Why you need to get off your shy introverted ass and start building your tribe right now―and how to do it

My favourite friends in cyber-space are all mildly (or not so mildly) anti-social introverts. Not that different from my most beloved in-real-life friends. “I don’t think we set out to be misanthropes,” one told me a little while ago. “It’s just that there are so many idiots out there.” “It’s not that I hate most people,” another told me, without a hint of defensiveness, and really, without that much wine consumption in evidence. “I just don’t have enough time or energy to deal with their stupid shit.”

“Jesus,” my beloved partner said, listening in on the latter conversation. “Are you ever lucky you found each other. And also kind of amazing. How did you ever manage to become friends, actually? I mean, the first time you met, did you just glower at each other across the room in mutual hatred?”

Oh, lover, I’m so glad you asked. Not mutual hatred, exactly, but… see, the story of our introverted, mildly dysfunctional “come over for a playdate, but don’t expect me to talk to you the whole time you’re here, okay, cause I’m not really into that” friendship is actually a story of how you successfully build community.

Its central thesis is, really, that you don’t need to love thy neighbour to build community. To have a tribe. The gods know I don’t, and the tribe I have, baby―each of you should covet.

But I’m telling the story all wrong. Backwards. I think the story starts in 2002, when my son was born while all of my university-era friends were either childless, single or both. Plus,  most of them were no longer living in the city I moved back to. You can tell where that plot line is going? New mother. Alone. Alienated. Whatever will she do?

She’s going to build a tribe. And I did. So, skip ahead with me 11 years, to YYC’s epic flood, and meet them.

I’d introduce you to each personally, but as you can see, there are fucking hundreds of them, and, honestly, I don’t even know most of their names. See that woman, over there, with a baby strapped to her back, pulling another kid and a cooler in a wagon? She came to save me on a Wednesday night when I was having a total breakdown and couldn’t cope with the idea of cleaning one more thing, putting one more thing away―making one more decision. And then offered me her house as a sanctuary to stay in for the upcoming few days, if things were getting too crowded at my parents house, where we were evacuated.

I had never met her before. Ever.

She showed up that Wednesday, because another woman texted her to let her know I needed help, now. I had never met that woman until Monday.

I met a dozen, more, of them for the first time that Monday, when they answered my call for help for my physical community, my beloved Sunnyhill. They came―to wield crowbars, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows. To watch children. To pick up filthy, barely-salvageable clothes to wash. To bring food. To drop off their husbands:

“He’s a carpenter. He’ll be great at deconstruction. And make sure you call us when you’re ready to rebuild.”

“He’s got lots of experience in flood restoration. Use him!”

“He’s really annoying, but very strong.” (Ha, ha, ha. No, really, she really did say that. But why-ever would you immediately think I was talking about you?)

“He’s coming with our generator, pumps, fans, and pick-up truck. What else do you need?”

They came to do the hundred things that needed to be done. Later, when things calmed down, I saw on on-line fora how they were berating themselves that they didn’t do more, feeling guilty that they didn’t do enough. Jesus Christ. They fed us, watched our kids, cleaned our clothes, supplied us with pretty much everything we needed, from labour to bleach, de-moulder, and, at one point, two Bobcats (score!). The ones who couldn’t come or “do” kept the lines of communication flowing, monitoring Facebook, Twitter, texts and e-mail. I’d shout out on-line “We needed razor-blade scrapers, because that goddamn lino is not coming out!” and someone would arrive wielding one. Ditto face masks, work gloves, shovels, bleach, bleach, bleach, shop vacs, fans―everything and anything.

More? They totally and completely saved us. What more could they have done?

They even brought red wine and chocolate. (And beer. Copious amounts of beer.)

Here’s the first important take-away: I get how each individual might think she could have done more, but, see, as a community―they did everything that needed to be done. They saved us, all 41 of our flooded homes in Sunnyhill. (And then, they went on into other neighbourhoods…)

Here’s the second important take-away: this is WHY you need to get off your shy introverted ass and start building your tribe right now. Not because I’m predicting an epic natural disaster in your future.

