The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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Chapters 28–30 Summary

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

Chapter 28: Before the Body Says No: First Steps on the Return to Self

The author says that people can become more attuned to signs that their health is in jeopardy before disease forces them to face the fact. He begins with a few principles to bear in mind. What is called your personality is not you but an adaptation to circumstances. It is possible to shed the elements of this that have become unhelpful. The authentic self continues to speak through the medium of the body, which tells you the truth about what is happening to you.

Maté recommends a method which he calls “Compassionate Inquiry.” An inquiry is an open-ended exploration, in which the inquirer acknowledges that they do not know the answers or even the right questions. Compassion is an attitude which allows you to give yourself the leeway and understanding you would give to someone you love. With this attitude, Maté suggests answering the following six questions in writing—and preferably handwriting in a journal—on a daily or weekly basis:

  1. In my life’s important areas, what am I not saying no to?
  2. How does my inability to say no impact my life?
  3. What bodily signals have I been overlooking? What symptoms have I been ignoring that could be warning signs, were I to pay conscious attention?
  4. What is the hidden story behind my inability to say no?
  5. Where did I learn these stories?
  6. Where have I ignored or denied the “yes” that wanted to be said?

The chapter ends with the observation that silence can be suffocating. The author has written all his books, including this one, out of the need to express something within him that “demanded to be uttered.”

Chapter 29: Seeing is Disbelieving: Undoing Self-Limiting Beliefs

Society tends to exacerbated people’s feelings of unworthiness, feelings which are “entrenched and insidious.” Children under the age of seven, in whom theta brain waves predominate, absorb a great deal of information which is not logically evaluated until much later. The effect of this is much like hypnosis, and the author suggests an exercise to liberate oneself from this reverie. This exercise is based on the steps used by Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his book The Mind and the Brain in a method for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  1. Identify your self-limiting thoughts as beliefs, rather than accepting them as the truth.
  2. Recognize that your brain is sending you messages based on things you learned before you were able to evaluate whether they were true or not.
  3. When you find negative thoughts arising in your mind, focus on doing something else, preferably something physical, healthy, and creative, rather than dwelling on the thought.
  4. Investigate the value of the belief you hold and how it has affected your life and relationships.
  5. Re-create. Imagine the life you would choose, rather than the one into which you have been hypnotized. Identify your own values and intentions, and what you really want in life.

The author ends by pointing out that removing the hyphen from the word “re-create” leaves you with the verb form of “recreation,” as in “play.” This is a helpful reminder not to take oneself, or the inquiry process, too seriously.

Chapter 30: Foes to Friends: Working with the Obstacles to Healing

This chapter aims to offer a way of addressing some of the most common obstacles to healing: guilt, self-loathing, and denial of pain. These obstacles are all there for a reason, and the first question to ask is not how to get rid of them, but what this reason is. Understanding this, the author asserts, is the first step in turning “these irksome aspects of ourselves. . . from foes to friends.” Trying to avoid these thoughts takes a heavier toll than the thoughts themselves do. The psychologist Bill Plotkin refers to such thoughts as “loyal soldiers” like those Japanese fighters who remained in the jungles of the Philippines into the 1970s, unaware that the war was over.

Remorse can be useful, but chronic existential guilt is debilitating. It arises in children as a way of ensuring that they do not disappoint or let down and therefore become separated from their primary caregivers. The way to deal with guilt is not to ignore it but to judge by objective adult standards whether it is really justified. The same is true of self-accusation, which children use to protect themselves from the far more frightening notion that the adults in their lives are flawed or that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world in which they live.

More insidious and difficult to address than guilt or self-accusation are the “compensatory afflictions” of addiction and mental illness. However, it is important to recognize that these, too, perform a function—or at least have done so in the past—often rescuing the subject from something worse. Jesse Thistle, a former drug addict and outlaw, recalls complaining about his addictions to an elderly woman who scolded him, pointing out that those addictions had taught him a great deal, including the importance of family, health, human connection, and perseverance.

Mental illness can be a similar type of teacher, particularly in allowing one to recover suppressed information from childhood, information which many people gloss over as they insist that their childhood was happy or that they do not remember it. The author ends by pointing out that as useful as these teachers have been, it is possible to thank them for their service and send them on their way.

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