“They love his books,” she continued, a glow of pride enveloping her. I listened, trying to stay composed, trying to stay neutral, but mostly, trying not to scream. After all, she wouldn't understand it if I challenged her denial.
But after a bit more gloating, I finally blurted out, “Um, there are two authors in our family, so why don't you ever acknowledge that?”
She shifted in her chair, slowly leaned forward, and looked directly at me. “Because your book tore apart the family!”
So there it was.
I wrote a book years ago about how my life unfolded after discovering that my husband of ten years had been having affairs for almost as long as I'd known him (read that story here).
But my family—who was well aware of the book and my triumph over such a horrible betrayal—went mute because of the deeper message of family dysfunction that was exposed. I instantly became the scapegoat, the traitor, the one to be punished for sharing something that made my family uncomfortable. I was immediately ejected from the family by their blatant and cruel silence.
That was over a decade ago and the sting of that betrayal is still very real. No one has dared to answer my hard-pressed questions about why a book about my marriage to a sex addict would cause such a backlash. Grappling with this has been difficult, frustrating, and sad because I have, in effect, lost my large family to the bigger system of denial. They can't understand or support my story because it goes against their own stories about our family.
It was only recently when this shifted for me a wee bit more after reading an enlightening essay on Tribal Shaming, written by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous Eat, Pray, Love one). It is based on the work by Dr. Mario Martinez, whose research focuses on the effects shaming—specifically tribal shaming—has on our emotional and physical lives.
And who is this tribe to which he is referring? Whomever was responsible for raising us.
The people who first made the rules, then made sure that everyone in the family system abided by them. The problem is, many family members often don't follow rules established by families, and according to Martinez, “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.”
Having lived this reality since my book was published in 2003, it sure was validating to see this research in print. While I have known that my experience has been the result of a collective consensus to keep my story (and therefore, me) hushed, I never knew what to call it. “Denial” and “anger” were the only labels I could attach to my family's reactions.
They've been damn angry about my story, but won't talk to me about it. In fact, they don't even acknowledge that I wrote a book, and they often pretend I (the author) don't exist. Perhaps because, if I don't exist, neither will my story. And if my story doesn't exist, then neither can their discomfort.
Gilbert writes,“Often times the punishment is more subtle, and the weapon that they are most likely to use against you is SHAME...Shame is how they keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have abandoned the collective. Your tribe of origin is letting you know in no uncertain terms: 'You are no longer one of us.'”
No one in my family has challenged me about the contents of my book, and no one knows how many people around the world have been inspired and encouraged by my story. The “real” author in the family is supported whole-heartedly, his television interviews are watched with fanfare, and being an author has bragging rights at family reunions.
By contrast, my radio shows are never tuned into by family members, my blogs and posts don't get shared within my tribe, and no one boasts about my story or my Coaching practice—probably because it has been widely reinforced that my story “tore apart the family.”
Daring to venture outside of that familial denial was a big fat no-no. Even though my story was really about my marriage to an addict, I still broke the family rules by mentioning a taboo subject that I believe precipitated my choosing a sex addict.
I am not a rule-breaker by nature, but I am a bit persistent about finding the truth, so I tend to stretch outside my comfort zone in pursuit of that truth. So just because my family can't hear it, or acknowledge it, at least I can share it with others who may be able to glean a message of hope.
And that's exactly what I've done, but it hasn't been easy.
“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.”
I understand this.
I have lost relationships that were once important to me, and I have missed family events that I would have enjoyed attending. The obvious message from my tribe has been: “We will invite you back into the fold as long as you don't bring up the 'issues' about the family.”
Um...thanks, but naaah.
I can't go silent just to ease their discomfort. I am more valuable than that, and my story is more important than to be discarded.
But still, it has been hard to stay on the path that I know to be right and true. I finished writing a second book in 2006 about the reactions my first book elicited from my family, but nearly a decade later, it still sits on my shelf, unpublished.
Am I afraid of more backlash? Perhaps, but as often as I've tried to let the second book die, it keeps calling me back, challenging me to share my story. I got a big push to move forward with it after reading Gilbert's article. I saw myself in her piece and noticed tribal shaming immediately.
Yet when I consider publishing another story that exposes more truths, I cringe. Tribal shaming still has a hold of me, but I am determined not to let it deter me more than it already has. It has been my on-going struggle to stop listening to its incessant babbling that I will be shamed and punished one more time.
So if you feel stuck in your dreams because of tribal shaming, don't give into the urge to quit pursuing whatever it is you long to pursue, do, or say.
Your tribe is just afraid. Or jealous of your persistence and guts. Or worried about your sanity, your job, your life.
But you don't have to shame them back. Just muster up some compassion and blow them kisses from afar.
Then go out into the world and kick some brave ass...your way.