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The teachings of 'The myth of normal'

I dedicated my summer holidays to read the new book of Mate Gabor, ’The myth of normal’ that is an eye-opener about the link between trauma and the mal-etre of our societies. Below I summarize the key elements from this 500-page book:

First, Dr Gabor Mate is a doctor specialised on addiction, stress and childhood development. He has written several books such as the Hungry Ghosts, When the Body says no (see my previous blog here)

In this book -that he wrote with his son- he digs deeper about why normal is a myth. He says that something is amiss in our culture itself, generating the blind spots that keep us from doing something about it. How we are is a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration.

The toxic culture means not only our physical environment but also the spread of negativity, distrust, hostility, polarisation. He suggests therefore that we see illness as an expected and normal consequence of abnormal, unnatural circumstances. The illness should no longer be regarded as expressions of individual pathology but as living alarms directing our attention toward where society has gone askew


Trauma behind the mal-etre

Dr Mate is detailing what trauma is and how he saw in his practice the manifestation of trauma in sickness.

  • He had several patients that had breast cancer and the common characteristics of all these women were that they exhibited extreme suppression of anger and of other feelings. The link with that personality trait and appearance of cancer was proved by different studies in the UK and US.

  • Also, women with severe PTSD were found to have twice the risk of ovarian cancer as women with no known trauma exposure. The related research also found that having higher levels of PTSD symptoms can be associated with ovarian cancer even decades after the woman experience a traumatic event. Possibilities for decreasing the risk are also explained such as effective psychotherapy.

The book is also emphasizing that Trauma is transgenerational. The chain of transmission goes from parent to child, stretching from the past into the future. We pass on what we have not resolved in ourselves. The home becomes a place here we unwittingly recreate scenarios reminiscent of those that wounded us where we were small.

The mind-body unity is a relatively new science, of which Dr Mate is one of the pioneers. This field includes the connections between emotions and our nervous and immune systems and stress might instigate disease. No matter how sophisticated our minds may be, the fact remains that their basic contents-what we feel, believe in unconsciously- powerfully affect our bodies, for better or worse.

Dr Mate understands disease as the result of generational suffering, social conditions, cultural conditioning and therefore advocates for a holistic healthcare approach that recognises that brain and body are in constant dance, as intimate as it is intricate (as we human are with our environment).

Today’s culture

The chapter 8-14 develop why today’s culture is a health hazard. Normalizing unhealthy habits that from the perspective of the needs and evolutionary history of the human specie does not make sense:

  • Pregnancy-hostile work environment, especially in lower paid jobs. Babies of mums stressed in pregnancy have lower levels of serotonin and domain and higher level of stress hormone cortisol. Later in life there is a bigger chance that these children experience depression, anxiety, intestinal problems. Interesting fact: paternal depression is also known to affect sperm quality and the placenta function. Indeed, the wellbeing of both parents is crucial.

  • Stressful labour conditions: for example, episiotomies applied systematically without giving the necessary time to women to naturally giving birth

  • Children upbringing without considering their developing needs. For example, early stopping of breast feeding, lack of community of multiple, warm adult caregivers, isolated parenting, short term maternity leave (a few weeks in the US, a few months in Europe), physical punishment, early exposure to digital tools

The 3 traits that make us do that according to Dr Mate:

· Separation form self: this is the result of a child’s developmental needs being denied. Culture encourages people to perform even if chronically stressful, to feel wanted and needed.

· Consumption hunger: We consume our needs, unaware that we take to be a need has been artificially produced. Constantly living at that high artificial tension leaves many people dissatisfied and anxious.

· Hypnotic passivity: Self-abandonment programmed into the social character makes us passive even in the face of threats to our existence as a species.

Afflictions as adaptations

The book dedicated a whole chapter to how different addictions, mal-etre can be explained as adaptations to our toxic culture. Dr Mate writes that all addictions can be summed up as an escape from the confines of the self (lived experience of being uncomfortable and isolated in one’s own skin). Pain indeed is central in this story: Where I am is intolerable, get me out of there. It is a kind of a refuge story: from intolerable feelings incurred through adversity and never processed, and into a state of temporary freedom, even if illusory.

