The essence of happiness for me is to be part of a tribe. It is natural for us to seek friendship and a sense of acceptance and inclusion, but if we are unable to find it, a huge void appears. Our lack of a tribe is like an insatiable black hole which sucks sadness into it, threatening to drown us in its depths.
While I was writing my memoir, I had a deep-seated feeling people would relate to my struggles with female tribalism. I have experienced what it is like to be viewed as an outsider by other women and rejected because their social group has no place for sensitivity.
My book, Revenge of the Wilting Flower, seems to have hit the bullseye, reminding my readers of their own painful experiences with social disconnect. I have received messages from people telling me their heartfelt stories of despair. I am not a trained counsellor or therapist; I do not know each person’s personality or individual circumstances and I am unsure how to respond to readers who trust me with their secret pain. I want to avoid saying anything wrong, and I am uncertain I can provide the suitable support they may hope for.
My long-term plan was to write about how I resolved my struggle with female tribalism in a later book. But I know that will take me years, and now that I have cracked open people’s wounds, I feel it my responsibility to offer some helpful information now.
Trying to Find A Place to Belong
My life revolved around trying to find my place in the world. Trying to be accepted by my peers and ultimately, myself. But if you are like me, and you see yourself through the eyes of others, we can be brutal task masters and cruel to ourselves, because we know others will be.
I also grew up with a rigid and comforting belief system, raised as a Christian fundamentalist who was taught all non-believers were bad, and those within my church were chosen and blessed by God. We had hundreds of strict rules, including not associating with outsiders. After I had my own children, I felt uncomfortable passing on this rigidity, and extreme bias to my daughters. But my conditioning fought back savagely when I challenged my beliefs and faith, so much so, that I had a psychotic breakdown.
When I eventually crawled out of my hellish pit and the sun shone down on me, I looked around and saw that our planet had become a trash wasteland. I was devastated. Most readers will know I became an environmental activist, exposing our addiction to waste, pressuring businesses to change and educating people as much as possible about what we are doing and how we can fix this mess.
My journey took years, and between leaving the church and making a new life, there was a whole lot of N O T H I N G, oh and pain. I tried with earnest desperation to make friends with other women, but my efforts were hit and miss. The good encounters and friendships meant the world to me, but the hole in me was voracious and I would try to get each new acquaintance to fill it. This caused me to be over-familiar and smother the few people who offered me friendship and scare them away.
I Was the Puppy Who Cruel People Loved to Kick
I once visited a remote part of the world where dogs roamed everywhere. I saw some young children playfully kick and push over the most adorable puppy you have ever seen. It was quite wobbly because it was so young and because of the abuse. When it shakily tried to stand up, the children would kick it again to make it fall over once more and they laughed at their handiwork. It was awful. Why were they doing this? For fun. For power. To hurt something that could not fight back. Above all, to look cool and powerful in front of their friends. Those little boys were operating within an established social hierarchy.
I found that as a grown woman, with no confidence and no tribe of my own, forceful women who belonged to their own tribe would treat me like that little puppy. They would verbally hurt me, reject me, insult me, isolate, and ostracize me. To be clear, these were not battle-hardened women who just got out of prison, these were regular mums from my children’s school. As my fear and isolation increased, more women were emboldened to join in to take their own turn at kicking the puppy. This situation lasted a long, long time, with many, many women involved. I was so depressed and stressed that I ended up having an accident and now have a scar on my eyelid and a scar in my psyche.
I will not go into that part of the story anymore because I discuss it in vivid detail in my book. I want to skip ahead until today. My beautiful social media supporters see me as a happy, smiley, bubbly, and pro-active person. So, it is a shock for them to read my autobiographical story and become upset, usually for two reasons. One is they are heartbroken for my suffering, which they are just finding out about, and secondly, they personally feel my pain and my wounds, because they have them too.
Many Women Feel Lonely and Isolated
Many women are hurting deeply. They are lonely, isolated, and desperate to find meaningful, loyal friendships with people they truly relate to. They are looking for their modern tribe and failing, that is why my book hits so close to home. The messages I am receiving are similar.
