The Myth of Normal

We had a really good book group discussion yesterday about the Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté. Huge thanks to Andy Hill @behypnotherapy for hosting it.

We began by sharing our one-word reactions to the book which included: ‘unsettling’, ‘revealing’, ‘profound’ and ‘important’. Following our usual format, we discussed what we liked/disliked about the book, implications for clinical practice and for self-care as therapists.

There were many things we liked. We appreciated the compassion of the author as he talked about his family background, his client work and to his own limitations as a parent and physician. We felt the book achieved a good balance between scientific evidence, clinical practice and personal insight. In developing a holistic societal view of health Maté draws from a wide range of academic disciplines including: neuroscience, pharmacology, immunology, neurobiology, neurocardiology, epigenetics and socioeconomics.

The book offers new perspectives on disease, trauma and healing. Rather than seeing disease as a pathological entity invading the body it can be understood as an imbalance of the organism and a long-term dynamic process of interaction with the wider context. Using a petri-dish metaphor, the same set of cells would fare differently when placed into different solutions (benign and toxic). When we think about ‘Trauma’ we should also acknowledge ‘trauma’ to provide a more expansive understanding of those situations that inflict harm but also those situations which are marked by an absence of attention and attachment. He draws attention to the mechanisms through which stress and trauma can transmit intergenerationally. It is emphasised that healing and cure are not the same thing. ‘Healing’ can be understood as gaining new understanding, being active in the process of recovery and recovering self-compassion which is often lost through trauma.

We had few dislikes about the book although we agreed it was a tough and confronting read. Maté points to many pathological practices that have been normalised within society through political, economic and educational systems. I felt an unsettling response to the evidence presented in the book on the adverse physical effects of repressed or suppressed emotion. However, the author repeatedly emphasises that these insights should not invite blame of ourselves or our caregivers. It is an outlook that encourages compassionate understanding of and response to the social forces that condition us.

The following extract captures the essence of the book for me:
‘Everything within us, no matter how distressing, exists for a purpose; there is nothing that shouldn’t be there, troubling and even debilitating though it may be. The question shifts from “how do I get rid of this?” to “what is this for?”… we endeavour to get to know these irksome aspects of ourselves and then, a best we can, to turn them from foes into friends…. Healing does not require their disappearance, only their realignment – or perhaps their reassignment’. (pp 431-432)

We agreed that there were a lot of messages to take from the book both, in client work and personal life. As therapists, it encourages a heightened sensitivity and a compassionate trauma-informed perspective. As parents we all felt it was an important read. For self-care, the book is a reminder of how we all function as ‘shock-absorbers’ to each other in daily life and the value of noticing and responding to our own needs when feeling depleted.