Childhood experiences have a more profound impact on our lives than one can fathom.
They shape how we make decisions as adults, react to our environment, and interact with others. They are at the very core of who we are.
Dr. Gabor Maté is an addiction, trauma, and childhood development expert. He wrote several books which became bestsellers, and his expertise in these areas is highly sought after. In this On Purpose episode, Jay Shetty invited him to discuss his latest book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.
Born as a Jew in Hungary at the end of the Second World War, Maté’s infancy was highly impacted by antisemitism. To save his life, his mother chose to separate from him. To a small child, this was a profoundly traumatic event.
What Is Trauma?
In today’s world, the word trauma is used regularly. However, it is sometimes taken out of context and exaggerated. For example, some people use the word “traumatic” to describe a deeply unpleasant experience that didn’t leave any physical scars. Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty that “all trauma is stressful, but not all stress is traumatic.”
The word trauma has Greek origins and means “wound.” As Dr. Gabor Maté explained, “It’s a psychic wound that leaves a scar. It leaves an imprint in your nervous system, in your body, in your psyche, and then shows up in multiple ways that are not helpful to you later on.”
Since trauma is a wound, whenever someone touches that particular topic, it can cause us to hurt if the trauma is still raw and painful.On the other hand, over time, wounds scar, and the scar tissue that emerges is rigid. This scar can cause a traumatized person to be less flexible, and their emotional growth and development will suffer as a result.
What happened to you can never have “unhappened,” Dr. Maté explained to Jay Shetty. But the good news is that one can heal trauma just like you heal a physical wound. Because, he continued, it is not the event that happened to you but the harm you suffered due to a particular circumstance. And it can be healed at any time.
In various languages, including Dr. Maté’s native language, Hungarian, the word health stems from the word “whole.” Trauma splits us from our true selves and disconnects us from our emotions. Therefore, healing is the coming together of the self to become whole again.
Dr. Maté explained to Jay Shetty that “healing is not the absence of physical illness, but it’s the integrity of a person who is no longer split off on themselves.”
Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds
Unlike the common phrase, “time heals all wounds,” Dr. Gabor Maté strongly believes that time alone cannot do that. Instead, it takes willpower and dedication to heal from a traumatic experience.
He added that a wound might lay dormant for a while and give off the impression that it healed. However, it will hurt as much as it did initially when something triggers it. You will be tormented all over again as if it were the first time.
If evoked, the trauma will impact you at its fullest until healed, Dr. Maté warned Jay Shetty.
Our capacity to be wounded is called vulnerability. We, as humans, are vulnerable from conception until death, Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty.
Yet, trauma, especially during childhood, makes people try to shut down their vulnerability. Being exposed becomes too painful, and they will look for ways to appear untouchable and strong. However, when we stop being vulnerable, we stop growing.
In nature, everything needs to be vulnerable to grow. In its absence, it is impossible to evolve. So, like crabs need to get out of their hard shell to grow, so do humans.
Childhood And Trauma
Children are vulnerable by nature. They haven’t yet developed a protection mechanism, so everything terrible that happens to them gets deeply imprinted in their psyche. Such wounds can be physical, such as violence, or physical or sexual abuse. But they can also be mental, like a hostile environment, abandonment, or emotional abuse.
Moreover, Dr. Maté explained to Jay Shetty that children’s unmet needs could also result in trauma. They are not a tabula rasa, as psychologists used to think in the past century, but instead, they are born with a set of needs. One of these needs is unconditional love and acceptance by multiple caregivers. They shouldn’t earn their love; it should come for free.
Second, children don’t need to work on getting their parents’ acceptance. They need their love, regardless of their appearance, level of intelligence, or personality.
Third, children need the freedom to express all emotions. Unfortunately, it has become challenging to meet this need in modern society. We expect the young ones to behave in social settings, be obedient and not disturb others. In a nutshell, we teach them to suppress their big emotions, which are inconvenient for grown-ups. However, repressing feelings is highly detrimental to their development, Dr. Maté shared with Jay Shetty.
The fourth essential need of children is free play in nature. Spontaneity, creativity, and imaginative play are paramount for a child’s development. If we give them gadgets and deprive them of play, we undermine their brain development and change the course of their natural, healthy evolution as human beings.
Jay Shetty shared with the listeners that as of 2019, over 50 million Americans have suffered from an episode of mental illness.1 A high amount of children are being medicated with stimulants, antidepressants, and even antipsychotic drugs. Unfortunately, their long-term effects on developing brains have not yet been researched.
Growing Up Fit for Today’s World
Jay Shetty shared his concern regarding children raised with different values than modern western society. He asked Dr. Maté how they would fit in if their upbringing didn’t match the norm.
The capitalist culture revolves around work and performance and is results-driven. Moreover, qualities such as beauty and intelligence are in high demand.
However, Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty that children raised with their basic needs met would not automatically buy into these values. They will perform at work but won’t identify themselves with their jobs.