But life throws tough times your way all the time. New baby. Sick child. Dying parent. Paralyzing illness. Job loss. Partner loss. Immense life complications. Emotional, physical pain. Getting through any of it, all of it, alone is impossible.

Your tribe gets you through it.

And you, my cynical cyber-friend, I see you rolling your eyes, and I see you want to say, “Fuck, chick, I have friends, you have friends, friends got our backs, I know this, what snake oil do you think you’re selling?”

This snake oil, friend: a tribe is not your friends. Friends are friends, and I know you’ve got them. A tribe―a community―is the people who are going to come help you when you need them even if they hate your fucking guts some―all―of the rest of the time.

No, really. Stay with me here, because this is what you need to know, to understand, to find your tribe and to build it. See, my beloved lonely heart, if you’ve been on the parenting or life journey for a while and you feel you’re walking it alone most of the time, you’re looking for the wrong thing. You say you’re looking for a tribe, community, connection.

But you’re probably looking for perfection. Unconditional, frictionless support. Perfect understanding. “A perfect fit.”

Not such thing, baby. Community―any real community has warts:

It’s full of assholes, bitches, mean girls and parasites. People who piss you off. People who take advantage of “the system,” whatever it is. People you dislike, and who dislike you right back. Community is messy: full of fights and hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Community is really, really―REALLY―hard work.

That’s your third take-away, baby: warts. Messy. Hard. A pain in the ass sometimes. Being part of a community is NOT being part of a circle of people just like you. (I’m not sure, but I think that might actually be the definition of a cult.)

Community includes people you don’t like. And also people you’ve never met, or will only meet in times of their great need―or yours.

Back to the end of the story: so these hero women ripping out drywall, insulation, floors and stairs in Sunnyhill, feeding us and our volunteers, running errands, and otherwise saving us? They were connected, in the main, by the attachment parenting community in Calgary. Which―to jump back to the beginning of my story―I found when, as a new mother, I was looking for other mothers, connections.

I think, back then, much like you, my lonely heart friend, I may have been looking for perfection. Because it took me a long, long time―years―to build the connections that, a few weeks ago, saved my home and my neighbourhood.

But here’s your fourth take away: building a tribe, community takes time. Years. You’re not going to find it the first day you stumble into a playground. The first time you share a meal. The first time you meet a group of other new parents at a zoo or park get-together. (Although, the first time you rip out a flooded-and-rotting-about-to-collapse-upon-your-heads shed together, you might well be buds for life.)

Building community takes years.

Especially if you’re the same sort of misanthrope with severe intimacy issues as I am.

Ready for the fifth one? You’ll love it, beloved introvert. The current main forum for the attachment parenting mamas in YYC has more than 600 members. That, beloved, is my definition of hell. Too crowded. Too many strangers. Too many fragile egos, too many unknowns for someone with my vaguely anti-social tendencies. I wasn’t even on the forum when these women decided to save Sunnyhill’s collective ass.

My connection to it was historic―and I was connected to people who were still active, who were connected to others, who were connected to others, who were connected to others, including three or four other families in Sunnyhill who at one time or another were active members of the community, who were connected to others, who were connected to…


Community isn’t my bond to 600 people. Community is the entire collection of bonds. You know all those cliches: “United we stand!” “Strong together!”

Yeah. Cliches are cliches because they’re usually true.

That’s your fifth take-away: Community is the entire collection of bonds among the individuals who are part of it. Who touch it. And so you see, to build your tribe―you don’t need 600 or 60 BFFs. You invest and foster the handful of relationships that really feed you. You benefit, ultimately, from all the others―indirectly most of the time, very directly, come something like an epic flood. And you do contribute to all the others as well, indirectly most of the time, directly when they need you.

Well, unless you’re a total parasite.

But then, community supports some parasites too.

So if you’re still with me, lonely heart, I suspect you are currently in the grip of this thought:

“Woman, if that’s your cynical view of community, why the hell did all those people come to help you? Cause you sure don’t sound like Princess Community Sunshine.”

