn’t work, does it?

Because they never really believe you, do they?

Deep down inside, you know that they still consider you a traitor, don’t they?

Because they are letting you know that you’re a traitor.

No matter what you do.”

It’s true: trying to change another’s view, or make them understand, or accept you, can feel like an uphill battle. But here’s the part that I loved the most:

“If people never questioned or abandoned their tribes of origin, the world would never evolve. There would be no creativity, no exploration, no courageous leaps of faith, no reforms, no change, no beautiful transformations.

If you want to create, to explore, to leap, to reform, to transform, then it is necessary sometimes to admit that you have left your tribe of origin behind.

Say to yourself: I hereby give myself permission to not feel shame by others who view my life choices as “different” or “strange”, whether they do it to me or I do it to myself.”

Most people are supportive. Most people mean well. But if you’ve ever found yourself judged or made to feel guilty by someone close to you, know what it is, and know you aren’t alone. Know you can still live your life, even continue to love the person, no matter what is said.

If there’s one thing I learned in all of this, it’s that you might have a calling within you at some point that requires you to set sail, and you MUST get on the boat. Because it eventually will leave the port. It has to, because ships were never made to sit pretty while tied to a dock. It will set sail, whether you get on board or stay ashore. (I think of my Nonna Tina who literally and figuratively put her three children on a ship going from Italy to America, and set sail from everything she knew.)

There’s no way to know what types of waters you’ll hit, but that’s where all the magic happens.

So, if the calling is in your heart, if it feels right for you, get on the boat. Even if it’s uncomfortable, rocky, hits stormy waters or has a rookie crew. Because maybe once we settle in and get our sea legs, we see that it’s not so big and scary. Maybe we even become captain of our own damn boats. And maybe our tribes will come around, maybe they will love us anyway. Maybe not. But we have to get on the boat, set sail, wish for the best – and hope you’ll see them waving and smiling from the dock, as you know you would for them.

*If you are interested in reading the full post on “tribal shaming”, and learning how to overcome its effects within, you can read about it here: tribal shaming.*

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