The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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The Myth of Normal Summary

The Myth of Normal is a 2022 nonfiction book by Gabor Maté about the relationship between individual psychological trauma and society.

  • Maté argues that society is toxic in ways that are taken for granted, instilling unexamined traumas in all of its participants.
  • He explains that society encourages children to give up their authentic selves in favor of more acceptable personas.
  • The wound of inauthenticity, as well as other problems such as isolation, materialism, and disregard for the planet, make people ill, leading to addiction, depression, and other maladies.

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066

The author believes that people have come to accept a toxic society as normal. A culture they do not question or notice is harming them both mentally and physically—two types of harm that are profoundly connected and which must be healed together. Trauma, which most people regard as the result of catastrophic events, is a universal experience, which affects not only individuals but families, races, and nations. Dealing effectively with the emotions it arouses is vital to human well-being. Relationships with other people are also a critical factor in determining both physical and mental health.

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Maté cites evidence from the field of epigenetics indicating that one’s environment may have an effect on one’s genes without producing any chemical alteration. He examines the recent increase in autoimmune diseases, for which there is no generally accepted explanation, to produce a hypothesis that disease may be a changing process rather than a fixed entity. This process is linked to trauma and to the suppression of one’s authentic self in childhood, a suppression that is often necessary to gain the acceptance and approval of adults. However, once this suppression is understood, it can be corrected later in life.

“Human nature,” Maté points out, is a term normally used in a negative context. He disputes the idea that people are naturally aggressive and selfish, saying that these attributes are the product of a toxic society, whereas it is natural for humans to need connections with those around them. Children are profoundly influenced by their connection to parents and other caregivers, and studies have shown that those who receive more affection in their early years experience less anxiety and distress later in life. A child’s health is also profoundly affected on a physical level by the stress the mother experiences before and during childbirth.

Parents naturally know how to raise their children, but a toxic culture makes them forget. This is when they rely on the plethora of advice available, most of which tells them to put their own desires and the dictates of society before the needs of the child. When the bond between adult and child is severed, children seek approval from their peers and immerse themselves in a corporate digital culture which inculcates inhumane, materialistic values. Children are conditioned to fulfill the needs of society, abandoning their individuality for an inauthentic “social character” based on conformity and consumerism.

Addiction, which has historically been misunderstood as the result of the addict’s bad choices or as a disease, is really a way of coping with suffering. Doctors who treat addicts should ask what benefit the drug, alcohol, or other substance or behavior confers on the addict and what type of suffering is being palliated. Instead, both doctor and patient are often all too willing to treat addiction and other mental problems from a purely biological standpoint, since this means that they do not have to do the hard work of examining the trauma in the patient’s life. People are so unwilling to face these traumas that their mind often concocts alternative narratives to explain the emotional scars they bear. These stories people tell themselves serve a purpose at the time but are often damaging in the long run.

The author discusses the connection between capitalism and illness, both mental and physical. Capitalist societies create stress and insecurity for all but the wealthy, and they also encourage people to value material possessions more than human connections. This has led to unprecedented levels of alienation and loneliness in modern developed nations. Such societies also allow corporations to prey on vulnerable people, hijacking their brains through neuromarketing and addicting them to unhealthy substances—sugar, salt, fat, drugs, and tobacco—while polluting the environment and ultimately destroying the planet.

Racism, poverty, and other forms of marginalization have a serious impact on health, in terms of both quality of life and life expectancy. Black and First Nations people in North America are at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and a range of other conditions than their white counterparts. Women are also imperiled by their role as caregivers, suffering from significantly higher rates of both mental and physical illness than men. The society which perpetuates these flaws is governed by politicians whose characters have been scarred by childhood trauma.

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Having devoted the majority of the book to the manifold problems of trauma, the author turns to the question of healing. It is possible to begin this process at any point by changing one’s perspective, and people have done so even after undergoing the most appalling experiences. The author emphasizes that there is no single route to healing but offers some guidelines involving authenticity, agency, anger, acceptance, and compassion. Some people see their disease as a teacher or companion, embracing the life lessons it has to teach. This means they are able to undergo a process of healing, even if they cannot be cured.

Maté suggests some writing exercises, first to identify the early signs that you are at odds with your body before disease sets in and then to deal with feelings of unworthiness. These feelings, he points out, are often derived from early childhood, a period in which a great deal of information is absorbed without being critically evaluated, in a process similar to hypnosis. However debilitating feelings like guilt and self-loathing may be, they have much to teach people. They arose because they were useful at the time as a defense against something even more frightening, and they should be regarded as friends or teachers who have served their purpose rather than as enemies. 

The book concludes with discussions of the part spirituality can play in healing and of how to create change in the world. The author refers to a vision he experienced on an ayahuasca retreat in Peru and describes this as one of the many spiritual paths to both healing and understanding. Another path is a sense of oneness with and love for nature, an attitude which is ingrained in the tribal wisdom of indigenous peoples. Change must begin on the level of the individual, who must wake up to the realities of the toxic culture they inhabit and accept disillusion instead of clinging to illusions. Activists such as Greta Thunberg have done this and provide hope for a future in which what is normal may be brought closer to what is natural.

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