The Myth of Normal

 Gabor Mate’ MD with Daniel Mate’. (2022). The Myth of Normal.  New York: Penguin Random House.

I believe Gabor has identified a foundational cause of the dysfunction and negative malaise the is affecting individuals and organizations.  This book is highly, yes highly recommended to educators and people working in organizations.  I was introduced to his work via Netflix (which is don’t subscribe to) by a friend. I am grateful.

As always, italicized portions are direct quotes from the book.  Learn the lessons well.

I think we are experiencing trauma in our lives at an increased level.  AND we are getting secondary trauma from students and community.

Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture – For if medicine is really to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life.  It must point out the hindrances that impede the normal social functioning of vital processes, and effect their removal – Rudolf Virchow, nineteenth-century German physician.

When we allow for toxic behaviors to go unaddressed with no real-world consequences, the abnormal becomes normalized.

Why Normal Is a Myth (And Why That Matters – The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.                                                                                                            Erich Fromm, The Sane Society


It is important to be transparent about what we see and are experiencing.  Otherwise, our blind spots multiply.  Consider civility.  When basic courtesy is met with foul language, ignoring any boundaries, and supported with internal lack of urgency and external acceptance, one response is to close the door and deal with what you might have control over.   School staff are dealing with the F$%& You from students when asking a student to go to class.

Another way of saying it: chronic illness mental or physical is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch; a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration. I am using “toxic culture” to characterize something even broader and more deeply rooted: the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives.

In a laboratory, a culture is a biochemical broth custom-made to promote the development of this or that organism.  Whichever the case, we could rightly call this a toxic culture, unsuitable for the creatures it is meant to support.  Thom Hartmann asserts, “Culture can be healthy or toxic, nurturing or murderous.”

There is more than enough data about adults and children having chronic disorders, high percentages of people on medicine for depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Here is a short story about a couple of young fish swimming by an older fish. “Morning boys.  How’s the water?”  And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?”

As the story of the boiled frog who gets killed, small changes are not noticed many times until it is too late.

If the mission of schools is to prepare young people for life after high school, how does the lack of civility, boundaries, consequences, and choices prepare them?

Are there agreed upon norms for organizations?

The problem with good news like polio being almost non-existent, HIV being treated, and advances through medicine, technology, and lifestyle changes is that we lull ourselves into a false passivity of thinking we are done with being vigilant about maintaining and sustaining systems that keep us safe. We can’t assume that drugs, surgical operations, or both can solve every problem.  We can’t assume that only schools and organizations can provide the structures to solve problems.  We must have a willing patient, client, or student.

The crux of the problem is not a dearth of facts, not a lack of technology or techniques, but an impoverished, out-of-date perspective that cannot account for what we are seeing. Healing is not guaranteed, but it is available.

In the present century, the leading trauma psychologist and healer Peter Levine has written that certain shocks to the organism “can alter a person’s biological, psychological, and social equilibrium to such a degree that the memory of one particular event come to taint, and dominate, all other experiences, spoiling an appreciation of the present moment. “Levine calls this “the tyranny of the past.”

John Bowlby was familiar with such behavior: he called it detachment.  At his clinic the observed ten small children who had to endure prolonged separation from their parents due to uncontrollable circumstances.  It may seem counterintuitive, but his reflexive rejection of the loving mother is and adaptation: “I was so hurt when you abandoned me, “says the young child’s mind, “that I will not reconnect with you.  I don’t dare open myself to that pain again.”

I found this particularly useful. As I use the word, “trauma” is an inner injury, a lasting rupture or split withing the self, due to difficult or hurtful events.

“Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you”.

It is a constellation of hardships, composed of the wound itself and the residual burden that our woundedness imposes on our bodies and souls: the unresolved emotions they visit upon us; the coping dynamics they dictate.

Two Types of Trauma:

The first the sense in which clinicians and teachers like Levine and van der Kolk usually employ the word, involves automatic responses and mind-body adaptations to specific, identifiable hurtful and overwhelming events, whether in childhood or later.

