Blog 29: Can we afford to choose tribe: kind or mean?

Written by Jim Sheehy

I really understood tribes and their importance when living in North Belfast for 21 years.  My wife and I had lived up to then in the Republic of Ireland where tribes exist but the contact between them was respectful and cordial, the exceptions being immigrants and travellers.  Belfast exposed how deeply and easily we can label, judge and blame the neighbour next door or street.  We had a young couple right behind our house – middle-class, professional and wonderful people.  We had often chatted amicably across the low wooden fence.  Then, every summer for 3 years the news was dominated by Garvaghy Road in Portadown when Orange marchers clashed violently with Catholic residents.  The social atmosphere was toxic and I noticed how our relationship with the young couple changed subtly.  They were Protestant and we Catholic, and we felt the tribal call to identity and loyalty.  The change was so subtle: the chats over the fence diminished and then ceased.  When we accidentally happened to be in eye-contact, there was a nod before a less than graceful retreat into the house. When summer and the toxic daily newscasts concluded we tried but simply couldn’t regain the relationship again.  The young couple didn’t feel comfortable in our estate and eventually moved house to a village associated with their ‘tribe’.  When I reflected on how tribal hatred could impact on two decent couples trying to get on in life and be inclusive and fair-minded, I had to ask myself more questions about this tribal dynamic.

Today, the conversation is about choosing if you belong in the ‘kind or mean’ tribe.  We like our black and white demarcations in placing people into groups that are acceptable or disliked.  I do it myself, saying to myself ‘Oh, I’m in the kind tribe because I don’t react to somebody because of their religion, colour or social class.’  Belfast taught me that my self-praise is very fragile and limited.  Why? Well, the next step in patting myself on the back is my impulse to identify with other kind members of my tribe, be loyal and vocal in singing our praises AND defending the tribe against non-members.  The members of who we kind people call ‘The Mean Tribe’ have very different positions – exclusive and territorial. 

In a family, for example, the conversation can be around the children who have accepted parental values and children who, on reaching adulthood, adopt very different values.  Even a Mum and Dad can divide, one parent accepting the radically different child and the other disowning him or her.  Then, every family member must now choose which tribal group they wish to follow.

In a school or work setting, some will enter groups that are open and inclusive of everybody; and some will join the closed, exclusive friendship group that has barriers and conditions to enter. 

So, what’s my take on tribes? Let me name some of the banners I’ve followed: Irish, Catholic, Liverpool Football Club, Teacher / Psychotherapist / Husband.  And yes, I’ve struggled as an individual with each tribal association. Rather than do theory, let me run through each and allow your experience to bounce off mine.

Irish: great wee nation slowly waking up from being oppressed by another country and a domineering Church; I was so proud when I lived abroad and saw how other countries love the Irish.  So, this tribe I am happy to be in as we journey nationally.

While born a Catholic and very involved till my late thirties, this tribe I have left.  While loving the vision of the Gospel message, I am uncomfortable with the institution of Church and religion.  A belief system shared by a community has to put front at centre that which enhances our human potential to live well on this planet.  When a belief system stifles rather than champions the conversation about how we evolve as a species, I search in other places.  I feel the Church has lost the vision and my hope is that it risks being less a structure and more a movement for change.  Many people, including myself, want a dynamic, relevant faith-community but it has to be inclusive and serve the community.


I began following Liverpool Football Club aged 9.  The football club is a zone when I let the hair down and allow the emotions free rein.  Moments of pride, grief, shame and joy are mixed into my 55-year love-affair of donning the red top.  Overall, when I need to dip into a safe, familiar place I go through wonderful memories or watch a match with like-souls where I indulge and socialise.  Nostalgia is a warm blanket on the coldest December night and we all need some shape or form of blanket!

Teacher / psychotherapist / husband are the 3 roles that have shaped and developed my personality.  Teaching took my sensitive, introverted self and gave me a voice and presence that could be effective in public spaces.  Being a psychotherapist positions me where I can be one with people’s pain and help their healing by providing a calm, safe space where new decisions are chosen that better their lives.  The husband role grounds me and helps me realise that I am more human when I attend positively to the needs of the ‘someone I call friend and partner’ and more human when I feel my own inner world respected and affirmed. Partnering can be hard work at times but it definitely matures us and well worth the effort it demands.

So, before I look at another and label them as kind and mean, I wonder about what they were born into, the groups they were landed into, the opportunities in life they could choose.  Can I have a conversation with this person and see if we can respect and understand our very different worlds?

I honestly believe that, in every society on the planet, the kind vastly outnumber the mean.  Media platforms pressurise us into following one tribe – kind or mean, liberal or progressive.   The kind usually use the lower gears in communicating while the mean tribe rev straight to higher gears. The mean are loud and their message clinically clear; the kind reflective and the message more nuanced.  Are the mean bad people and the kind all angels?  Are we all, particularly as a society, being schooled into tribalism that is fuelled with adrenalin - and serves the interests of puppet-masters who feed us their agenda.  Yes, the mean tribe need to meet the kind tribe and put a face and voice, a history and context to the mask they wear.  Whatever the issue – sexuality, equality, poverty, environment – the answers will be found when we dare to risk letting go of quick blaming and dishonest shaming.  We are one human tribe and we have room for many shades.


Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and blog through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.





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Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
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087 2137922


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