When kids hurt, parents hurt. We talk to parents every day who are suffering as they watch their children struggle with mental health challenges or substance abuse. No parent we've ever spoken with wants their son or daughter to be in pain—yet parents' behavior early in their child's life can create the conditions that eventually lead to crisis or to chronic mental illness.
We all know anecdotally and from experience that how we're raised deeply influences who we become. But according to the increasingly respected psychological approach known as attachment theory, what happens in our very first year of life sets us up for how we'll relate to others for the next 80 years or so.
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Our political and social systems don't support fundamental human needs, says Gabor Mate—which affects our ability to deal with traumatic events. BY JENARA NERENBERG | JUNE 8, 2017
Sixty percent of adults report difficult childhood experiences, including drawn-out divorces, violence, and abuse. The effects of trauma are long-lasting, ranging from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder to physical illness.
But according to Dr. Gabor Mate, focusing solely on the role of family in childhood trauma misses the bigger picture. What if trauma also results from a shortcoming on the part of society to support families in thriving? If society helped informed teachers and parents meet children’s basic human needs for attachment and connection, would we produce fewer traumatized adults?
Mate focuses much of his therapeutic work on the healing of trauma, exploring the role of adverse childhood experiences in leading to addiction and other suffering later in life. He is the bestselling author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and his work has garnered international attention and a dedicated following.
We caught up with Mate, who lives in Vancouver, for a conversation at CIIS in San Francisco. Research has discovered what we all need in order to connect and flourish, he argues, but society isn’t putting this knowledge into practice—which puts us all at risk.
Jenara Nerenberg: Can you explain your thinking around the “myth of normal?”
Dr. Gabor MateGabor Mate: I think normalcy is a myth. The idea that some people have pathology and the rest of us are normal is crude. There’s nothing about any mentally ill person—and it doesn’t matter what their diagnosis is—that I couldn’t recognize in myself. The reality is that, in every case, mental illness is an outcome of traumatic events. And by trauma I don’t mean dramatic events. There’s a difference.
Fundamentally, it has to do with whether human needs are being met or not. Since we live in a society that largely denies human developmental needs—doesn’t even understand them, let alone provide for them—you’re going to have a lot of people affected in adverse ways. Most of the population, in fact. And so then to separate out those who meet the particular criteria for a particular diagnosis from the rest of us is utterly unscientific and unhelpful.
More to the point, you need to look at what is it about our society that generates what we call abnormality?
JN: So, for example, how do you view something like autism?
GM: We have to realize that, whatever’s going on, it can’t be some genetic “problem” because genes don’t change in a population over 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, or even 300 years. So, whatever is going on, it is not genetically determined. It may be biological, but it’s not genetic, because we can’t reduce biology down to genetics.
In fact, human biology and human neurobiology are interpersonal. The brain is a social organ, and it’s affected by the environment, and particularly it’s affected by the psycho-emotional environment. So, then you have to ask: What might be happening in society that might be affecting infants and children?
JN: What’s your answer to that question? What leads to trauma in our society?
GM: The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen from the other side—those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions. So, the real question is, “How did we get separated and how do we reconnect?”
Because that’s our true nature—our true nature is to be connected. In fact, if that wasn’t our true nature, there would be no human beings. The human species—or any species—could not evolve without being grounded in their bodies. You couldn’t have a bunch of intellectuals walking around out there in the wild, wondering in an abstract sense about the meaning of life, when there’s a saber-toothed tiger lurking behind the next bush.
It’s not an automatic outcome of living in the world that we should become disconnected. It’s a product of a certain way of life and a certain way of parenting and certain childhood experiences, where it becomes too painful to stay connected so disconnection becomes a defense.
JN: Is there any research that is grabbing your attention right now?
GM: Well, there is this field of neuropolitics, where they look at how people’s political views are affected by their brain functioning, but they haven’t put that together with the child development research yet. They could do a lot of work on why people are resistant to reality.
Take the simple case of climate change, which is beyond controversy in the mind of anybody who is halfway rational. The human role in rapid climate change is frightening—the widening gap between ice floes in Antarctica, the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising of the seas. What world do you have to live in not to be concerned about those things or not to recognize that they exist?
Or take drug policy and the so-called war on drugs. You don’t need one more bit of research to show how harmful, pig-headedly wrong, and devastatingly costly that is in human terms. So, do we need research on why the research is not being implemented? No, we know the reason—powerful forces in our society benefit from it. So it’s not a failure at all. From their point of view, it’s a great success.
