Elizabeth Gilbert on Tribal Shame
(Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love has written a long but right-on blog about Tribal Shame. She’s basing this post on the teachings of Dr. Mario Martinez; I’ve heard the Sounds True interview of him and Tami Simon that she references.
I have taught so much about rewiring toxic shame; it’s terrific to have the topic talk-about-able and some excellent tools offered to rewire it. It is a long post; well worth the read, perhaps even printing and saving.)
BEWARE OF TRIBAL SHAME!
Dear Ones –
OK, my friends – this will be a long post!
In fact, this will be the longest post I’ve ever written here on Facebook – but I also think that perhaps it’s the most important.
I want to share with you some revolutionary new ideas I’ve heard recently about emotional health and wellbeing. I came upon all this information just a few months ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it with my friends and family.
This has been some really life-changing stuff for me – some of most life-changing stuff I’ve learned in ages – and I want to tell everyone about it!
It will take a while to explain this theory, but if you have the time…stay with me, OK?
I think you may find it’s worth it.
I recently came upon the work of one Dr. Mario Martinez, who is a clinical neuropsychologist, and the author of a book called THE MIND-BODY CODE, which you can find right here:
(You can also listen to a fascinating interview that Dr. Martinez conducted on the SoundsTrue network with Tami Simon, if you download the INSIGHTS AT THE EDGE podcast. A lot of the information in this post comes from that interview, which you can also find here: )
Dr. Martinez has spent his life studying the ways that our thoughts and emotions affect our physical health. He is particularly interested in the harmful ways that SHAME affects the mind and body.
And he is especially focused on the powerful and negative effects that TRIBAL SHAMING can have on the human body, and on our emotional lives.
What is tribal shaming, you ask?
OK, here goes:
Walk with me through this…
So…we are all born into a certain tribe, right?
This tribe can be our family, our religion, our neighborhood, our nationality, our culture, etc.
Tribes are important to human beings – in fact, they are essential. There is arguably nothing more vital to the ongoing existence of the human race than the cohesion and protection of a tribe. Our ancestors endured the fight for survival in the ancient world only because they clung together and shared resources. Even today in the modern world, tribes are still absolutely essential. Tribes keep babies alive and old people safe. Tribes care for the sick and the weak. Tribes provide protection, nourishment and warmth to vulnerable individuals (and we are all vulnerable individuals at some point or another)…but most importantly, tribes provide MEANING.
Simply put: Our tribe of origin tells us who we are.
Our tribe tells us what to believe and how to behave.
Each tribe is governed by its own rules. These rules constitute the honor code that defines every tribe’s essence. No matter what the tribe, these rules are always sacred – and must be sacred – because without those rules, the collective will fall apart, and without the collective, individual people are doomed.
Oftentimes, tribal rules are LITERALLY sacred. These rules are often composed of strict religious commandments and edicts that must be obeyed rigorously, sometimes on pain of death.
But even when tribal rules are more subtle than literal commandments, they are still sacred. Every family is tribe, and therefore every family has its own moral and cultural code – its own guidelines that signal: THIS IS HOW WE DO THINGS AROUND HERE.
Thus, the people who raised you injected you with certain rules, habits, morals, and standards. The rules of your tribe might have been lofty (such as: “IN THIS FAMILY, WE ARE ALL RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISTS”) or the rules might have been lowly (such as: “IN THIS FAMILY, WE ARE ALL ABUSIVE ALCOHOLICS”) or the rules might have been insanely contradictory (such as: “IN THIS FAMILY, WE ARE RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISTS AND WE ARE ABUSIVE ALCOHOLICS”)
Whatever the situation, though, the rules were definitely the rules, and they were made quite clear to you from the beginning.
In order to remain safe and accepted within the boundaries of the tribe, you must follow these rules.
Maybe as you grew up, those rules continued to make sense to you. If so, then you got lucky. Because then your life’s course is clear – all you need to do is obey your familiar tribal rules (and pass those rules down to your offspring) and everything will be safe and clean and simple.