I’m not. And you should take heart: self-avowed misanthrope here. With severe intimacy issues, did I mention that? (Ask my next door neighbour sometime how long it took me to connect with her.) And I have a tribe everyone should covet. So if I got this amazing thing going for me―you can do it too.

And, this is so important: my “cynical” view of community is why I have community. Multiple, overlapping communities. See, because I don’t expect perfection―in fact, because I know community is a warty, messy, hard pain in the ass―I don’t run from it crying when my feelings get hurt, when people tick me off.

And, most important of all: they didn’t come to help me. See? They didn’t come because they loved me. They came because this is what a tribe does. What a community does: whatever needs to be done. It saves your ass when it has to. Not because it loves you, or owes you, personally. But because―it is something bigger than you and your handful of personal relationships.

So, beloved. If you’re on your life or parenting journey and you don’t have this tribe―you don’t have a community that you know is going to save you when disaster, depression, life strikes―get off your lazy introverted ass and start building it right now. You’ve got to. Alone, you will not make it.

And as you build, remember this:

A community is that group around you that does what needs to be done. That’s its definition. Nothing more. Nothing less.

You  need one. Don’t think you’re self-sufficient. Or that your nuclear family–or your extended family–is enough. It’s not.

Community is messy. Annoying. Full of assholes, bitches, mean girls and parasites. It’s worth it anyway.

Building community takes time. Years. Which is why you need to start NOW.

Finally: Community is the entire collection of bonds among the individuals who are part of it. It doesn’t mean having 6000, 600, 60 best friends. It doesn’t mean loving everyone within it.

It really just means recognizing that you are part of something greater, more important than yourself, your house, your nuclear family. And being part of it… in a way that works for you.


P.S. I chose to highlight the attachment parenting community of Calgary in this story both because of the sheer amount of physical and social labour its members committed to saving Sunnyhill and also for, frankly, story-telling effectiveness (writers manipulate. It’s what we’re paid to do. Keep that in mind every time you read an allegedly “objective” newspaper or magazine article). But there were multiple tribes saving Sunnyhill’s collective bohunkus as well as its individual homes. We were a community saved by a community of communities if you like. Among those of my own tribes that came to help us was the one I forged while at a university student paper―my former colleagues there came with spouses, friends, and members of their own other tribes. My entire extended family–my parents, brother and his wife, sister-in-law and her partner, my in-laws near and far… I tend to take their contribution to the disaster for granted, because, you know–family. That’s what they do. They save your ass, no questions asked. And my professional tribe too, editors I’ve both pleased and frustrated, interview subjects I’ve flattered and skewered, readers who’ve in the past sent me fan letters… and hate letters, too. I add this PS both to honour and thank them, and also, to reassure you with this: it is possible, that as you go along on the parenting journey, you don’t really connect with other people as parents. That you’ll never find a playgroup that results in meaningful connections.

“Fuck, Jane, this is how you reassure me? What’s wrong with you?”
“Shut up and let me get to the point, will you?”

That doesn’t mean you give up on community. Find it elsewhere: in your professional life. In the arts community, or another passion. In politics (um… well, maybe). It’s out there. And it starts with one relationship.

Go. Build.

Just remember―it’s messy.

“This is brilliant!”
“Oh, thank you. Then you might really like this: After the Flood: Sunnyhill Clean Up Day 8. And you’ve read the epic flood story already, right? No? It’s here: unLessons from the Flood: We are Amazing.

24 thoughts on “Why you need to get off your shy introverted ass and start building your tribe right now―and how to do it

  1. When we dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, our tribe was our extended family. Thank god for all of them, because it was truly because of them that we got through and even became stronger. You are so right about this and you learn during times like these who you can and cannot count on!!

    • I don’t think it’s about learning who you can/cannot count on… I think it’s about learning just how interdependent, interconnected you are. There were people a few blocks away from us who were ripping out basements all alone two weeks later–they didn’t manage to tap into the immense social network available to help–they chose to go it alone, to their detriment.