Same with climate change. Powerful interests benefit in the short-term, and they think in the short-term. They benefit from the economic dividends of industries that threaten the climate. It’s a political and social question, not a scientific question. Science exists within a social, political, and economic context. Who makes policy? Who influences policy? Who presents information to the public? Who controls those institutions?
JN: So, as a society and as individuals, what is the way back to wholeness?
GM: It’s impossible under capitalism, because the essence of capitalism is to separate the mind from the body. And, basically, people are all considered material goods. People matter only insofar as they produce, consume, or own matter. If you don’t produce, consume, or own matter, then you don’t matter in this society. We have to recognize the severely prohibitive limitations along with the great achievements of this particular way of life. It’s not a matter of providing some utopian prescription.
On a personal level, it’s a matter of deep self-work. One thing we’ve done now is we’ve had a lot of brilliant, necessary research about what trauma is and how it shows up in the form of physical and mental illness and alienation and disconnection from other people and from yourself. And a lot of work has been done on the reversal of trauma and the healing of it—and also on the prevention of it. But, again, we are not applying that knowledge.
Medical students and psychiatrists, for example, never learn that stuff. Most physicians don’t even hear the word “trauma” in their education and they have no understanding of it. Every time they see somebody with an autoimmune disease or mental illness, they’re looking at somebody who’s traumatized, but they don’t realize that. So therefore we deal with only with the physical manifestations, but not the actual causes.
So, the educational system needs to change and the medical system needs to change. How young families are supported needs to change. The barbarism of American policy around maternity leave has to change.
I was going to say it’s not “brain science,” but actually it is brain science! It’s very straightforward. Even under this system, there are a lot of things that could be done and the only question is, “Why aren’t they being done?”
Why aren’t they being done?
In addition to the LOVE communication skills taken from Motivational Interviewing, CRAFT prescribes positive communication skills as additional communication tools for your toolbox. You might be thinking: “wouldn’t that be nice…to just be positive!” But CRAFT breaks it down into seven elements, all within your reach. These elements will improve any kind of communication, but they are especially useful for making requests. What we have found with these seven elements is they are both straightforward and difficult to do, so practice is important.
“Positive communication” does not mean only saying nice things and avoiding conflict. Here’s what it does mean: (For examples and more explanation, see our chapter on Positive Communication in Beyond Addiction.)
Most people don’t lead their life, they accept their life. John C Maxwell
Most people do not follow a plan consistently, they often drift to a position that does not feel right but would be uncomfortable to change. When you track back how you got into this position, you realise you lacked a plan of action or did not follow-through the process or your commitment was lacking or you experienced a hard knock that took you off course.
Mentoring many business leaders, the feeling of discontent is a common experience. The problem is allowing yourself to drift through your life leads to dissatisfaction of your life. What a cruel joke that is - to get through your life and feel dissatisfied with your contribution, at which point, it is too late to do anything about changing your life and your contribution.
Do you feel?
If this is making sense to you - then you are in the right place!
Net Impact Talent Report that 72% of college students and 59% of working adults classified meaningful work as one of their most important goals in life, ranking this above a prestigious career, wealth and leadership in importance. Further research by University of Pennsylvania found that 97% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed with the statement,
For me, it is important that I live a purposeful life.
What is Important to you?
Instead of feeling that you are on the wrong path, living the wrong life. I want you to stop accepting what life hands you, like a passive bystander to your own life but to start actively leading in your life on your terms.
Francois Gautier said, More important than the quest for certainty is the quest for clarity.
There are consequences to not living with clarity and this is anything will do, leading with purpose on purpose is having clarity in what you are here to do. It is not uncommon with business leaders to experience success in work and yet still feel unfulfilled in life. At some point, you feel trapped to be something you are not and must maintain a lifestyle that does not fulfil you or your purpose.
It may be that you are not on the wrong path but until you know your purpose, your path will not have clarity and meaning. Often, we stress and frustrate over the present because we do not know how the present fits into our purposeful meaningful path. This is like driving a long distance but not knowing the direction at some point you think ‘what’s the point’!
Clarity of purpose is the key to living an inspired purposeful meaningful life.
Success can take many forms, what I consider a success may not be the same for you. Download the guide to find Impact of Purpose on Your Life, Living with Purpose on purpose helps you to understand what is important to you and why? The guide will help you to answer the questions:
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