But why the pain? Dr Mate interviewed dozens of people about their experiences and describes their background in his book. Each story is particular but the common is trauma, where abuse and neglect met the lower level of class and racial status. All kinds of suffering can cry out for an addictive pain relief. Dr Mate points the finger to the fact that: Trauma is about what happens inside of us, and how those effects persist, not what happens to us.

  • Dr Mate recalls a poignant story written by David Sheff in his book, Beautiful Boy: A father’s journey through his son’s addiction. In his book, he describes a dysfunctional parental relationship. ‘We had terrible problems in our marriage. Self-delusion played a major role: even while engaging in an extramarital affair with a family friend.’

Is recovering possible?

It is a known fact that the greater the degree of childhood adversity, the higher risk of mental disturbances, including psychosis.

  • Referring to Bruce Perry, the book writes that adverse childhood experiences are of consequence, but not as determinative as your history in relationships.

We also know for sure that no one has ever identified any gene that causes mental illness, not any group of genes that code for specific mental health condition or are required for the presence of mental disorder.

What is sure though is that it is enormous to recover from our childhoods. It is incredibly worthwhile, but it is a lot of work. Instead of looking at mental health condition as an illness, we should rather look at it as an expression about the life in which it arises.

  • For example, depression is an adaptive function, to distance oneself from emotions that are unbearable at a time in life when to experience them is to court greater calamity. It can be also a coping mechanism to alleviate grief and rage and to inhibit behaviours that would invite danger.

The bigger picture

In our culture, people should bear heavy loads to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

  • A rennet study from Yale finds that stress has cumulative effects on biological ageing. Our societies are experiencing more stress than before (uncertainty, lack of control, conflict), leading to both negative psychiatrical and physical outcomes. And it goes without saying that the most loads fall mostly on the politically disempowered and economically disenfranchised. The OECD reports for example that pressures on the middle class around the world have increased since the 1980s.

  • In the USA studies show that the risk of stroke and heart attack in people of 51-61 years old age more than doubles in the aftermath of prolonged job loss. Multiple job losses have been shown to raise the risk of heart attacks as much as cigarettes, alcohol, and hypertension.

Dr Mate writes that the basic sense of belonging is what we lack today. A society that fails to value communality is a society facing away from the essence of what it means to be a human. At the same time, loneliness is an epidemic in Western cultures and it is more than just a psychological phenomenon: it is a public health crisis according to Dr Mate. It is associated with an elevated risk of illeness and early death and it has been compared to the harm of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

  • Professor in psychology Knox College says that the more people value materialistic aspirations as goals, the lower their happiness and life satisfaction and the fewer pleasant emotions they experience day to day. When people strongly endorse money, status and prime concerns, they are less likely to engage in ecologically beneficial activities and the emptier and insecure they will experience themselves to be.

Disease as a teacher

Dr Mate writes about people who call their disease a cherished gift:

  • Blessed with a brain tumour written by Will Pye is a book that is about his healing transformation and awakening. As him, we can see disease as an agent of healing or at least as an opportunity for learning and growth. Rather than merely healing from disease, we can somehow learn to heal through it.

  • A Romanian doctor, Bianca had her multiple sclerosis discovered when she was stressed in her personal life and job. She took on too much and ignored her own needs. She was told to have to rely on her medication for the rest of her life, however after a few years she is now stable and given up the drug help. She has no symptoms for the moment. Sometimes when she feels numbness of the skin, she knows that she has not permitted herself to feel some emotions and this is a red light. She needs to stop and relax.

  • Harris was advised to enter a palliative care where she was told that she had no more than two months to live. She fought to stay at home with her two children, going to the hospital to get the necessary transfusion every day. She continued her spiritual path and after the two months passed, remission surprised her doctor. Harris did yoga and meditation and pursued nutritional healing. The biggest change though was that she allowed herself to feel the entire rage of her emotions, releasing all repressions. Together with the medical help, the power of self-transformation achieved this amazing result together.

People who get better really change their beliefs about themselves or their beliefs about the universe. They feel whole, they feel more grateful than before the hardship. As Will Pye says in his book, the journey is to find the gift in the challenge. The choice we have is wheather to take it up now or to wait for a more urgent occasion for the learning.

Return to self

By the end of the book, Dr Mate gives us some exercises to practice daily or weekly in written, that I found super useful. Writing down all your answers will engage the mind more actively and profoundly than observing your mental ideas.

