The Myth of Normal
8/10 I would call it an eye-opening read but because it just put in words and citations many of the ideas and observations I already had about the society we live in, I’m just going to call it a very confirming read. A well written and thorough analysis of the issues that plague the western world. The bottom of the problem is a disconnect from our authentic self that a large cohort of the population is experiencing. Caused mostly by the negative externalities of consumerism and capitalism, not by these ideologies as such, we find ourselves in the world where authenticity is superficial and agency fake. Where we don’t make decisions true to ourselves, but true to the messaging that we come to believe from advertisements. Where mental and physical diseases are on the rise and mental and physical health on the fall. Honestly, the first 24 chapters paint a pretty grim picture, and the last 8 don’t offer much hope for a wide societal transformation. But the book does offer great room for reflection on your individual life and at the end some tools and exercises for connecting with your authentic self.
The “normal” is causing disease and we are super blind to it. Synopsis chapter-by-chapter below.
Traumas come on a spectrum, from capital-T trauma like death of parents or war, to little-t trauma like bullying or lack of parental attention. Most people have experienced some trauma from this spectrum that carries on with them to the present day. More importantly, trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside of you. It is your psychological reaction to stress. All traumatic experiences are stressful but not all stressful experiences are traumatic. Finally, recognizing that trauma and its effects are internal gives us the ability to reconcile the trauma within us and heal from it. Don’t blame your parents, don’t even blame your past self, it doesn’t help.
Body & mind are not separate entities. Modern (western) medicine treats people as if they were just a body. But they are also all their emotions, feelings, and traumas that can through physical stress response and inflammation manifest as physical disease. There are studies looking at personalities of breast cancer patients that find a disproportionate amount of selfless caring women who neglect their own needs. Through this behavior they increase their chances for malignancy due to psychological stressors translating into increased level of inflammation and reduced ability of their own immunity to fight off the disease.
On top of the “bodymind” paradigm - a deep indivisible connection between the mind and the body, we also do not live in a vacuum. We constantly influence and are influenced by people around us. Some of these people can make us happy, some angry, and still some sad. All of these reactions add or subtract charge from our own health battery. We should be aware of this and consider the context we live in as a part of a treatment (potential intervention in the healing process).
Epigenetics. The study of how environmental stresses influence our gene expression. It has been found that the stress of the mother influences the stress response of the child in life - through epigenetic changes: regulation of gene expression, not genes themselves. Likewise, there’s a lot of evidence about the effect of stress on telomere length. Telomeres are little tails at the end of chromosomes whose length tells us our biological age. Our environment, or rather our response to the environment, can effect their degree of de- & re-growth, thus directly affecting our biological age.
Auto-immune diseases are being studied for a potential link between stress & your body attacking itself. They are often hard to diagnose due to overlapping and non-specific symptoms. There are, however, studies that point to prolonged stress environment (chronic variable stress) being present in many patients right before the onset of their disease. This is another evidence pointing towards a need for a more holistic approach towards healing.
Disease as a process, not a thing. We should see and treat disease as a process, not a thing. It is a continuous state of our body and mind, not an on/off switch. E.g. with cancer, our body harbours hundreds of malignant cells at all times. But there is a multifaceted process involved in our immune system failing and letting some of these cells develop into a self-feeding tumor. Treating disease as a process in a greater context also let’s us analyze our life, our stressors, our traumas and our response to it all. Asking & answering questions for ourselves and taking needed actions in our life then becomes a part of the healing journey.
There is anecdotal and emerging scientific evidence between certain personality traits & diseases such as cancer of auto-immune problems. These traits include suppression of one’s true emotions, feelings and anger in order to please their loved ones. The suppression causes chronically elevated levels of stress and inflammation that manifests as a physical disease. A problem is that these selfless traits are nowadays considered as strengths. They are often praised and celebrated which makes it harder for the person exhibiting these traits to question their way of being. Often there traits arise from early childhood when we experience and internal fight between attachment and authenticity. Attachment is the need to be loved & cared, while authenticity is the need to be the “author” of one’s life. These two often come head-to-head in our childhood when our authenticity is challenged & threatened by being pinned against our ability for healthy attachment with our caretakers (parents). The result is a non-authentic life that harbours resentment and may need some large event, like cancer, for the person to realize that the way they lived was inauthentic to their true self.