“I am so sorry for your suffering. If I had known, I would have been your friend,” and “I relate so much to your story and don’t feel I belong anywhere.”
Interestingly, their context is a little different to mine, though the result and feelings are the same. While I came from a strict religious background and found it hard to connect with others because of my values, the women reaching out to me care deeply about the environment. They are struggling to navigate a world where they are surrounded by people who do not have the same empathy for our planet. It saddens me that this is causing women to feel isolated and even fearful to talk about their environmental concerns. Some feel judged simply for setting a good example and are frightened about damaging their relationships should they try to educate their family and friends.
I feel somewhat responsible for bringing their pain to the surface. My writing has made raw some women’s trauma and left them feeling exposed. I desperately want to provide advice and reassurance to the amazing people who are offering me heartfelt kindness and trusting me with their delicate, personal stories. I want to thank them and let them know it means the world to me, that they would have willingly been my friend during my dark times. But I do not want them to feel unnecessarily guilty. I am sure the story of my life would have been the same if they had known me or not. I had not yet discovered who I was. My lack of confidence was concealed by my over-talkativeness. I inserted myself way too far into people’s lives until they had to expel me like a splinter. I may have cake stalked you and then been terrified if you talked about something my church prohibited. Like Yoga. No, I am not kidding. No one matched my profile. No one knew me or understood me, including myself.
I want to say to those who relate to the sad parts of my story, I am sorry you are struggling to find your tribe. I wish I could offer you a blueprint for building wonderful friendships, but I cannot. I desperately want to say, I have found my tribe… this is how I did it… or come join my tribe, but I can do neither. I failed to integrate, but I am no longer chronically depressed, perpetually lonely, and constantly empty, so something worked, right?
Rather than tell you what to do, I will tell you all the things I did. The irony is, the things that you would expect to work, failed for me while the things people may “tut-tut” me for, were the things that worked. This trial and error process spanned one full decade and there was lots of crisscrossing with different approaches and ever so many failed attempts. Please forgive me if this sounds a little all over the shop, and apologies in advance if you don’t like what I have to say.
The Potential Toxicity of Gift Giving
Kind gestures and gift giving are obvious ways to build a healthy tribe. I have read many suggestions about kindness making the world a better place, and it does. But what I do not hear, is that giving can make people feel uncomfortable, as they may take it as an inference that we think they are deficient in some way. Coming from both an Italian and a Christian background I learnt that giving was a wonderful thing to do and it became a big part of my personality. Earlier in my life, gift giving enhanced the warmth of my tribe, and later in life I hoped that my generosity would help me find my new tribe. But there was no counter argument to help me have a balanced view of gift giving. I made so many mistakes, and I made them repeatedly. This was the case with all the different ways I gave of myself, whether the other person desired it, or not. I didn’t use unbiased intuition. I had a habit of only listening to my heart, while ignoring my gut… it caused me to cross a lot of lines, that created emotional discomfort for both the other person and me. If your heart tells you to do something kind, but your gut tells you the other person might not want what you are offering… listen to your gut and ignore your heart, no matter how hard that is. I made hundreds of poor judgement calls by following my heart and presuming what other people wanted or needed (sorry Mick, who features in Revenge of the Wilting Flower).
If it is not someone intimately close to us, we need to respect their parameters, using our powers of observation, to perceive how close they want to allow us to be. Someone once shared a simple illustration with me that helped me understand the nature of friendship. “It’s like a dance. They take a step. Then you take a step. Then they take a step.” If we find we are taking many more steps than the other person, we may be ignoring our powers of perception, because we want more from the relationship, than they do. I know a lot about this topic because I was forever treading on other people’s toes, so I can most certainly tell you, how not to do it.