Or maybe not.
Maybe as you grew older, you found that your own values and morals and standards and aspirations were completely different than those that had been taught to you by your tribe of origin.
Maybe you realized that you didn’t WANT to be a religious fundamentalist.
Maybe you didn’t want to be an abusive alcoholic.
Maybe in your tribe, nobody gets a formal education – but you wanted to go earn a PhD.
Maybe in your tribe, everyone is expected to get a higher education – but you never liked school, and couldn’t finish.
Maybe in your tribe, girls are supposed to become mothers at a young age and never to work outside the home – but you wanted to be a childless career woman.
Maybe in your tribe, everyone is expected to be a farmer – but you wanted to be an artist.
Maybe in your tribe, everyone is expected to be an artist – but you wanted to go into business.
Maybe in your tribe you were taught to be suspicious and hateful of strangers -but you wanted to love the world with a more open heart.
Maybe in your tribe, it’s considered deeply wrong to be gay – but you happen to be gay.
Maybe in your tribe, you were taught to expect nothing but poverty and oppression and deprivation out of life – but you saw the world differently, and wanted to expand your mind into a field of joyful abundance and prosperity.
In other words, maybe the rules of your tribe didn’t work for you anymore. Maybe you decided to break your tribal rules, and choose your own path. Maybe you went out and found a new tribe, composed of people who felt more like family to you than your own family did.
And maybe your tribe of origin was totally OK with that.
Maybe your tribe celebrated your differences and cheered you on, and said “All we want is for you to be happy!”
If so, God bless them.
Because that is rare.
Chances are, they probably were NOT totally OK with that.
Because it’s exceedingly rare for a tribe of origin to celebrate the departure of one of its members. They REALLY don’t like it when you break the rules. Remember – those tribal rules are SACRED. Even when the rules are totally dysfunctional and dark and insane, those rules are still sacred. Adherence to those rules determines cohesion, and cohesion determines survival – so nothing less than life itself is at stake here!
Or, at least that’s how the tribe sees it.
So….if you dare to leave your tribe of origin – or if you dare to question the rules of your tribe – it is extremely likely that you will be punished.
Sometimes that punishment can be violent and extreme -like: excommunication, shunning, disowning, physical abuse, or even murder (such as in the dreadful cases of “honor killings” of young girls by their own family members.)
But oftentime the punishment is more subtle. 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.
SHAME is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but shame is slow…but still brutal. Shame is like a computer chip that the tribe implants into you, in order to be able control you and make you suffer – so that even when you are geographically far away from the tribe, they can still flip that switch and make you feel the agony of guilt over having betrayed them.
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?”
“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…”
They will accuse you of being a traitor. They will use words like “abandonment” and “betrayal” and “disloyalty.” They will sometimes say these words as a joke, but you know damn well that they aren’t joking. They will remind you that you weren’t there where 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.” Those words (spoken or unspoken) are the ultimate tools of tribal shame. Because nothing is more painful to a human than the accusation that you are a traitor. It is terrible to be told YOU ARE NO LONGER ONE OF US. (Remember, we are pack animals; we need the approval of our pack.) It is terrible to be accused of abandonment and betrayal.
In short – if you dare to leave the tribe, the tribe will shame the living hell out of you, and that shame will hurt you. Shame is a fierce and burning energy. The power of tribal shame is not to be underestimated. Tribal shame is capable of ruining lives, and killing people. Shame corrodes the soul. It also corrodes the mind, and the physical body. Tribal shame will make you sick. It will send you into a spiral of psychic misery and physical infection.
Dr. Mario Martinez been able to show how tribal shame rots people from within – keeping them in a constant state of inflammation, anxiety, unease, and disease.
But it gets worse!