What is our nature? What is considered to be human? In past, since hunter-gatherer tribes, the normal status quo was to be social and oriented towards fulfilling the needs of the group rather than the needs of the individual. It was the natural expectation since to survive we needed the group. Alone we would perish rather quickly. This has radically changed in the past 2000 years where individuality and self-interest became the “norm” of human nature. Nowadays, our vices such as extreme competitiveness, selfishness, and narcissism are considered to be “normal”, “human”, something that we must deal with, because of who we are as a species. But is it true? Or does it just fit with the competitive status quo of the Western capitalism that stands and falls on the idea of extreme individuality and self-fulfilment?
Long before a child can form any conscious thoughts and decision it is guided by its innate emotions and needs. If these emotions and needs are not met, a child may supress them which eventually surfaces later in life - in the form of insecurity, lack of fulfilment of one’s innate needs & potentially mental or even physical illness.
Chapter 10 & 11
Maternal and paternal stress during pregnancy has a long lasting influence on the development of the child. We should therefore guard the peace of the soon to be mothers to allow for a healthy development of the child in the womb. Likewise, the pregnancy itself has become a very medicalized procedure that often takes away agency from the mother. This causes further distress and potentially makes the birth a traumatic experience. Which, as the book suggests through out, can lead to later problems in life of the child, both mentally and physically.
Just like pregnancy, parenting advice has also been hijacked by western philosophy that stands on individualism and self-fulfilment. According to Mate, we all have inner guide on how to raise children and we do not need books and self-help courses to teach us how to parent. Often these courses promote a parent-first approach, which puts the child needs on a second place, which as already mentioned, has long lasting effects on the child’s emotional and cognitive functioning later in life. A parenting style proposed in the book stems from how hunter-gatherer tribes used to raise children. In a community setting, where the mother has support from several other members of her tribe and the child’s needs are fulfilled unconditionally. They are breastfed when they cry, they sleep when they want and they are constantly in physical touch with their caretakers. With such approach the baby feels secure and can mature into his/hers most authentic self.
Kids should form secure attachments with their caretakers instead of their peers. For the child to grow, emotionally and cognitively, it needs secure environment where it can be vulnerable. Environment without judgment. Such environment is rarely provided by a peer group since the peer group lacks mature individuals. Therefore the primary “friend” of a young child should be the mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt etc. But of course, peer group is necessary as well. Children grow, again emotionally and cognitively, through play. Therefore, both secure and attentive parents and a playful peer group are necessary for raising happy healthy children. And playing video games alone in the room doesn’t count as play. Technology and especially kid-directed advertisements should be limited as much as possible. And that probably also applies to the adults, we should find a better equilibrium in using tech - we should stop being addicted on dopamine shots.
We all live in a certain social context that dictates what’s normal and what’s perceived as edgy. This social/cultural context, to a certain degree, gives us the constraints within which we grow into ourselves. What are then the current constraints of the western capitalist culture?
- Separation from self: we are constantly being bombarded by images and ideals of how we should look, what we should wear, and how we should behave. This disconnects us from our true nature and makes us always strive for the unattainable.
- Consumption hunger: we are being tricked into thinking that our wants are our needs, just so we buy the next shiny thing.
