Please enjoy my interview with Dr. Gabor Maté (@DrGaborMate), renowned speaker and bestselling author, highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics that includes addiction, stress, and childhood development. Dr. Maté has written several bestselling books, including the award-winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection, and Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. He has also coauthored Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. His works have been published internationally in nearly thirty languages.
His new book is The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Today’s guest is Dr. Gabor Maté. You can find him online at DrGaborMate.com. That’s G-A-B-O-R M-A-T-E.com, on Twitter at D-R, Doctor Gabor Mate, on Instagram @GaborMateMD.
Dr. Maté is a renowned speaker and bestselling author. He’s been on the podcast before, and it was a very popular episode. He is highly sought-after for his expertise on a range of topics that include addiction, stress and childhood development. Dr. Maté has written several bestselling books, including the award-winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, I highly recommend, subtitled Close Encounters with Addiction. When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, and Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. He has also co-authored Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. His works have been published internationally in nearly 30 languages. His new book is The Myth of Normal, subtitled Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture.
Gabor, welcome back to the show. It’s nice to see you.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Tim, it’s very nice to be back with you.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would start with a little catch-up because we haven’t connected in some time and I would love to just hear how you are spending your time in the last, whether it’s a year or two. I know it’s hard to normalize things perhaps, pun intended, with the subject matter, over COVID, but how are you allocating your time these days?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, actually COVID, if I may say so, personally, it did me a favor because I had this book to write and it was a much bigger project than even I had imagined. I had all these travel commitments, which fortunately I had to cancel, which allowed me to stay at home and finish the book, which took me a year longer than I expected it. So the last three years have been pretty much dominated by book writing, and because of COVID, I’ve been doing a lot of teaching online, lot of webinars. Now that I’m free again, I’m doing extensive traveling one more time and then in — but the book launch as well, of course.
The most exciting thing that happened to me, if I can jump right into it?
Tim Ferriss: Jump right in.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Three weeks ago, I participated in a plant ceremony with some Indigenous Canadians here in British Columbia. They invited me to come and help support their healing process. And I’m telling you, Tim, it was a life-changing experience, being with these Indigenous folks on their land.
You may have heard, a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders went to the Vatican where the Pope issued a very, to my mind, paltry apology for the suffering that had been inflicted on generations of Canadian Native children in these residential schools, where they were tormented and sexually, physically abused, spiritually suppressed. They died in large numbers. Their bodies are just being discovered now.
So working with these people, the suffering and the sorrow and the sadness and the pain is unfathomable, but the dignity, the beauty, the connection to nature, the honoring of spirit, the welcome, the love, the resilience was also just absolutely humbling to behold. I tell you, I went there to help them, but I got helped more than I think I gave. It was a profound, profound experience. I’m still glowing with it three or four weeks later. So that’s what’s foremost in my mind these days is how to embody and bring those and apply those teachings in my own life, but also in my work.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I would love to stay on that for a little bit, because you mentioned something that only recently came to my attention. I was actually in Nuxalk tribe territory about six to eight weeks ago, and learned for the first time of these mass graves and much of the history that you’re describing, which is horrifying, of course, and the ripple effects of that carry over well into today.
In the case of this particular ceremony, this medicine experience, I know you have, and for people listening, if they don’t have the context, you have a lot of exposure and experience with use of different medicines, including but not limited to psychedelics, within that, including but not limited to ayahuasca, for instance. In this particular case, was it a sort of a syncretic blend of Indigenous First Nations practices and then plants or otherwise that are used in —
Dr. Gabor Maté: It was a plant that grows here locally. And even though there’s no artifactual evidence of them having used this plant before, but when they used it, they said it’s in their DNA. It feels so familiar to them. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have used it traditionally, because they know every plant, every blade of grass, every leaf, every bud, every flower, the medicinal uses of everything. I mean, the connection to nature is beyond belief. So it’s also beyond belief that they would not have known about the plant that we used, which grows on their land. And again, it felt so familiar to them. So, for them, it wasn’t a question of something foreign coming in. It was something very much aligned with their own experience.
What I brought to it was sort of Western psychology and my capacity to ask the right questions and to delve into the traumatic imprints that they carry because of this tragic history, but it was very much in line with their own traditions.