Tribal shaming also sometimes causes people to sabotage their own lives – to abandon their own callings, and to jettison their own true paths, and to forbid themselves to be happy. It is often the case that people simply cannot endure tribal shaming any longer, and so they fail on purpose, in order to be welcomed back into the tribe – in order to “balance things out” again, and in order to become “one of us” once more.
Because here’s the really crazy thing about a tribe, as Dr. Martinez points out: THEY WILL ALWAYS TAKE YOU BACK IF YOU FAIL. They will always welcome you back home if you are suffering. They won’t love you so much when you are happy and successful, because that’s very threatening to them, as it challenges everything they believe. (If you do well in life on your own terms, at first your tribe may welcome you home as a returning hero, of course, but when they see how different you are from them now, they will not like your success at all – and they will shame you for it.)
But they will always take you back when you fail.
They will take you back when you are sick, when you are weak, when you are humbled and broken. They will welcome you back with open arms and sweet loving care, and you will once again be able to feel the warm safety and companionship of the tribe.
So here’s what people often do – they sabotage themselves, in order to come “home” again.
We make ourselves sick, weak, humbled and broken, in order to be welcomed home.
THAT’S how much we long for the approval of the tribe; we will even ruin our own lives in order to achieve it.
But at what cost?
(Remember, by the way – it is not only your tribe of origin who is capable of working this dark magic of shame upon you; it can be ANY tribe that you have joined and then dared to leave or to challenge. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, team-members, gang-members, political cronies, church-members, fellow drug addicts, fellow yogis, fellow book club members…any tribe can turn against an individual who dares to step out of line, or who dares to question the rules, or who dares to ascend beyond what is expected or allowed. And the stakes are always the same: Our way or the highway. Conform, or you will be eternally punished.)
I want you to ask yourself this question, in all honesty – have you ever sabotaged yourself, in order to be welcomed back into the tribe?
I have done it. I can promise you that – I have done it many times.
But I wonder if you have done it?
Did you drop out of school, so you wouldn’t be the only one in your tribe with a higher education?
Did you commit a crime, so the tribe would embrace you?
Did you marry someone you didn’t love, so the tribe would accept you as being “normal”?
Did you start drinking again, or over-eating again, or smoking again, so the tribe would re-embrace
Did you subconsciously conspire to lose all your money, so you wouldn’t appear to be better than anyone in your tribe?
Did you get fired again, so you wouldn’t appear to be better than your tribe?
Did you plummet back into depression and anxiety, so that you would never be happier than anyone in your tribe?
Did you hide your true sexuality, so your tribe wouldn’t judge and exclude you?
Did you pretend to believe in a version of God that you don’t believe in, so the tribe would not shame you or banish you?
Or did you bravely choose exactly the life you really wanted for yourself…but now you cannot seem to rest easily within it? You built the life you wanted for yourself, but now (even though everything looks good on the outside) you are making yourself miserable, anyhow. Are you walking around feeling eternally guilty, and exhausting yourself working so hard for the benefit of everyone else – just to keep yourself punished and shamed…because somehow your tribe of origin has convinced you that you do not deserve the abundance and happiness that you have fought so hard to earn?
Enough of all that.
Enough of the tribal shaming.
So what are we to do about it?
What are we to do, to combat the power of tribal shaming, and to feel free to pursue our own true paths in life – and, most of all, to feel free to be a SUCCESS? (And by “success” here, I mean not only a financial success, but an emotional success – a person who is happy and at peace, living as she feels she was MEANT to live…not necessarily how she was TAUGHT to live.)
Here comes the revolutionary part.
Dr. Martinez spends a lot of time working with people who have left their tribes of origin, or who have exceeded their tribal expectations, and who appear to have done very well in life, but who are suffering the consequences of “reaching too high” and doing TOO well in life (from their tribal perspective.) His goal is to liberate these people from the prison of shame, so that they can feel contented and easeful about themselves.
He does an exercise with them that I think is AMAZING, and which you can do at home. I did it. It’s pretty transformative.