- Hypnotic passivity: and we don’t do anything about it, we are lulled into getting our dopamine fix every 30s by scrolling social media
Chapters 15 & 16
Addiction is nor a disease, nor just a string of bad choices. Addiction is a process that develops with the person and takes on many different forms and severities. At its core, addiction is often an attempt at self-healing through abuse of a substance/activity that brings temporary satisfaction. Just like trauma, addiction lies on a spectrum and in today’s society we are all addicted to something to a certain degree. The conventional addicts find their solace in drugs, the regular addicts in shopping, scrolling, exercising, eating, etc…
Chapters 17 & 18
The same lens as applied to addiction can be applied to mental illness. It is a process, that comes on a spectrum and stems predominantly from how one copes with the stresses encountered through their lifetime. Although there might be a small genetic component, mental illness should be viewed in the context of the individual’s life, taking into account their upbringing, current life stressors, relationships, and psychosocial environment they live in. This view of mental illness then provides the individual with agency to address their problems, instead of just being passive receiver of help (either medications or psychological counselling). Moreover, although a specific diagnosis of mental illness might be helpful to some people, in general a mental illness diagnosis is a self-fulfilling promise - you have ADHD because you are hyperactive, you are hyperactive because you have ADHD, a circular logic. Finally, as in the rest of the book, the author claims that a predominant cause of mental illness is the childhood trauma (either small-t or big-T) that the person has experienced. An insecurity in childhood leads to suppression of emotions and authenticity that later surfaces as some mental pathology. Although this idea essentially makes us all traumatized to a certain degree, the label is not meant to carry negative connotations. Instead it gives us agency to explore the potential causes behind our psychological troubles and address them through various forms of talk/written therapy.
Capitalism is stressful, period. However, it is not equally stressful to everyone. Because of the hierarchical structure of society, the rich again come out a little less stressed than the poor. Of course there are stressors in everyone’s life, but the chronic stress of financial, food, and housing insecurity affects the middle and the lower class much more severely than the rich. Additionally, the capitalist material culture strives on individualism. The more individual you are, the more things you need - to both distinguish and sustain yourself. This is another chronic stressor, as by nature, we are social creatures, developed to live in communal settings. And finally, the system also has an affect on work and working culture. Compared to the past, we are much more likely to change jobs frequently and work for money instead for passion. This further enlarges the pool of chronic stressors that eventually manifest as mental and physical illness.
As humans we have several core needs that need to be fulfilled in order for us to feel happy and stay healthy. These are:
- belonging, relatedness, or connectedness;
- autonomy: a sense of control in one’s life;
- mastery or competence;
- genuine self-esteem, not dependent on achievement, attainment, acquisition, or valuation by others;
- trust: a sense of having the personal and social resources needed to sustain one through life;
- purpose, meaning, transcendence: knowing oneself as part of something larger
If some of these are chronically missing from our life, our happiness drops, and chronic stress ensues. Unfortunately, the current culture is very good at robbing us of some or more of these essential needs. Individualism makes us lonely, diminishing our sense of belonging and connectedness. Materialism robs us of genuine self-esteem. Meaningless repetitive jobs don’t provide the sense of purpose and mastery one’s trait should. And the list goes on.
We live in a world of marketing that totally screws with our own receptors of happiness and pleasure. What they are selling you is pleasure: the fleeting feeling of satisfaction that you constantly need more of. But what they make you believe that they are selling you is happiness: the long-term contempt feeling of enjoyment. This distinction between what’s promised and what’s actually delivered has a big impact across many fields of normal life. From the food industry, where sugary and fatty fast-food is the pinnacle of pleasure, to the pharmaceutical companies that bombarded you with addictive drugs whose goal is to mask your symptoms and not actually treat you.
Everything that the book talked about so far unfortunately doesn’t affect all classes, races, and genders equally. There are disparities, and just like there was a chapter about the rich avoiding the negative consequences of our culture slightly better than the poor, the white are “winning” over the other races. The negative consequences of our culture are much more prominent in the disease statistics of the Black, Hispanics, and the Indigenous people of America compared to the Whites.
And the same goes for women compared to men. As the title of this chapter puts it, the women are the “shock absorbers” of the society. The long lasting patriarchy and misogyny that’s being slowly taken apart has unfortunately such well rooted roots that it’s going to take a long time until women are given truly equal opportunities at all levels of the society. Moreover, there’s this entire cohort of “traditional family”, where the husband plays a role of an infant who needs to be taken care of, especially emotionally. This puts a strain on the wife’s mental capacity, which spirals into all sorts of mental and physical diseases. Not talking about the effects on the kids (if they are in the picture).