It is important not to presume we know what is best for someone else and assume we can better their life by our kindness. It is not our call to make. Be perceptive about what the person may want from us. If they want too much, it is okay for us to restrict what we are prepared to give. On the other hand, if they want less than what we want to offer, we may have to restrain our giving, to respect their desire for privacy and dignity. If the recipient does not respond with excitement to our offer, do not resent them, just seek out others who want our help. There are too many people in need, to be humiliating ourselves and wasting our time giving to those who neither desire nor need what we offer. And if we do give, even with sincere intentions, it seems to automatically make us feel we should be appreciated. And if we do not feel appreciated, we feel resentment. But did the other party ask for that thing in the first place? Did they express gratitude, but we still judge them as not being grateful enough? Do we give to those who do not want it, only to feel rejected, exposed, and dirty afterwards? Be respectful and selective, do not push the other person to accept something they are indicating they do not want.
One day in the supermarket, I saw a kind assistant offer to scan an item for a gentleman at the self-serve terminal. The customer was able bodied and did not need help, but out of politeness, he accepted and allowed her to help scan one item. Because he accepted that first offer, the staff member kept offering to help more and was being very loud. The gentleman politely declined, but she kept repeating over and over that she was willing to help. The customer continued to decline, but the lady refused to accept his words and kept insisting. She was making a loud scene in front of the other shoppers about being available to help him. He clearly wanted to scan the remaining items himself and no longer wanted assistance. It became awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.
Forcing our kindness onto people who do not want or need it, can just stress people out and make them feel humiliated. I have often made this mistake, but for me it was cake baking. I would bake for people, to be kind, but it ended up being a selfish act because it just made other people uncomfortable. I recommend not making my mistake, but rather, allow everyone their dignity. Often this means holding back so we avoid placing an unwanted weight on someone who has not asked for it. You are precious and beautiful, only give the parts of yourself that the other person will value. If they like cheese and bread but do not like cake, give them cheese and bread. Do not give them cake and expect them to be grateful (sorry Frank, who is also featured in Revenge of the Wilting Flower).
Whether it is our intention or not, gifts create emotional debts, so only give with a completely pure heart, expecting nothing in return.
Every Tribe Finds Someone to Oppress
By far, the most challenging, amazing, and effective things I did, were to see a therapist, and go on medication. I shed a million tears and worked my ass off to apply all the advice from my therapist, Jodie. I was shocked when she told me I had low self-esteem, because it meant she really saw me. To most people I would appear loud and brave, but that does not mean I have confidence in myself or my actions. I am tactless, talk too much and cower beneath unremitting fear of causing offense. I constantly try to change who I am, but once I am in the company of other people, the veil drops, and I slip right back into my old habits. So, my progress with acceptance, was not only about changing my behavior, it was also about changing my circumstances and surroundings.
Much of my personal suffering stemmed from challenging my childhood beliefs. I felt guilty about letting go of them and even guiltier about adopting new ones. The only way forward for me, was to allow myself plenty of time, without deciding to adopt new beliefs or presurring myself to join a tribe. And to stop judging myself through the eyes of my previous peers. And by extension, I taught myself to respect others and try not to make them feel guilty about their chosen values. Hypocrisy alert! I do condemn certain behaviors with my activism, “Don’t bag your bananas!” However, I would never criticize someone personally and all my objections about environmentally unfriendly behavior is broad. I never identify an individual.
But I still struggle with trying to reconcile my Christian upbringing with the world we live in. It is incredibly difficult for me to see our world as it is while still holding onto some of my previous morals. Our global society is rewriting what acceptable human behavior is at lightning speed, allowing no time for adaptation or adjustment. Just when I think I have become more open and understanding, the world forces more extreme opinions onto me. I feel like I am in a horrendous real life game where I work on myself, find a balance between holding onto my values while accepting the world around me, only for the world to go, “Right, you’ve reached that level, NOW TAKE THIS!” and throw stronger, more polarizing viewpoints at me that demand respect while not respecting my right to hold my own values. Healthy analysis and debate that does not recite the trending mantra, are forbidden. Not only is society aggressively dictating what my opinion must be but it is even scripting my response and berating me if I choose my own reasoning and wording.
