The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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The Myth of Normal Themes

The main themes in The Myth of Normal are the connections between the body and the mind, the natural and the normal, and isolation and society.

  • Connections between the body and the mind: Maté discusses the interdependence of the mind and body in determining one’s well-being.  
  • The natural and the normal: The author argues that the social conditions modern people take to be normal are unnatural and even harmful.
  • Isolation and society: Maté makes the point that society asks people to suppress their authentic selves, resulting in feelings of isolation.


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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

Connections between the Mind and the Body

The author uses the term “bodymind,” coined by the neuroscientist Candace Pert, to express the closeness of the connection between the mind and the body. Again and again throughout the text, Maté points out that conventional medicine makes the mistake of ignoring this connection, usually by treating the pathology rather than the whole patient. Addiction, for instance, is routinely treated as a physical disease, without consideration for the mental state that caused it or the benefits which the patient has derived from the substance or behavior in question. Psychiatrists and patients are often both eager to regard mental illness as a genetic or chemical phenomenon, since this saves them the hard work of exploring the past.

Maté represents the connection between body and mind as something which was known in ancient cultures, forgotten for a long period, and recently rediscovered and confirmed. In chapter 4, he introduces the recent discovery of telomeres, minuscule DNA structures found at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres contain physical traces of the lives people lead, including mental stressors such as racism. Marginalized people live appreciably shorter lives because of the mental trauma they suffer. Maté quotes a speaker at a health conference in Chicago who claimed to be able to predict life expectancy by zip code, saying that people in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods live almost thirty years longer than those in the poorest districts. Some of this difference is attributable to physical factors, such as a difference in diet or increased alcohol consumption and drug use. However, the author points out, these physical problems are very often the result of mental trauma.

The Natural and the Normal

In chapter 11, the author points out that the conditions in which most women give birth in the developed world are the exact opposite of those that normally prevail in the animal kingdom. Animals give birth in solitude in dark, quiet places, whereas humans are surrounded by machinery beneath the bright lights of operating theaters. The fact that birth takes place under such conditions pathologizes a natural process, making it appear dangerous and frightening.

This is one of many examples in which Maté points out that what has become normal in contemporary culture is anything but natural. Unnatural births lead to unnatural childhoods, in which children are denied the company and guidance of adults, as well as the space and freedom to engage in constructive play. These are precisely the elements in childhood that would allow them to develop into healthy, well-balanced adults. In the absence of these elements, they form pathological attachments to drugs, alcohol, and consumer culture.

Addiction, eating disorders, and other types of behavior that the medical establishment attempts to cure are best understood as natural responses to life in an unnatural, toxic society. The most effective way for healing to begin is for the patient to understand this and stop trying to assign blame. In the final chapter, Maté considers how facing up to the true sources of trauma presents humanity with a tremendous opportunity:

Shedding toxic myths of disconnection from ourselves, from one another, and from the planet, we can bring what is normal and what is natural, bit by bit, closer together.

Isolation and Society

The subtitle of The Myth of Normal is Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. This is a reminder that neither trauma nor healing takes place in isolation. All too often, individual sickness is a reflection of a sick society. Maté refers frequently to a concept he introduces in chapter 7, the “traumatic tension” between attachment and authenticity. As soon as children enter the world, adults make it clear to them that their authentic selves are not socially acceptable. They must conform to what society demands in order to be part of it, even if their basic needs remain unmet. He quotes the advice Dr. Benjamin Spock gives to parents that they should leave a baby alone to cry all night rather than submitting to the child’s wish to sleep in the same bed as the mother, a normal practice in most traditional cultures.

The child receives a clear message from such practices: you must fulfill your prescribed social role or endure isolation. In the case of children forced to separate themselves from their parents, this is particularly cruel. The social norm is isolation, and the punishment for protesting against this norm is more isolation. Maté uses Erich Fromm’s concept of “social character” to discuss the inauthentic selves that people construct to avoid being shunned by those around them. Ironically, these social characters only serve to isolate them further. Social interaction ceases to mean one personality encountering and discovering another. Instead, it consists of two or more people mimicking the characteristics of a wider society that is itself toxically isolating.

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Chapter Summaries