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BOOKCLUB: The Myth of Normal, by Gabor Mate

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Physician’s New Book Says a lot of What You’ve Been Thinking…

The book’s title, The Myth of Normal, reminds us of a fact of which we are already aware. That normal is a term brought about and supported by science. Normal is the curve’s middle when considering a dataset. None of us are actually there – in the middle. And thus, none of us normal. 

The word normal did not enter into the English language until the 19th century in its current use.1 And now it has become an example, a goal for us to achieve.

We’ve all been asking and working towards being…normal.

One of the most frequent questions clients ask is, “Is that (feeling, instance, behavior) normal?” 

In a book that challenges the medical field, the psychology and psychiatry field, and certain well-known intellectual voices in the zeitgeist, The Myth of Normal’s message is welcomed. The message is that chronic illness – both mental and physical – is a function of our toxic culture.

Our Wounding

The word trauma comes from the Greek word “wound.” Our social and relational habits come from our wounding experienced as a child, even before birth. Often our traumas are inflicted before we have the language to put to it. And so we don’t have a conscious memory of the trauma itself.

Trauma separates us from our bodies. For example, not being in touch with your feelings signifies a disconnect from the body. If there was suffering during our pre-language period, when we are infants and even before, the mind’s only defense is to shut off its connection to the emotion. And this reaction can become generalized without our knowledge. We will then disassociate with our bodies. Sometimes this shows up as an inability of one to be aware of when they are satiated, so they overeat. This can also present itself in disassociation from our gut feelings. It can show up in physical ailments as one not knowing when ill or in pain.

Genetics Don’t Mean as Much as You Think

Interestingly, the author argues that the once heralded human genome has failed to have the promised predictive potency. Instead, doctors are finding human beings to have a remarkable ability to adapt to the environment regardless of genetics.2 Not to say that genetics play no role, but rather that doctors have consistently underestimated the environmental and internal psychological influences on illness. Mate produces many examples illustrating the medical field’s tendency towards this error. Stress and mindset have just as much influence on health outcomes as genetics.

Human Nature

Researchers, thinkers, and scientists have long argued over how to define human nature. Mate posits (with the support of many and varying thought leaders) that attaining an identity begins before birth. Especially when considering a sturdy or fragile foundation. This experience can be summed up in the child’s experience of security. While it was once thought that newborns seek connection with their caregivers solely due to their inability to survive without them, it is now known that emotional and social needs are just as important to survival, well-being, and overall health. This is demonstrated by the fact that when our panic-grief systems are not taken care of by our caregivers, (as in the case of not having our needs met -hunger, emotional closeness) our consciousness becomes dominated by our natural systems of survival, fear, panic, and rage. This overwhelm of these systems can create serious issues in life outcomes and experience.

Our Amazing Mind

Mate illustrates the power of our mind in interesting ways. In one instance, he discusses a woman’s journey from being heavily medicated to becoming a psychologist herself. The young woman was diagnosed with depression, borderline personality disorder, dysthymia, panic disorder, and ADHD. She was on several medications, including three antidepressants and a benzodiazepine. Now a therapist and no longer medicated, she explains that she made a choice as a child. She could conclude that her caretakers were vitriolic, inept, and unable to take care of her, or she could decide that it was all her fault. She chose the latter. Believing that if she took on the responsibility, then she could work hard to be deserving of proper love and care. This showed up in her mental health. Her adaptation to this perceived threat could not tell the difference between major or minor threats. And so the more threats that appeared, the more she took on.

The woman’s undoing of this belief brought her to a place of healing – as Gabor is quick to note that there is a difference between healing and cured.

No gene has ever been found to be causal to the presence of ADHD, Autism, or Schizophrenia. These diagnoses are likely the result of an adaptation that once protected the individual in question. They are not the individual’s fault nor the fault of heritable genes, but instead the result of unaddressed wounding.

The Book’s Course

The book goes on to address issues with the larger society we live in, the problems with capitalism on our psychology, how racism, sexism, politics, and social mores impact our cultural trauma, and the difference between cured and healing – two distinct states.

The Myth of Normal gives some direction on healing, offering frameworks to think about compassion, wholeness, and self-improvement. The book even touches on the promise of psychedelics on the path of healing.

The book is dense, to say the least. It’s safe to say it may take one or more passes to take it all in. In sum, Myth draws a picture of the piecemeal research mosaic of the last two decades and more. It highlights that our personal experience is important. It is also far more likely to be similar to what we all experience. Statistics, standard deviations, and normal ranges can help us only so far in understanding our complex nature.

It is telling that this book is not written by a new scientist or doctor attempting to make a name for himself, but by someone who is an experienced doctor and practitioner, seventy-eight years old. Mate brings both his experience and mistakes to the forefront helping us understand the context in which we are living and what is truly important. And that is understanding is how to heal ourselves, each other, and our culture.


  2. Mate, G., 2022. The Myth of Normal. 1st ed. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

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