      But yes, the extended family is the beginning of a tribe. But even that’s not enough–and for people who live away from family–not even a possibility.

  2. There is one side to community that is more sinister than “warty, messy and hard”.

    Communities sometimes never forgive. Say you do make that one mistake… Because you are a sensitive introvert, because you feel things deeply, wear emotions on your sleeve… Say you dare to be your introverted self in your community, your feelings were hurt and you say so.

    Or, you have a perspective that doesn’t “fit” in some other way. Emotions are very tricky. Political opinions, sexual diversity, religious views, parenting views. Also tricky but more “respectful” than feelings.

    Any such “mistake” has the potential for ending all things tribal. That little thing, an example of the very diversity of a group’s membership that adds to its color and beauty and power can also cause a group to throw away individuals as easily as a head sheds a hair.

    Groups and communities cannot tolerate any one single person’s out-of-sync-ness. That is why introverts stay away and are deeply weary of community. We know from experience that when shit hits the fan, and it is a big 600-member sized fan, oh the shit…it will fly!

    It happened to me. I spoke emotionally, cried, was “corrected”. I left because it hurt. I made that mistake. I suffered for it. An entire group, with the exception of a couple of people, no longer saw me as “one of them”. I made peace later with the one member of that community that my falling out was with. I wanted to make peace with the whole group, I came and asked to rejoin. They didn’t let me back in. The whole group was done with me. Sounds dramatic, right? Like something happening on a school playground or high school cafeteria, right? And I am not trying to make anyone shake with indignity at the injustice here…

    Of course, the loss of one individual is hardly noticeable in a large mass of individuals. But, for that individual, the consequences are very deeply felt. Shy introverts are wise to keep a cynical approach. Feeling the things deeply is not a mistake, it is part if the diversity in which human nature expresses itself.

    Communities have an unbelievable power to mobilize.

    Communities have an unbelievable power ostracize and shut out.

    Communities sometimes never get past group thing in bygone trespasses, real or perceived.

    Communities, tribes…are precious and beautiful and so magnificent when set into positive action. But let’s not overlook their dark side.

    • And this is exactly why I left (before I was emotionally shut out completely) the Calgary attachment parenting community/tribe. I was asked a few things and gave my view, and was roundly told I was SO. FUCKING. WRONG. and how dare I call myself an attachment parent? (I never have – I *practice* attachment parenting.) I find many of the most peace idealized groups to be the most judgemental and quickest to cast you out if you’re not utterly and completely in line with their world view.

      I feel for you. Gawd forbid you should be honest and risk the ire of a tribe. I am tribe-less, currently, and as much as I’d be boned in the case of a crisis, I can’t stand the thought of going through another judged and ostracized exercise.

      (Perhaps not the best avenue for this diatribe, but I won’t apologize. I’m kinda done with apologizing. This article struck a nerve.)

      • But the thing is, I’m fine. I think this was the article’s point: communities are hard and sometimes mean and exclusionary and if you anticipate that, walk into it knowing full well that it will suck, you’ll be fine. I’m saying, up to a point. Because communities can be really really mean and really really exclusionary, not just a little bit messy and hard. So, while I personally am totally fine with my experience, and whatever, it’s all water under the bridge, I absolutely think especially the shy introverted misanthropes are not at all wrong to be cautious and stand back. Communities can ostracize – and do so ruthlessly. They marginalize, shut out, and condemn (large scale events that affect entire races of people start and take place in communities) and the pain of that is intense. Anyone who has experienced even a tad of homophobia or a teeny bitnof racism knows that, and it has nothing to do with fragile egos (which is such a derogatory term anyway…).

        But, yes, if you walk into any community, stick around for a time, and participate in some shape or form, all the while keeping your cynical stand point, and if you assume the folks around are going to be asses, yes, you will definitely maintain connections to communities over time. It is that historicity that is the beginning and the end of having community. Nothing wrong with that at all. It is probably a perfect approach to dealing with the stupid (m)asses.

        If you ever find yourself truly on the outside – not imagined or perceived but actually shunned – that is a different story.

