The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture
by Gabor Maté, Daniel Maté
Physician Gabor Maté has written, with his son Daniel, a very readable and challenging book, based on his own clinical experience. It challenges the very basis of our societies and politics. Consider this quote:
“I have come to believe that behind the entire epidemic of chronic afflictions, mental and physical, that beset our current moment, something is amiss in our culture itself, generating both the rash of ailments we are suffering and, crucially, the ideological blind spots that keep us from seeing our predicament clearly, the better to do something about it. These blind spots—prevalent throughout the culture but endemic to a tragic extent in my own profession—keep us ignorant of the connections that bind our health to our social-emotional lives… our culture’s skewed idea of normality is the single biggest impediment to fostering a healthier world.”
Much of the discussion is concerned with trauma, which he suggests “is a foundational layer of experience in modern life, but one largely ignored or misapprehended.” It is our trauma, or woundedness, that dictates much of our behaviour, shapes our social habits, informs our ways of thinking and affects our ‘presence’ in the world. For many, trauma is inflicted at an age before our brain is capable of formulating any kind of narrative or response, to the extent that trauma pervades our culture. Unresolved trauma is a constriction of the self, which keeps us stuck in the past, leading to fixed habitual responses, stress, fear-based responses, loss of self-compassion and often chronic suffering or disease, notably heart ailments and inflammation.
Two counter-intuitive facts are notiable:
- this ‘self-estrangement’ can show up later in life in the form of an apparent strength, such as a workaholic ability to perform at a high level when hungry or stressed or fatigued.
- it is often the “nice” people, who repressed their negative emotions and always put other’s expectations and needs ahead of their own, who showed up with chronic illness in his medical practice.
Trauma and stress are a significant factor in disease, which is a psychological, spiritual, emotional condition rather than simple biology. They are also caused by cultural factors, such as manipulation of children’s emotional needs by corporations to generate profit, education for job needs rather than healthy personal development. Addictions are a natural response to try to soothe the stresses in childhood and adulthood.
We also know that chronic stress puts the nervous system on edge, distorts the hormonal apparatus, impairs immunity, promotes inflammation, and undermines physical and mental well-being. The burgeoning of chronic mental and physical health conditions across many countries in the past decades, from depression to diabetes, can be no coincidence.
The system fosters trauma
Stress is spread across the world by globalization, with ruinous policies dictated to so-called developing countries by bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—such as cutting back social supports, suppressing workers’ rights, and encouraging privatization—has also spread to the industrialized nations. Similarly, American corporate capitalism fosters and encourages a set of values based on self-interest, a strong desire for financial success, high levels of consumption, and interpersonal styles based on competition, causing inequality, pollution, unemployment, and the degradation of values.
Maté suggests that “the closer I look at the political landscape, the more I see the wounded electing the wounded,the traumatized leading the traumatized and, inexorably, implementing policies that entrench traumatizing social conditions.”
“A select few—especially those with the sorts of early coping mechanisms that prime them to deny reality, block out empathy, fear vulnerability, mute their own sense of right and wrong, and abjure looking at themselves too closely—are elevated to power. There they govern over a majority who so crave comfort and stability, who are so ground down by cynicism and alienation, that they will trade authentic instincts and collective self assertion for the pseudo-attachment of false promises and soothing charisma. Completing the cycle, our wounded leaders with their blinkered priorities enact social policies that keep conditions how they were, or worse.”
Healing and authenticity
True healing simply means opening ourselves to the truth of our lives, past and present, as plainly and objectively as we can. The kind of truth that heals is known by its felt sense, not only by how much “sense” it makes. Through healing we become more our authentic selves.
Lack of authenticity makes itself known through tension or anxiety, irritability or regret, depression or fatigue. When any of these disturbances surface, we can inquire of ourselves: Is there an inner guidance I am defying, resisting, ignoring, or avoiding? Are there truths I’m withholding from expression or even contemplation, out of fear of losing security or belonging? In a recent encounter with others, is there some way I abandoned myself, my needs, my values? What fears, rationalizations, or familiar narratives kept me from being myself? Do I even know what my own values are?
That some attachments may not survive the choice for authenticity is one of the most agonizing realizations one can come to; and yet, in that pain, there is freedom.
The aim of healing work is not to shed the personality entirely but to free ourselves from its automatic programming, granting us access to what’s underneath, to reconnect with what’s essential about us.
Compassionate Inquiry is a systematic approach to self reflection devised by Maté for use both in professional training and in the practice of individual self-reflection, We strike a powerful blow for authentic autonomy when we notice where the self-deceptions reside and bring fresh perception to them.
Mindfulness practices have also proved helpful, and have well documented benefits such as reducing inflammation, reprogramming epigenetic functioning, promoting the repair of telomeres, reducing stress hormone levels, and encouraging the development of healthier brain circuitry.
Unmaking the Myth of Normal
What will it take to unmake the myth of normal? How can we disassemble the vast agglomeration of culturally manufactured misperceptions, prejudices, blind spots, and health-killing fictions—especially when they serve the interests of a world order intent on its own continuance, even unto self destruction?
The only way is a multi-fronted attack by people who understand the prognosis and the need. They all derive from the core principles of this book: biopsychosocial medicine, disease as teacher, the primacy of both attachment and authenticity, and fearless self-inquiry, here on a social scale. None of these shifts is sufficient itself. They will not fully come to pass without significant social-political transformation, but they are easy to grasp, and it is well within our power to work toward them.
“It all starts with waking up: waking up to what is real and authentic in and around us and what isn’t; waking up to who we are and who we’re not; waking up to what our bodies are expressing and what our minds are suppressing; waking up to our wounds and our gifts; waking up to what we have believed and what we actually value; waking up to what we will no longer tolerate and what we can now accept; waking up to the myths that bind us and the interconnections that define us; waking up to the past as it has been, the present as it is, and the future as it may yet be; waking up, most especially, to the gap between what our essence calls for and what “normal” has demanded of us.”
Amen to that
Maté’s book is very readable and presents us with a story of a world gone awry, but vitally gives us a positive and constructive way forward to making a better world, a new renaissance.
Many with vested interests will not agree with his diagnosis. But the progressive human need is always to transcend the limitations of the status quo. Let’s get to it!
Re trauma, see also post The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.