And finally, politics. The elected politicians just reflect what the society desires. Mostly self-loathing, narcissistic psychopaths that will over promise and under deliver. There’s just something inherently screwed up about your character if you both desire and manage to raise up in the political ranks. And so the leaders that lead us are as screwed up as the majority that elects and praises them.
So how do we heal and prosper in this toxic culture? We heal by moving towards wholeness. We heal by acknowledging and coming to peace with our suffering, and by employing both mind and heart on the journey to becoming more ourselves, more whole. But healing is not the same as curing. In the context of illness, one can be cured but not healed, or vice-versa. Curing is physically getting rid of the disease and its symptoms, healing is a journey on which we discover who we truly are and come to peace with ourselves within the context of our psychosocial life.
Healing principles that can make the journey of finding ourselves a bit easier:
- Authenticity: being truly ourselves, a journey, not a destination
- Agency: “response ability”
- Anger: the healthy kind, the kind that protects our authentic boundaries
- Acceptance: in the current moment, things are as they are, and I feel as I feel - but I have the agency to change it for better in the next moment
Compassion. Compassion of all kinds, towards ourselves, our feelings, our self-limiting beliefs or others and their beliefs. Compassionate curiosity is what allows us to explore, without judgement, what leads us and others towards the actions we are taking. It also allows us to examine these actions and values and steer the course of the ship where we want it - consciously instead of compulsively.
Disease as a teacher. A disease, especially physical, can be a trigger to heal, a trigger to become whole (psychologically and emotionally). Although it’s certainly not a gift, disease can have this transformative effect that pushes people to analyse their life and heal (not necessarily cure their disease, but heal on the mental side of things).
Disease is a loud messenger that makes us listen to the parts of ourselves that we got disconnected from. But we can practice this hearing (and healing), through some guided exercises for self exploration. This chapter offers one such exercise along with the reminders that:
- your personality is not you, you are not your personality
- the personality is an adaptation
- our bodies do keep the score
- the personality, and the loss of our personal nature, is not personal
The practice is called Compassionate Inquiry and its essentially a guided journaling practice that makes you question your self-limiting behaviours, their origins, and paths towards course correcting.
After identifying the self-limiting beliefs with the exercise from the previous chapter, this chapter offers another exercise that aims at re-labelling and changing those beliefs. It is based on recognizing beliefs for what they are, beliefs not truths, and then working from there to change them into beliefs that serve us instead of hinder us.
On the path to healing we may encounter any of the following: crippling guilt; self-loathing and its close cousins, self-rejection, self-sabotage, and self-destructive impulses; and blocks in our emotional memory. These are not just abstract concepts, but actual cluster of neurons firing away in our brains - which is good news, as we can reprogram those clusters to fire up less often and let us be truly ourselves, without self-limiting beliefs getting in our way. However, we should also realize that these “stupid friends”, as the book calls them, are with us for a reason. They probably served us well when we were children and we experienced some trauma, but they stuck around for a little too long.
Psychedelics. Psychedelics are another tool in the toolbox for healing. Guided psychedelic rituals have a great potential for exploring our unconscious parts of our brain and coming to terms with the traumas that we have long ago filed away in our unconsciousness. So if you are drawn towards this type of healing, do it, even preliminary research suggests that in safe settings there are minimal potential downsides, and a lot of upsides.
“…healing is outside the thinking mind’s wheelhouse” True healing may require some un-scientific, irrational belief in a higher spirit. Some force that we trust and follow and give ourselves to on our path to healing (either during a psychedelic experience or in therapy or meditation). A little more of listening to our gut, heart and intuition, and a little less of calculating with our prefrontal cortex.
The end. Can healing occur on a global societal scale? Can we unravel the myth of normal? Potentially yes, but a lot of changes in many sectors have to take place. The author lists a few fields, and few people that are making strides in the correct direction, but the path is uncertain and long. So the message is, start from yourself, share your healing with others, and find a community in which you and them can thrive.