        But perhaps even one relationship to start with – or that missing piece in your life, whether it’s a broken childhood you want to heal, losses, disease…- anything and everything can be a starting point, like Jane said.

        I appreciate that message.

  3. A good reminder- I often want my tribe to be all harmony all the time and that’s never how it works if it’s real. I should know this, I fostered classroom communities for years. Thanks Jane.

  4. I don’t get along with my family all of the time either. A community and a family are made up of human beings, so, of course, both are going to be messy. Expecting it to be different would be unrealistic. The fact is that we need one another, which must trump the messiness or you go it alone. It was an inspiration to read how you and your tribe turned such devastation into a celebration of community.

    • Unfortunately, I think too many people approach “community” (as perhaps they do family, and marriage?) with utopian and doomed-to-fail expectations of perfection. They look for… what? Unconditional support and approval. People just like them. Lack of friction. No warts. And you need to be able to put up with the warts, the messiness.

      And if you go it alone… you go mad. I think, anyway.

  5. Fits me to a T! A little bird mentioned you thought I was snooty upon our first meeting until I whipped my boob out to nurse my then toddler. Me snooty?! Nope. Exact opposite…just another shy, introverted, listener ❤ Thanks for sharing!

  6. Interesting. This is not where I thought you were going to go with this piece. I’m guilty of wanting it all to be perfect all the time. Some people create tribes so quickly. For me, it takes a lot longer. And patience isn’t my middle name. But usually it happens. This kind of reminded me of my piece about the asshole brigade storming my neighborhood. It’s just good to say hi to strangers once in a while.

    • It’s good to say hi to strangers once in a while for sure… but that’s now how you build community or a tribe, you know. Well, you do know. And this is important: people who search for perfection are eternally dissatisfied. No community–no playgroup, no city suburb, no sports team is ever “good enough.” No relationship. Because nothing is perfect.

      That doesn’t mean it’s not *good*–or worth it, right?

      I’m finding it interesting that quite a few of my readers have misunderstood the thrust of this post. My failure as a writer. I will have to try again.

  7. I had this huge long comment typed but then when I reread it, it sounded like bullshit because it began with not really being clear who my community is. Which is, like you said, and like I realized, bullshit. There are a bunch of people that make up mine. Because I don’t know them, don’t care what their names are today, or resent them for being stupid at the playground doesn’t mean that they’re not my community. Thanks for that.

  8. Wow. NIce job, my misanthropic friend. I love the angle you took on the topic of tribe. You make some fantastic points, and I love the notion that there could, in fact, be a tribe of misanthropes that don’t make one another feel all warm and fuzzy, but they get the job done. This was really interesting and powerful.

  9. We find the need for a tribe right now since extended family isn’t there for us. I love the idea of community and building a village, but you are right…it is hard-especially for hermits

  10. My partner’s finally read this post and has spent half an hour telling me how to rewrite it so our friends don’t think I’m a total jerk, especially after all they’ve done for us. I love him so. He’s got a few interesting points, and a different point of view on why so many readers have had such a visceral reaction to it–and misunderstood, or refused to understand, its thrust. (Ya’ should see what my email inbox has looked like this week. Ouch.) I’ll develop a few of his suggestions into a future post. But this one stands as is. Because. Community is messy. And I’m not cuddly. And my tribes, and the tribes of the people in my tribes, waded through hip-deep* flood water to help me and one of my tribes. And that’s community. (*well, it was mostly knee-high on the first two days, and then by day four it was mostly drained, and then by the second week, it was pretty dry… But doesn’t hip-deep flood water sound more impressive?)

    • I loved your post. And I love even more that when it wasn’t received as you expected, you still let it stand warts and all. Perfection is a hellish goal, a lesson I’m still struggling to learn though it makes perfect (ha!) sense in my head.

  11. Pingback: And now, a few words about parasites, getting ostracized, and serial communists | Nothing By The Book

  12. Pingback: “Who are you wearing?”—clothes as message, value, consciousness | Nothing By The Book

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