  • Question 1 : In my life’s important areas, what am I saying no to?

Where did I sense a no within me that wanted to be expressed? Really look at recurrent patterns in your work or personal relationships. Sometimes the absence of the no does not serve our well-being.

  • Question 2: How does my inability to say no impact my life?

The physical (insomnia, back pain, headache, etc), emotional (anxiety, boredom, sadness, loss of pleasure) and interpersonal (resentment) levels.

  • Question 3: What bodily signals have I been overlooking? What symptoms have I been ignoring that could be warning signs, where I must pay conscious attention?

Here we start with the physical impacts, trusting them to reveal where authenticity has been missing. For some people this question is an essential backup measure, because their self-denial has become so normal that they might not be able to identify an unsaid no.

  • Question 4: What is the hidden story behind my ability to say no?

This means the narrative, the explanation, the justification, the rationalisation that make these habits seem normal and necessary. Most often we are not aware that they are stories because we think and act if they were true.

For example:

· I must be good to deserve love. If I say no, I am not loveable.

· I am not worthy until I do something useful.

· It is selfish to say no.

  • Question 5: Where did I learn these stories?

It is through our interactions with caregivers that we develop a view of ourselves. The intention in looking at the past is not to dwell on but to let go of it.

  • Question 6: Where have I ignored or denied the yes that wanted to be said?

If stifling a no can make us ill, so can withholding an authentic yes. What have you wanted to do, manifest create or say that you have forsaken in the name of perceived duty or out of fear? What joys have you denied yourself our of a belief that you do not deserve them?

Undoing self-limiting beliefs

Now, that you pinpointed the unspoken no or yes, started to identify the various impacts, looked at the stories, let’s start liberating ourselves, to waking up from the hypnotic reverie of unworthiness.

This method is an experimental one, requiring commitment and mindfulness. It needs to be not only done but fully experienced. Only when attention is present can the mind rewire the brain.

Step 1: Relabel

Firstly, we should call the self-limiting thought/belief: for example, I seem to believe that I am responsible for everyone’s feelings. I am only worthy when I am helpful.

We are awakening the part of ourselves that can observe mental content without identifying with it. You put the story in its place, gently taking it off the nonfiction shelf.

Step 2: Reattribute

Here you learn to assign the relabelled belief to its proper source. Rather than blaming yourself or someone else, you are ascribing cause to its proper place: neural circuits programmed into your rain when you are a child. It represents a time, early in your life, when you lacked te conditions for your emotional circuitry’s health development. You are not pushing the thought away, but you are also making clear that you did not ask for it, nor have you ever deserved it.

What you do now is you respond to the negative belief. The quality of your present-moment experience is more tied to that choice of responses than to anything fixed by the past.

Step 3: Refocus

This is about giving yourself time. If you manage to catch a negative self-believing striving to seize control, find something else to do. This takes awareness, and its best not to beat yourself up if you miss it at first.

Take a 20 min break and choose to do something that you enjoy and keeps you active (preferably something healthy and creative) without causing greater harm. If you do not have the immediate energy for that, you might refocus on what is loving and alive in your life: on possibilities that you fulfilled or glimpsed. The purpose of refocus is to teach your brain that it can choose something else, even if its only for a while.

Step 4: Revalue

This is a kind of an audit, an investigation into the objective costs of the beliefs your mind has invested so much time and energy in.

What has this belief actually done for me? Possible answers can be: it left me feeling ashamed and isolated. It has incurred physical illness. To recognise the impact, allow your answers to go beyond the conceptual.

What has been the net value of your story on your relationship, wife, children? What happened yesterday when you allowed your belief to rule you? What will happen tomorrow?

A complete revaluation also considers any payoffs you have derived from this belief. Has it kept you safe from harm even in short term? Include these too.

Importantly, do this exercise without judging yourself. You were not born asking to be programmed this way, and you will not be punished for what gets uncovered. Remember too, that is not personal to you. Millions of people developed the same mechanisms. What is personal to you is only how you choose to respond to it in the present.

Step 5: Re-create

It is time to re-create, to imagine a different life, one truly worth choosing. You have intentions, talent, capability and maybe a sense of purpose.

What is in life that you really want? What do you choose to create?

Write down your values and intentions with awareness. Envision yourself living with integrity, being able to look people in the eye with compassion for them and for yourself.


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