Overnight, new ‘rules’ are created and if you are not immediately on board waving your banner or affirmatively signaling on social media, you are targeted for intense hate. Not because you are vocally opposed to an issue, but simply because you are not ready to express an opinion that society suddenly insists you should. “You must believe this, and you must believe it now,” or, “You are a bigot, you don’t care, you are supporting ‘A, B and C’ because of your silence.”
One amazing zero-waste hero of mine has a quarter of a million followers on Instagram alone. She travels the world supporting the zero-waste movement and is respected for her positive, can-do attitude and is generous with her knowledge. Her social media pages are 100% on message, everything is about minimalism and leaving an environmentally small footprint. My zero-waste hero had scheduled a completely innocent post – a lovely photo of her mobile home with a mountain behind. She is stuck in limbo because she recently changed her whole life, moved into the mobile home and had begun a public speaking tour. Then COVID hit, all her events were cancelled, and she kept being moved on by authorities because she was not allowed to park in one spot for long. Her income would have dried up and she was suddenly displaced.
Often, she was out of mobile data range as she tried to find somewhere to park her van for the night. Well, on the day she posted the photo of her mobile home with a mountain behind, society had suddenly decided she should have posted a black square. With that one innocuous photo of her mobile home, the world labelled her a hater. Many ‘loyal’ fans turned on her, as did other social media influencers, with hundreds of nasty comments that personally attacked her. I was mortified that someone who had been so kind, for so long and had given so much of herself to try to improve the planet, would be treated with such disrespect. I tried to defend her, but my comments inadvertently attracted more hate to her page and new nasty comments personally attacking me. She has not posted since, and that was three months ago.
Our always-on culture is a ruthless, hateful thing. I cannot and do not want to integrate into a world that has so quickly deteriorated into the current volatile state, nourishing each-other’s hate and insatiable desire to kick the puppy, with never ending justifications and an elevated sense of entitlement.
In addition to that reactionary attitude that grates against my sensitivities, I have become acutely aware of human behavior and the concealed power games people, especially women, play in a social setting. To understand my own willingness to conform to the rigid belief system I was raised in, I studied human nature, psychology, and the mechanisms of groups. I read books by experts, quizzed my therapist, interviewed strangers on the street and micro-analyzed the behavior of those around me and my own reaction to them. I learnt why my life seemed to be a cycle of the same events, same relationships, and same outcomes.
We All Unwittingly Play Roles
We all have roles to play, and we do not realize it, so we keep playing the same games with the same types of people. These social roles are like invisible magnets and we are not even aware we are being drawn in. We repeat the same behavior that matches our personal status, based on those around us and end up interacting and responding in the same predictable way. I am a people pleaser and I want everyone’s approval. This places me on the lowest rung of the social pecking order, allowing, no, inviting those above me, to intimidate and demean me so they can assert themselves above me, improve or maintain their own position, or experience the thrilling tingle that comes with power. Those of us who have a gentler nature, have our power sucked from us by those above, because they are frightened, we may find our strength and assert ourselves above them. So, they are constantly making pre-emptive strikes to keep us down.
Even if we associate with different kinds of people, we are all somehow pulled into a pre-determined role and start acting out that part. Put a bunch of alpha people together and they will subconsciously sort themselves into the predictive social hierarchical order. Some of them will take on the role and behavior expected of those lower down. I have often experienced the opposite, befriending kind people like myself, only for the same pecking order to miraculously manifest, with lovely people treating me unkindly. Goodness, I am ashamed to say I have even caught myself doing it!
Therefore, I will not promise you that one day you will find your tribe, nor will I insist it is the solution to our feelings of social disconnect. Because every tribe has the same hierarchy, and sooner or later the roles will manifest and you will likely find yourself back in the same position, having those all-too-familiar experiences and feelings, no matter what the common thing is that brought you together.
How I Climbed Out of My Despair
I was fixated on having friends and being part of a group. But eventually, I realized that inserting myself into a tribe, just created the illusion of agency, while in reality, because of my low-ranking social position, I was perpetually giving agency to those above me. It is a transfer of power. My life was always going to be the same unless something drastic changed. And change it did. I did not become the assertive person I always wanted to be, I worked within the parameters of my personality and my trauma. I found something that was effective for me, but it might not resonate with you or your circumstances.