These people will enter the workforce with a strong sense of purpose. In addition, as far as this topic has been studied, they tend to be healthier and more grounded emotionally, Dr. Maté explained.
“It’s not possible to love kids too much,” Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty. A study looked at children’s evolution for thirty years based on how their mothers interacted with them.2 The ones who received a lot of love were the ones who were the most emotionally grounded and healthy.
However, overprotection can turn into mollycoddling. But this is no fault of the child. This is another way parents don’t respond to the child’s needs but act based on their anxiety and fears.
Dr. Maté explained to Jay Shetty that protecting the child from every harm is detrimental to their development. This is because caretakers no longer see the child as an individual but only “see their own anxieties, their own fears, and their own fantasies.”
On the other hand, forcefully exposing children to pain isn’t a solution either. In life, everyone will inevitably experience pain sooner or later.
What Is Identification
In Dr. Maté’s opinion, there is no healthy form of identification. Some people identify with the victim or survivor roles after being traumatized. However, this is an extremely limited worldview, he added.
The word identification comes from the Latin “idem,” which means the same, and “facere,” which means to make. Hence, identification means to see yourself as the same as something else.
If you see yourself as the same as a nation, a race, a sports club, etc., you cannot accept other perspectives and will stop growing and evolving. Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty he feels more defined by his purpose and how he wants to help others. This feels more authentic to him than summing up himself in a single limited word, such as “doctor,” “author,” etc.
Keeping Pain At Bay
When parents aren’t emotionally mature, they cannot support their children and their emotions. This can cause children to develop “the mind to hold themselves with,” as Dr. Maté described it.
He told Jay Shetty the egoic human mind is primarily a defense mechanism. Addiction is one such mind structure that keeps people from facing their pain. Drowning in alcohol or drugs makes them feel less like the helpless child they once were.
Often, siblings who grow up in a family of addicts find different ways of coping with the pain. Some may end up following the same escape routes as the adults in their lives and end up becoming addicts themselves. However, some siblings reject this type of behavior and grow up appearing to have their lives together. Yet Dr. Maté warns that even if they appear well, they have likely found other ways to cope with their pain. Such mechanisms can include immersing themselves in work and becoming workaholics or perfectionists.
One can choose to be alone but not lonely. Dr. Maté explained to Jay Shetty how these two states could often coexist. You can be alone but not feel lonely. Similarly, you can surround yourself with people and still feel lonely.
According to Dr. Maté, loneliness is a perception. He explained to Jay Shetty that the values of capitalist societies alienated humans from their nature as social beings. We, as a species, need to live in groups. Yet, especially in light of the recent pandemic, people were isolated and spent time with very few others, if not completely alone.
This unnatural behavior has a massive impact on the human psyche. “The more isolated we become, the more vulnerable we are to be hurt by the world that we live in,” Dr. Maté pointed out.
In Eastern and indigenous societies, elders played a crucial role. They were the impersonation of wisdom and were valuable members of the group. But in capitalist society, people perceived as lacking economic value, hence unable to work, are often discarded.
This mentality shift has caused older adults to feel lonely. Additionally, this idea stripped them of their purpose in life, and life without meaning can be very lonely. As Dr. Maté shared with Jay Shetty, “Loneliness is also created in a society that has a very rigid and limited set of values.”
Another type of alienation in the Western world is population segregation by age. Often, we only spend time with people in our same age group, which can have a limiting effect on our view of the world, our development, and learning possibility. In years past, people grew up in large families or groups, surrounded by members of all ages, which provided more easy exposure to different views and perspectives.
Dr. Maté thinks human nature is difficult to define. For example, when people do something callous or cold-hearted, society judges them. Others would say “it is human nature” to be mean. Yet nobody speaks the same when people do philanthropic work.
He also reiterated to Jay Shetty that childhood experiences can have a great effect on a person’s development and used Buddah and Hitler as an example. Because of their unique childhood experiences, these two men grew up to go on very different paths.
Spirituality And Healing
Indigenous cultures rely on a so-called quadrant wheel to define a whole existence. It involves our emotions, physical bodies, social relationships, and spiritual selves. Dr. Maté went on to share with Jay Shetty his definition of spirituality:
“Spirituality (…) means a sense of connection to something larger, which is difficult to define and may be different for every person or every group.”
Maté believes everyone needs spirituality in their lives, one way or another. It is part of who we are as humans and plays a role in our healing process while trying to become whole again.
How To Heal
As Dr. Maté told Jay Shetty, the first step in healing the trauma is acknowledging it. The good news, he added, is that trauma can be healed. Traumatizing events can never unhappen, but we can heal the wounds they cause.
It is essential to take a look deep inside yourself, identify patterns and triggers, and understand the cause behind them. For more insightful ideas on healing trauma, Jay Shetty recommended the listeners read Dr. Maté’s newest book, The Myth of Normal.
More From Jay Shetty
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode on “Understanding Your Trauma & How To Heal Emotional Wounds to Start Moving On from The Past Today” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.