There is another form of trauma, and this is the kind I am calling nearly universal in our culture that has sometimes been termed “small-t-trauma.”

I have often witnessed what long-lasting marks seemingly ordinary events what a seminal researcher poignantly called the “less memorable but hurtful and far more prevalent misfortunes of childhood” can leave on the psyches of children.

How many of us feel cut off from connection or belonging?  How many people we work with, or lead feel cut off?  As Peter Levine writes, trauma “is about a loss of connection – to ourselves, our families and the world around us.  This loss is hard to recognize because it happens slowly over the time.

There are long term consequences from short and longer association with trauma for adults and children.  One fascinating example is the demonstrated link between the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, and cardiovascular disease.  A Canadian study from the University of Toronto in the same year found that men sexually abused as children had a tripled rate of heart attacks.

Another factor to consider is that parents, mother and father’s emotions have a direct result of the child.  Racism is another risk factor for asthma and emotional stress.  Suzanne King, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University said, “we found that that objective stress explained how kids varied one from another in a whole host of things: language, BMI (body mass index) and obesity, insulin secretion, their immune system.”  Even IQ was affected.  “We also saw increased asthma.”

“We found that experiences with racism and discrimination accounted for more than 50% of the black/white difference in the activity of genes that increase inflammation.

This sobering linkage was brought home vividly by a study of Black American men in 2014.  “Our findings literally suggest that racism makes people old,” the lead author commented. 

The same holds true for women. The results were shocking: Black women were found, on average, to be over seven years more biologically aged than their white counterparts, consistent with higher rates of poverty, stress, hypertension, obesity, and related health conditions.

“Toxic self-blame is one of the torments imposed on the traumatized child.” It is energy flow, it’s a current; it is evolution or devolution that occurs when you are not awake and connected and trauma is essentially ruling your life. In a five-decades-long British study that followed nearly ten thousand people from birth until the age of fifty, it was that early-life adversity – abuse, socioeconomic disadvantage, family strife, for example – greatly increased the risk of cancer before the mid-century mark.

We’ve discovered that when people feel threatened, insecure- especially over an extended period of time, our bodies are programmed to turn on inflammatory genes.

Parent-blaming isn’t only cruel and unfair; its nonsensical.  Suffice it for now to say that the quality of early caregiving is heavily, even decisively determined by the societal context in which it takes place. We all grow older, but we don’t all grow up.  To truly “raise” a child, then would be to bring that child to his or her full potential as a human being.

“We are indeed born for love,” assert the science writer Maia Szalavitz and the child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry, “but the gifts of our biology are a potential, not a guarantee.” Without a “floor” of secure attachment, a young person is hard-pressed to feel any stable ground on which life can be experienced.

As James Garbarino urged in 1995, “We need to put aside blaming parents and take a hard look at the challenge of raising children in a socially toxic environment.” High on the list is the departure of adults from the lives of kids.”  Children, like they young of many species, must attach to someone in their lives: their neurophysiology demands it.

For our young today, “whoever is around” from an early age onward is most often the peer group. This is, developmentally speaking, a fool’s errand.  “As a teenager I was consumed by what my friends thought of me, how much they liked me, what it took to fit in with their expectations,” he recalled recently.  “That kept me immature into my adulthood.” Generally, once kids are absorbed into the peer world, they lose the safety of the primary connection with adults.

In cultures with their priorities in order, young friendships blossom in a community setting, overseen by nurturing adults. In cultures with their priorities in order, young friendships blossom in a community setting, overseen by nurturing adults.

Perhaps this is why some of the European schools are ahead of the United States. “We used to think that schools built brains, “Gordon Neufeld said in Brussels. “Now we know that it is play that builds the brains that school can then use…. It’s where growth most happens.” As the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp identified, we have a designated “Play” system in our brains in common with other mammals.  Play is a primary engine of brain development and is also essential to the emotional maturations process. “Normal developmental tasks are to play with another person, not with an Xbox. Not to talk on a cell phone or text, but to make face-to-face interactions. 