One of my biggest personal wins, was to learn to love my own company. I know this sounds simplistic and it may not feel possible or even desirable for you. It took me years to achieve because I felt I needed other people to validate and approve of me. Alone-time, to me represented rejection, that I was not good enough and perhaps I was an unworthy, bad person. In my alone time, I was unable to disarm my introspection and would sabotage the serenity of silence. Instead of being my own best companion and enjoying the peace, I would abandon myself. Being alone = being lonely.
There are lots of reasons for being alone or feeling we do not have a tribe. It may mean the people near us are unwilling to give us a chance, our personality may not resonate with the town or suburb in which we live, or the culture or values of those around us. Or perhaps like me, we may be overcompensating for our loneliness and putting too much emotional pressure on others or there may be an inordinate number of intimidating women in our life. It could even be that some people may react badly to our kindness because they have problems dealing with their own sensitivity, so they are hostile and project their unprocessed issues back onto us. Not being part of a female tribe, does not mean there is anything wrong with us. Just think of the lady who posted the photo of her mobile home and was hated-on for it… our timing might just be out.
Rather than resenting our lack of company, I recommend learning to enjoy it. It is almost impossible to flick the switch that makes painful alone-time suddenly feel enjoyable. I was told repeatedly to enjoy solitude, but the negative voice in my head chose to make it impossible. I am approaching 50, and honestly, it is only in the past few years that I have learned to not only enjoy my own company but love it. I celebrated this huge milestone by getting a traditional Samoan tattoo, a symbol of self-approval and ownership of myself. I now choose myself and my own company, over socializing. But that may have something to do with residual trauma from my years of social abuse. My tattoo was very painful to receive, like thousands of tiny blades tapping into my flesh and I bled heavily beneath the skin afterwards. It was an apt experience for all the painful social abuse I had received. But at least now I own my scar and it is beautiful.
Another step in my personal growth, is I no longer stalk people for friendship. I even go so far as to avoid it now. And when people do occasionally invite me, I am filled with dread about what could go wrong, and usually something does. There is a 49% chance I will say at least one thing I regret. And there is a 49% chance that someone will say something that leaves me feeling demeaned. That leaves a 2% chance that the encounter will be mutually beneficial. With those stats, it is no wonder I rarely engage socially. If I do socialize, it is with great nervousness and that takes the shine off the experience, even if nothing does go wrong. And if something goes wrong, I can feel distressed for days, weeks or even months afterwards.
I eventually and reluctantly, came to the sad realization that rarely does an interaction build me up the way I always thought it would. Not because I do not like socializing – I love it – but more often than not, the old power plays inevitably raise their heads. But I am no longer upset about my lack of a social life. Solitude is now my safe, happy place. I am quite delighted to have finally tapped into my inner introvert and it is working out just fine.
I am not advising that you mimic my emotional entanglement with social interaction, or that you avoid socializing. You may indeed feel upbuilt by it. But if you find yourself feeling sad about your social life, you might learn from my experience. My life is significantly improved by not complicating it with power plays, my usual tactlessness, and the inevitable, sickening experience of feeling exposed. I know this is probably not what you would hope to hear, and I expect I will cop some flak for it. Shouldn’t I be promoting small communities to get together and build each other up? Anyone who follows my pages knows I am extremely friendly. I am highly supportive of community groups and I believe they are brilliant and vital. But there are some of us that find it traumatic. And I have complicated my own life by making my personal issues, so public. It is very difficult for me, to already be on high alert when talking face to face with people, to now see them actually examining everything about me during our interaction, even making direct comments to my face about how they perceive the experience. “You are talking really fast, you sound nervous, but you don’t look quite crazy.” Yes, I have had these words said to my face by people I just met.
I Found My e-Tribe
My interest in the environment has created an e-Tribe for me. I know this will not suit others, but it works for me, within the framework of my personality and trauma. The online world can be volatile, but it also offers a place where we can be drawn to each other because of our commonalities and passions. And I have to say that my followers are special beautiful people.
