The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture

by Gabor Maté, Daniel Maté

The Myth of Normal presents a revolutionary way of understanding our health and well-being. Most of the mental and physical health problems that we face can be traced back to trauma throughout our lives. However, there is a way to deeply understand our trauma and heal. By reconnecting with our bodies and listening to what our health conditions are trying to tell us, we can resolve past traumas and completely transform our lives. In the Myth of Normal, Gabor Mate explains how trauma is causing a health epidemic and, most importantly, how we can tackle it in our own lives.

Summary Notes

The Last Place You Want to Be: Facets of Trauma

“The meaning of the word ‘trauma,’ in its Greek origin, is ‘wound.’ Whether we realize it or not, it is our woundedness, or how we cope with it, that dictates much of our behavior, shapes our social habits, and informs our ways of thinking about the world.”

Trauma is at the heart of our physical and mental health. All mental health conditions and many of our health problems stem from past experiences that damage our psyche somehow. When we experience trauma, we split from ourselves in some way, and we develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with it. These coping mechanisms are what we commonly recognize as mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ADHD. The stress caused by unresolved trauma has also been shown to affect our biology, increasing the risk of inflammatory conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and arthritis.

There are two types of trauma; big ‘T’ trauma and small ‘t’ trauma. The former is the kind of experience we think of when we think of trauma—things like abuse, serious accidents, or war, which leave a lasting emotional scar. But small ‘t’ trauma often goes undetected. This includes things like our relationship with our parents, childhood, bullying, academic pressure, the stress in the workplace, etc. These things can also leave emotional scars and lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, so both are equally damaging.

The good news is that trauma can be healed. This starts by first recognizing it. There is a difference between trauma and stressful events. Trauma describes how you react to a stressful event and the marks it leaves, not the event itself. In other words, trauma is the wound. There are a few key ways to identify real trauma: it separates us from our bodies, splits us off from gut feelings, limits our response flexibility, fosters self-shame, and alienates us from the present.

Actions to take

Mind in the Lead: The Possibility of Healing

“When I speak of healing, I am referring to nothing more or less than a natural movement toward wholeness.”

The trauma that impacts us and causes mental and physical health problems can be healed, but only if we take the right approach. Much of the effort people take to improve themselves is focused on improving certain areas or changing things about themselves, but this is the wrong way to look at it.

Trauma removes or blocks parts of ourselves, and the healing process simply involves rediscovering those parts. It is less self-improvement and more self-retrieval, as we are rediscovering what was already there. By moving towards wholeness, we leave behind the damaging coping mechanisms that we developed as a response to trauma. The body and mind have the power to do this as long as we allow it to happen.

By listening to the messages your body sends, being open to change, and consciously letting go of the past, you can begin to heal.

Actions to take

Healing Principles: Authenticity

“Like its fellow natural state, love, authenticity is not a concept, but something lived, experienced, basked in.”

Everybody’s healing journey is unique, but there are some key principles that can help you along the way. By embracing these principles, you can rediscover the parts of yourself that were lost and move towards wholeness again.

One of these principles is authenticity. However, most of us lack it. Too many of us act against our instincts and refrain from saying what we really think and feel because we worry about being liked and accepted. But when we aren't true to ourselves and hide how we really feel, we end up with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. We can only avoid these problems by learning to be truly authentic.

Actions to take

Healing Principles: Anger

“Healthy anger is a response of the moment, not a beast we keep in the basement, feeding it with shame or self-justifying narratives.”

Anger is seen as a negative emotion, but it is actually an important part of our natural emotional system. It is a defense mechanism that warns against dangerous or undesirable situations and helps us resist them.

When embraced in a healthy way at the moment and then left behind, it can improve our mental well-being. However, most people suppress anger because they are told it is a negative thing, and it builds up and bubbles over into an uncontrolled emotion. What you should do instead is listen to your anger when it arises and use it to guide you in your life.

Actions to take

Healing Principles: Acceptance

“Instead of resisting the truth or denying or fantasizing our way out of it, we endeavor to just be with it.”

Acceptance is the most important healing principle, as it allows you to be in the present moment and follow all the other principles more easily.

Acceptance means understanding that things are as they are in the present moment. It does not mean tolerating situations like abuse where you are pushing down your emotions and not being authentic. This is an important distinction to make. To practice acceptance, you must be aware of how you react to situations.

Actions to take

The Five Compassions

“It is compassion that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.”

Compassion is a central part of the healing process, but it is often neglected. There are five different forms of compassion:

  • Ordinary human compassion: This means recognizing the suffering of others. It requires empathy to consider how people are feeling and what struggles they are going through. It is important that we show compassion and empathy to those around us, as well as ourselves.

  • The compassion of curiosity and understanding: The compassion of curiosity and understanding could also be called the compassion of context. It goes a step further than ordinary human compassion in that it asks, without judgment, how a person ended up where they are. This can be applied to yourself too. A prime example of this is considering your own past traumas and recognizing how they are causing you suffering in the present.

  • The compassion of recognition: The compassion of recognition is all about accepting we are all in the same boat. Everybody is troubled by difficulties in their own lives, and we are all on a journey of some kind. Accepting that we are all on a level playing field, no matter our background, helps us connect with one another and support each other instead of being judgmental.

  • The compassion of truth: We are conditioned to fear pain and difficult feelings, but it is actually a compassionate force. It alerts us to the wrong things in our lives or the world as a whole, so we should embrace it. The compassion of truth is the recognition of this fact. Instead of trying to shield yourself and others from pain, embrace it and learn from it.

  • The compassion of possibility: Being open to possibilities is vital for better mental well-being. The possibility that our body and mind can heal themselves, the possibility that what we want and need will materialize, and the possibility that positive change can happen are all forces for good. The compassion of possibility means not putting barriers up and opening yourself to all possibilities in life.

Understanding these different forms of compassion and how to incorporate them into your life is essential if you want to improve your mental well-being.

Actions to take

Compassionate Inquiry

“To inquire compassionately takes openness, patience, and generosity. Think of how you would treat a struggling friend or loved one in their time of need, the leeway you would grant them to be confused, perplexed, frustrated.”

Compassionate inquiry is the process of looking inward and understanding yourself. By approaching yourself with an open mind and letting things come up naturally, you can get to know your true self. This helps you identify the things you are holding onto and your negative beliefs about yourself. Once you can pinpoint the source of these things, you can begin to let go of them. This can be done with a simple exercise that involves sitting down in a quiet place and writing answers to a series of questions about yourself.

Actions to take

Dealing With Self-Limiting Beliefs

“Healing cannot occur if we do not accept our worthiness—that we are worth healing, even if doing so might shake up our view of the world and how we interact with others.”

Self-limiting beliefs about our worth are the biggest barrier to healing. So many of us think and feel negatively about ourselves, believing that we are not good enough. However, if you want to be happy and healthy and finally move forward with your life, you have to change these beliefs.

Compassionate inquiry helps identify some of these beliefs and where they come from. By practicing some simple exercises and keeping a journal, you can retrain your brain to leave all your self-limiting beliefs behind.

Actions to take

Don’t just read. Act.
Read comprehensive summaries and discover carefully compiled action lists for active learning