There are a lot more of results of our environment.  You can read more.  I will end this summary with a few suggestions from the book.

We now delve into the “good news”: the topic of healing.

How to keep hope alive when the odds seem so prohibitive?

When I speak of healing, I am referring to nothing more or less than a natural movement toward wholeness.  Nor is healing synonymous with self-improvement.  Closer to the mark would be to say it is self-retrieval.

The intellect becomes a far more intelligent tool when it allows the heart to speak; when it opens itself to that within us that resonates with the truth, rather than trying to reason with it.  “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret,” the fox advises the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved tale: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Without that heart-and gut-knowledge, we often function as “genius-level reptiles,” in someone’s apt phrase.  I have said for years results come from the head, the heart, and the feet.  Words are rumors if not resulting in our actions.  Decision making when made as a combination of the knowledge and emotion usually are better than either alone.

Chapter 26 – Four A’s and Five Compassions: Some Healing Principles

  1. Authenticity is a quality more often marketed than manifested in our culture. Even Coca-Cola is sold as “the real thing.”  The lack of authenticity makes itself known through tension or anxiety, irritability or regret, depression or fatigue. 
  2. Agency is the capacity to freely take responsibility for our existence, exercising “ response ability” in all essential decisions that affect our live, to every extent possible. Being deprived of agency is a source of stress.
  3. Anger – Both anger suppressed, and anger amplified out of proportion are toxic. Healthy anger is a response of the moment, not a beast we keep in the basement, feeding it with shame or self-justifying narratives.
  4. Acceptance begins with allowing things to be as they are, however, they are.

            Acceptance is the recognition, ever accurate, that in this moment things cannot be other than how they are. A distinction must be made between          accepting and tolerating. Acceptance is vitalizing because it makes room for      the other three A’s it grants admission to anger if such is present, increases    our sense of free agency, and makes room for whatever our authentic     experience might be.  Tolerating the intolerable, on the other hand, is deadening. 

The Five Compassions

  1. Ordinary Human Compassion. Interpersonal compassion necessarily involves empathy, the ability to get and relate to the feelings of another. Compassion is not the same as pity, which on some level always buys into a preexisting story about oneself or another.
  2. The Compassion of Curiosity and Understanding – It’s not enough to feel bad for people caught in the coils of addiction without seeking to understand what pain in their lives they’ve been driven to escape and how that would be sustained.
  3. The Compassion of Recognition – Until we recognize our commonality, we create more woe for ourselves and others: for others: for ourselves, because we increase our distance from our humanity and get caught up in the tense physiological states of judgment and resistance; for others, because we trigger their shame and further their isolation. Healing flows when we are able to view this hurting world as a mirror for our own pain, and to allow others to see themselves reflected in us as well.
  4. The Compassion of Truth – We may believe it an act of kindness to protect people from experiencing pain. Whatever our intentions, we do no one any favors by fearing their pain or colluding in their banishment of it. Truth and compassion have to be reciprocal partners.  We are not being compassionate by dumping unwelcome truths in someone’s lap, perhaps justifying it on the grounds that “I’m just being honest!”  “Only when compassion is present, writes A.H. Almaas, “do people allow themselves to see the truth.
  5. The Compassion of Possibility is connected to many of many of humanity’s greatest gifts: wonder, awe, mystery and imagination, the qualities that allow us to remain connected to that which we can’t necessarily prove. It’s up to us to nurture this connection because the day-to-day world will not always provide us with reassuring evidence.

There is much more in this book than I can possibly relay in a short summary.  There are more healing principles.  I have used some of Gabor’s work in my coaching already.  I recommend reading, understanding, and implementing many of his teachings.

Our students and community are struggling.  Our social systems workers, e.g., teachers, social workers, and organizations are struggling. Let’s implement what we can. Our students, clients, and customers deserve the best.