Online, we do not have to complicate our relationship by misinterpreting body language, or a tactless remark that slipped from our lips, that we will kick ourselves over for hours. We can build each other up and if people are not respectful, there is the power of the almighty ‘block’ button. We can care and support, without exposing too much of ourselves. For me it is safer than face to face interaction. I am terrified of confrontation and if someone is unkind to me in person, I cannot say anything because I do not want to appear mean. Like that little puppy, I feel powerless to protect myself in the real world. But online I can control who enters, how long they stay and how much of my time I want to give them.
My husband is forever saying to me, “People have too much access to you.” This has been the story of my life. Craving other people’s approval, means we expose ourselves, hoping for a friendly pat of approval, but often it allows the ‘kick the puppy’ phenomenon to rear its cruel head. If we can approve of ourselves, then we will enjoy our own company, and need the approval of others less.
I imagine some people will be upset by my views and keen to tell me all the wonderful virtues of friendship, but I already know. It is not being able to have it, that has caused me to create my ‘Plan B’ for happiness. Please read my memoir to understand the full context of how hard I tried to make ‘Plan A’ work. I do still have the occasional social encounter. I still value and appreciate friendship, but this puppy is always on high alert for a swift kick to come her way.
The opportunity cost for you may be different if you have less trauma in your history than I. It depends what is more important to you. If companionship is high priority, it may be worth the risk. Is personal peace more important? Then the risk may not be worth it. Each of us is entitled to do our own risk analysis and make the decisions we feel are best for us.
I tend to be very enthusiastic and often do too much of something. I used to have two heaped teaspoons of sugar in my coffee. I whittled it down so now I no longer take any, or if I am in the mood, perhaps just a sprinkle. My view of friendship and socializing is similar, I have weaned myself off it, exceedingly small amounts are all I need. The sweeter I make my life with my own interests and personal acceptance, the less I need external input.
The problems with my life were not lack of company or external approval, it was always seeking validation elsewhere because I never thought I was good enough. I eroded the joy of many potential good times, with my anxiety about rejection. But I have really changed my attitude. I have removed so much resentment from my life and replaced it with gratitude. I can now look back and instead of resenting all the social disconnect I experienced, I can visualize each and every person who showed me kindness, whether it be for a day, or spanned over months or years, and I feel gratitude for them. I am grateful for every little or big part of themselves they gave to me. Even the worst of the worst mums from my daughters’ school provided me with great material for my book!
I often feel like the world is spinning so fast that I am flying off the surface and into space, with a bungy cord strapped to my ankle. At these times, I no longer anxiously seek solace in a tribe, to ground and validate me. I have had to learn to survive on my own, and that has left severe trauma that makes tribalism a frightening thing.
It pains me to admit I have built happiness without a tribe, it is not the story I wish I could tell. And I feel guilty for people who may offer me friendship, hoping to rewrite my narrative, to make soft the hardness of my reality and the sharpness of my knowing. I put my arm up to protect myself, and it distresses me when they try to push it down and expose me, trying to force me into the uncomfortable, vulnerable place, that is familiarity. And I feel apologetic for writing all this because my perceptions may heavily disappoint some people.
But I do not feel bad for myself. I am proud I have learned how to be happy, without placing that power in other people’s hands, to abuse if they choose. Instead, I sit out the back amongst my lettuce and parsley and listen to the birds. And if I am spinning out of control, I go for a walk to a nearby park and Tim carefully stitches me back together, again. I am so fortunate to have a happy marriage and children at home, so I always have good company. It took me an awfully long time to realize how blessed I am and to fully appreciate my home life. I do not need more.
And if I do something online-society deems unacceptable, and I am cancelled, I could now walk away, and be content with myself and my life. Is not that the goal? To be happy with what we have.
I am no longer on a desperate, unending journey for acceptance from others to prove I am good enough. Because…
I am enough.
P.S. You can read a free sample of my eBook or purchase it below.