It goes like this:
Sit quietly in meditation. Allow your mind and your breathing to settle. Then ask yourself this question:
“Who is the person in the world – living or dead – whom I would most need to abandon, in order to live my own true path with happiness and peace?”
It’s a heavy question.
Really think about it.
The answer may shock you. But allow that person’s name to rise up in you mind. Be 100% honest. Be 100% brave. Ask yourself again: What person in my life (or in my history, living or dead) would be most betrayed, if I were to become a happy, peaceful, successful and prosperous soul?
Really think about it.
Got the name?
Now, there is something that you must say aloud to that person. (You don’t say it aloud to the REAL person, of course – because they could never handle it, and they might not even be alive anymore – but you must say these words aloud to the IDEA of this person.) Here are the magic words:
“I am going to abandon you now. I am going to betray you now.”
That totally blew my mind when I first heard it!
Talk about powerful words!!!!
The reason these words are so powerful and radical is because they are the OPPOSITE of what we have likely spent our lives trying to prove to our tribe of origin. We have likely spent our whole lives trying desperately to prove to that person (or to those people) that we HAVEN’T betrayed them! We are constantly trying to show them that we HAVEN’T abandoned them! 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.
Because they know (and you secretly know it, too) this truth – you kind of HAVE abandoned them. You HAVE betrayed them. You DID choose a totally different way of life. You HAVE completely changed. (Because you needed to!) You really are no longer one of them. (Because you would have suffocated to death, to remain trapped within that constricting tribal code.) You really HAVE left them behind. (Because that was the only way to become the person that your destiny called you to be.)
…and that’s all OK.
This is the radical part: You totally abandoned your tribe of origin, and that’s totally FINE.
In fact, sometimes it’s absolutely necessary.
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. You must hear yourself say these powerful words aloud:
“I AM GOING TO ABANDON YOU NOW. I AM GOING TO BETRAY YOU NOW.”
Which does not mean that you do not LOVE them. This exercise has nothing to do with love. You can always love them. That love can always remain intact. You can even still care about your tribe, and look after them with acts of generosity – none of that needs to change. This exercise is about a totally different issue from love. This is about breaking the spell of tribal shame. The only way to break that spell (Martinez suggests) is to take complete ownership of your own true path in life, and to admit to the consequences of leaving your tribe’s values behind.
(Another point: Curiously, after having done this exercise, I felt MORE loving toward those in my tribe who have tried to shame me over the years – because I felt like I understood them better. With that understanding, was easier for me to regard them with a lighter heart.)
Then comes the next step.
You must now (in your imagination) become the other person – the person who has been shaming you for years. And you must say to yourself (in the voice of the other person) these powerful words: “I completely understand. I forgive you. All I want is for you to be happy.”
Of course, it is exceedingly unlikely that the real person could ever say these words to you! To say that would be an abandonment of their own honor code…but you need to say them to yourself. You need to hold both sides of this imagined conversation.
Practice it with me.
You: “I’m going to abandon you now. I’m going to betray you now.”
Your Primary Tribal Shamer (speaking through you): “I understand completely, I forgive you. All I want is for you to be happy.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat…
It’s pretty freaking life-changing.
(I did this exercise myself, and I cannot even tell you how radical it felt, and how much easier I breathed after I said those devastatingly powerful words: I AM GOING TO ABANDON YOU NOW. I AM GOING TO BETRAY YOU NOW. I was also surprised about WHO I needed to say those words TO…and you may be surprised, as well. You may need to do this exercise with a number of people in your life. Just be honest – who would feel most abandoned if you were to become successful? Stop trying to convince them that you aren’t abandoning them. Let them feel abandoned. It’s OK. It’s what needs to happen.)
Dr. Martinez reports that – after people have done this exercise – their cortisol levels and stress levels drop dramatically, as do their levels of inflammation and disease. Because you are finally free. You’ve been carrying around that tribal shame forever, and finally you have begun to shake it off…
But, wait – there’s more!
Then comes the next step.
