Author: Emily Celis
What is shame? It is an emotion that everyone experiences. It is what tells us that we are unlovable to our very core and that we are not worth it. It is an emotion that no one wants to feel, one that keeps us from becoming our best selves and one there is no inoculation for. Shame lives in the darkness of our lives and the more light we can shine on it, the further it will retreat for good (pun intended!).
“Shame cannot happen unless we are interconnected with other people whom we trust”, says John Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You. He goes on to make the point that only after a child has developmentally surpassed the first stage of trust versus mistrust (Erickson’s Stages of Development) successfully (having found trust in others) can he/she begin to feel shame when in relation to others and learning that others do not approve or like what he/she is doing. Shame begins from this raw and vulnerable place, and with what feels like the evolutionary toll of survival when experiencing shame due to not conforming to the social contracts within the groups we belong to.
We are all a part of groups or tribes from the time we are born. These tribes are the key to our survival and there are many requirements for maintaining membership in these groups. Most of the time, these rules and requirements make perfect sense to us because it is the life within which we are immersed. Maybe your tribe is your family of origin, the church you have been part of your whole life, your school or cohort, a group of colleagues, group of friends, etc., but the reality is that you have gained membership in these tribes because you act, think and do things a certain way—the same way that other members in the tribe act, think and do things.
But what happens when someone steps outside of the tribe’s rules and regulations—or begins to even just think differently than those in the tribe? Shame happens. The tribe, whose cohesion and success is built upon the successful incorporation of the rules of the tribe, will shame this person, sometimes even unknowingly. Feeling shame is emotionally painful, so most likely, the person who stepped out of line will jump right back in place once this tribal shaming is experienced. But what happens when the offender doesn’t jump back in line? Have you ever been in this situation? What did you do?
Dr. Mario Martinez, neuropsychologist and author of “The Mind-Body Code”, articulates the distressing mental health effects of tribal shaming as well as the physical effects on our bodies (anxiety, disease, and inflammation) and how to combat this toxic way of interacting with important people in our lives. Although it seems counterintuitive, those who inflict shame on each other are usually very connected to each other; even more surprising is that often tribal shaming does not come from a place of mal-intent but rather of care and concern even though this may not be how it plays out. When someone tries to do things differently, the natural course of action is for there to be push-back from the other members of the tribe because the tribe wants to survive. And things need to remain the same for the most part in order for the tribe to be successful.
Shame becomes one of the most powerful tools the tribe has to assert control. Unfortunately, many opportunities for personal growth are lost to tribal shaming, not allowing members of the tribe to successfully experiment with other ways of being. Nothing is more painful than being separated from those who you have called family or home, therefore, individuals will sometimes give up their life’s hopes and dreams and return back to the tribe just to avoid the painful tribal shame…and the good news is that the tribe will usually always take you back if you fail being on the outside, as long as you conform again (and sometimes more rigorously) to their way of acting, thinking, feeling and doing. Sadly, the tribe cannot and will not love you as much when you are in a different place than them but would rather have you stay where you are (in the tribe) because it is known and predictable as well as essential to the survival of the tribe. (*Disclaimer: some very few tribal members are actually able to deal with differences among other tribal members and not engage in tribal shaming –this would be ideal–but unfortunately it does not happen often.)
So what does Dr. Martinez suggest we do to rise up against this tribal shaming and still heed the call to our own individual path of learning and being who are/were meant to be? 4 steps:
1) Ask yourself which person in your life, living or dead, would you most need to abandon, in order to live your true path with happiness and peace? Then say out loud: “I am going to abandon you now. I am going to betray you now.” This does not mean that you really will abandon this person—but in fact will allow you to disconnect from the shame that is thrown your way. This will in turn release you from doing the exact thing that you have always been afraid to do, thereby staying in the shadow of shame.
2) Imagine becoming the other person and say to yourself (in the voice of the other person): “I completely understand. I forgive you. All I want is for you to be happy.” This process, according to Dr. Martinez will lower your cortisol levels, inflammation and disease and drop your stress levels because you are beginning to physically remove the layers of shame from your life.
3) Rebuild your own “field of honor” by recalling (and writing down) all the times in your life when you were honorable according to your personal value system and honor code. Dr. Martinez researched that the reason tribal shaming works so well is because the tribe convinces you that you’re not honorable because you broke their honor code. As humans, we all have honor codes that provide us with a healthy sense of self. Creating your own “field of honor” will allow you to begin rebuilding this healthy sense of self.
4) Engage in “Righteous Anger” when someone attempts to shame you –that is, stand up for yourself! Rise up and defend your honor and maintain your newfound healthy sense of self in an assertive way (not passive-aggressively or aggressively).
So next time you find yourself shrinking back in order to fit the mold of your previously defined tribal membership, think outside the box and let yourself grow…it’s possible to go against the grain and live with honor while you honor yourself—and you may find that you can still engage in meaningful ways within the tribe in face of it all. And when you find yourself begin to automatically shame someone else (because that’s what we all do), think twice about their need to discover for themselves what really works for them. After all, aren’t we all from the same tribe anyway? #onetribe
Dr. Mario Martinez Interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpSh0vE5Vs
The MindBody Code: How to Change the Beliefs that Limit Your Health, Longevity, and Success by Mario Martinez, PsyD
Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw