Ask a Naturopath

The myth of normal and the roots of disease

By Dr. Yasmin Snippe ND, RN

Can you be addicted to being nice? Can being a people-pleaser, make you sick? In his new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté describes both of these possibilities. Thanks to the work of Dr. Maté and other doctors like him, I finally understand how my childhood and the culture I was raised in, contributed to the root causes of my own self-denying, toxic personality traits.

Like me, you probably grew up thinking being kind, cooperative and pleasant were virtues to be proud of.  

When I became a Registered Nurse, I was praised and promoted for being overdriven, responsible, accommodating and focused on the needs of others.  Giving up my needs were applauded and validated at every turn.  High fives for taking overtime, coworker bragging rights for how long I can can go without a bathroom break and thank you’s for taking on extra work.  The validation I got from giving up my own needs, gave my brain addictive dopamine hits, that first started in my childhood.  

Working in a care-giving profession, reinforced the feelings I grew up with as a child care-giver to my sister, who was dying of Cystic Fibrosis. I grew up believing I was responsible for how other people feel and thinking I must never disappoint anyone. I’ve always been the nice girl, pleasant to a fault, someone who can’t say no and is the one who’s there for everyone else.  I’ve always been the one, to never get angry.

I couldn’t understand why I was suffering from depression and an inner restlessness, for most of my life.  As a naturopath, I’ve searched high and low for the causes of my own mental illness. Thanks to the work of Dr. Mate and other doctors like him, I finally understand.

Dr. Mate’s Personality Trait List (most often present in people with chronic illness) pg101:

  • An automatic and compulsive concern for the emotional needs of others, while ignoring one’s own
  • Rigid identification with social role, duty and responsibility
  • Overdriven, externally focused multitasking hyper-responsibility, based on the conviction that one must justify one’s existence by doing and giving.
  • Repression of healthy, self-protective aggression and anger.
  • Harbouring and compulsively acting out two beliefs:  “I am responsible for how other people feel” and I must never disappoint anyone”.

As Dr. Maté explains in The Myth of Normal, no one is born with these personality traits.  You never meet a newborn infant, who stops themselves from expressing their feelings, for fear of inconveniencing someone.  Instead, these personality traits develop overtime, as a coping pattern, usually starting in childhood.

Trauma, as Dr. Maté describes, is what happens inside of us, as a consequence of the events happening outside of us.  This is why, different life events, can have different impacts for different people.  How our caregivers support us through our life events, impacts the trauma we experience inside ourselves. Dr. Maté sheds light on the needs of childhood and how we as a society, do very little to support the childhood phase of life. Until now, society and medicine poorly understood the emotional needs of children and how it impacts future behaviours in adulthood.  

Traumatic tension, described by Dr. Maté, is the clash between our most basic needs of attachment and authenticity.  It’s in this clash, where the roots of trauma form. 

Attachment, is the natural drive for closeness or proximity to others, both physically and emotionally. The main purpose of attachment is to facilitate caregiving or being taken care of, which is indispensable for life as a mammal. Attachment is a mandatory need for the human child, who is born as the most immature, dependant and helpless of all animals.  We have a natural impulse to be close to our caregivers, otherwise we wouldn’t survive the many years of our childhood. This need for attachment can override our brain circuits for rationality, objective decision-making or conscious will.

Our other most basic need, is authenticity. Meaning, the quality of being true to oneself and the capacity to shape one’s own life from a deep knowledge of that self. Authenticity allows us to know our gut feelings when they arise and to honour them.  It’s being in touch with our inner GPS system, our intuition. We all have an inner need to be the true authority in our own life.  

The breakdown happens, when our needs for attachment are put at risk by our need for authenticity.  Meaning, one of our basic needs is pitted against the other because of the circumstances around us. This could include poverty, parental addiction, family violence, mental illness, conflict, family crisis, etc.

Dr. Maté says, children often receive the message that certain parts of them are acceptable and others are not.  This messaging can lead to a split in one’s sense of self. For instance, burying one’s anger and working to be acceptable to the parent, may become a child’s way of survival, a coping pattern.  The child may internalize the idea that “I’m lovable only when I’m doing things well”. This happened to me, when my family experienced the crisis of a sick child. My parents didn’t know how to support my childhood needs and asked me to perform beyond the natural abilities of a child. This set me up for a life of perfectionism, rigid role identification and being cut off from who I actually am, and my intuition.

For me, this led me down paths that didn’t fit. This led to me into debt, because I found it so hard to say no to others, spending money I didn’t have, to please others. It also took me well into my 40s, before I started to meet the real me, and experience my own emotions.  

Repression of emotions disarms your ability to protect yourself from stress.  If you don’t feel stress, and you go through your life not knowing you’re stressed, then there’s very little you can do to protect yourself from the long-term physiological consequences of stress.  

I personally suffer from extreme burn-out caused by workaholism and my addiction to being nice. My inability to recognize my own stress, has left me fatigued and hormone imbalanced.  

The good news is you can unlearn these traits. I’m unlearning them as I write this. You have to be brave to change, because there’ll be people in your life that will not benefit from meeting your more authentic self and they might push back. Having support to make changes, from a knowledgeable professional like a naturopathic doctor, counsellor or life coach, is the most powerful way to transform.

Dr. Maté’s book is a gift to our quickly changing world.  Start by getting it, reading it and learning how your childhood effects the you that you are today.

Dr. Yasmin Snippe ND, RN is a recovering people-pleaser. She helps women throughout Ontario harness the wisdom and energy of their menstrual cycle, creating balance of body, mind and spirit. Visit www.dryasmin.ca 

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