You now have to rebuild what Dr. Martinez calls your own “field of honor”.
You see, tribal shaming works because it attacks your deepest sense of your own honor. Every tribe is governed by its own code of honor, and once you have broken that honor code, the tribe will accuse you (overtly or subtly) of having no honor at all. This accusation is what makes you sick. This is what makes you suffer. Without a code of honor, after all, we are NOTHING – worse than dirt. So you must rebuild your own field of honor, in order to make yourself healthy again.
How do you do this?
You must do an accounting of your own life, and make a list of all the times in your life that you have been honorable. Start with earliest childhood – what was the first honorable act of your life? Go from there. Write it all down. Maybe you have not always honored the sacred code of your tribe of origin, but chances are you honored SOMETHING – perhaps your own creative path, or your truest friendships, or your curiosity, or the truth, or your work ethic, or your health, or a loved one, or your cat.
Write it all down. Focus on the true history of your own honor – for it is all in there. You are truly an honorable person. Honor is within you. You must rebuild that field of honor, because it is your only defense against tribal shaming, which will always seek to destroy your sense of honor in order to make you weak and to bring you back “home”.
Once you have done that, the last step is this: RIGHTEOUS ANGER.
It goes like this:
You will know that you are standing firmly within your field of honor when your first reaction to attempts at tribal shaming becomes RIGHTEOUS ANGER. You will know that you are on the road to emotional health and recovery when a member of your tribe tries to shame you, and rather than absorb that shame and turn it into sickness and poison…you instead react with RIGHTEOUS ANGER.
Now, a quick word on anger: It is not healthy, obviously, to spend your life feeling furious, or to be constantly simmering with unspoken resentment. If you are a person like me, who tries to be big-hearted and forgiving, you have probably spent your life battling against anger and trying to eradicate it from your mind. But Dr. Martinez suggests that there is a role in your life for healthy anger, for appropriate anger, for RIGHTEOUS ANGER. Righteous anger is a fast, hot fire that burns up the poison of tribal shaming, and protects your own field of honor. This is the anger that rises up like a dragon and says, “Don’t you DARE try to shame me!”
This anger is correct and just and fair….and totally necessary for your health.
You are entitled to it. You must lay claim to it.
You are a person of honor who does not deserve to be shamed.
This is the anger that protects you from the wrath of the most judgmental people in your life (even the ones whom you love and adore – ESPECIALLY them!) Righteous anger even protects you from the wrathful judgment of the dead – for it is the case that the dead can still shame you from beyond the grave…or, at least, they will try to.
So learn to get angry, whenever you experience the toxic wrath of tribal shaming.
Be righteous about it.
Defend yourself – from both the living and the dead.
When you can do that…that’s when you will know that you are on your true path at last.
That’s when you will begin to be FREE.
That’s when you will have a chance at happiness and deep, satisfying health.
OK, you guys…so that’s my speech today about tribal shaming!
I don’t know if this information will seem as radical and useful to anyone else as it does to me…but it has totally revolutionized my thinking. Now that I’ve been introduced to this idea of tribal shaming, I see it EVERYWHERE. I see people inflicting tribal shame on each other all the time, and I see people sabotaging their own lives and their own happiness in order to not betray the tribe.
And then there’s this humbling realization: When I look back at my own life, I see instances in my history where I myself have inflicted tribal shame upon others – and that makes me feel…well…ashamed. I have resolved to be on guard about never doing that again to anyone, and about being very careful not to use the powerful language of betrayal/abandonment/accusation against the people I love…people who may be changing and growing, as they need to.
Shame is powerful dark magic, and I don’t want to mess with it on either end. I never want to hurt someone like that again. And I never want to be hurt like that again, either.
For those of you who have stuck around to read this ENTIRE post – thank you!
This has been incredibly useful information to me, and I hope it will help you all to live a freer and happier life.
And thank you to Dr. Mario Martinez, for his years of pioneering research on this topic!