Tim Ferriss: A few follow-up questions related to that, and you can feel free, of course, as with all of my questions, to not answer those that you don’t want to, but in the case of the plant, is that something you can describe more specifically? Or is that something that you’d prefer to not mention?
Dr. Gabor Maté: It’s mushroom. No. It’s mushroom.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You would have to imagine, like you mentioned, given the sheer density of psilocybin mushrooms in that region that they would have had experience, almost certainly.
Dr. Gabor Maté: No. It’s like peyote in the Southern, the western areas of the United States. It’s a plant that was well — how would they not know it, given that they know every other plant?
Tim Ferriss: What was your unfolding or the experience? Why do you think it was impactful for you personally?
Dr. Gabor Maté: For me? Well, first of all, the context, because I’m with people that are just so honest and so raw and so open and so welcoming, so that I’ve never felt more at home with any group of people, even though I never met any of them personally before. So there was that. Then was the experience and we all had to utter some words before the ceremony about what our intentions were. And I uttered two words, “Love and presence.” Then I experienced them both. I experienced love for myself in a deep way, which was new for me, actually. I can’t put it into words because it’s not a concept. It’s not a intellectual exercise. It was actually an experience, a full-body experience is what it was. And yeah, I experienced presence and you’ve had these experiences. They’re ineffable. You would take a poet, somebody with a much more poetic imagination than I have, to actually somewhat depict it in words.
But I tell you, I came out of it and then I sat on the porch outside. It was a beautiful sunny evening. We’re looking at this beautiful mountain here in British Columbia. There were bison in the field below us. And this, of course, in the native experience or imagination, everything has a story. So the mountain itself has a story. So I’m looking at this beautiful mountain and this bison and the sunset, and nobody had to convince me that nature contains us all. Not at that moment anyway.
Tim Ferriss: For people who have not heard any of your backstory, this firsthand experience of love that you mentioned has not been, let’s just say, a common experience for you. Maybe it’s worth just for a second rewinding, if you wouldn’t mind just sharing a bit of why that is. In our first conversation, you told the story, and perhaps you could just fill in some of the gaps of growing up in, or certainly being born in Hungary, having relatives perish in the Holocaust. And then even after the deportation of Jews had stopped, Jews were still being persecuted and, if I recall correctly, murdered by sort of the fascists who were in power at that time. And your mother handed you off to someone else because she wasn’t sure if she would survive. Am I remembering that correctly?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, let me tell you a story around this. 10:15:06 So we’re talking about plant medicines here, and in my new book, The Myth of Normal, there’s a chapter in which I tell the following story. I’ll tell the story and then I’ll jump back to the beginning of my book, which begins with my origins that you just talked about.
So some time after I met you, I went to Peru to lead a retreat for medical people with the plant ayahuasca. When I say I lead the retreat, I don’t lead the ceremonies. I don’t hand out the brew. I help people formulate intentions beforehand and integrate experiences afterwards. But these people, 23 people came from all over the world, health professionals, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, to work with me in this jungle setting with native healers. So I did the work the first day, went really well.
Then we had the ceremony the first night. Now, my experience with ceremonies is that everybody else has deep ceremonies and I don’t because I have this very thick skull and just nothing gets through. That’s my little self-myth. So the Shipibo, native maestros and maestras, shamans sit down in front of me in turn, and each of them chants to everybody. So there were 24 of us. Each of them gets chanted to six times in turn by each of these maestros, maestras. They sit down in front of me and I say, “Okay, do your worst.” And very little happened for me.
Next morning, they sent a delegation to me. They said, “We can’t have you in ceremony because you have such a dark, dense energy in you, that this is affecting everybody else.” So interferes, and our icaros, our chants can’t penetrate your darkness. Furthermore, they said, “We can’t even have you working with your people during the day because you’ll still be affecting them.” So they fired me from my own ceremony and from my own retreat, literally. They had no idea. They were not impressed the fact that I’ve written books or published in how many languages, or any of that. They don’t know my reputation. They just know I’m this guy from the north, this doctor. And they said, “Here’s what happened to you. We think you’ve worked with so many traumatized people that you’ve absorbed their traumas and you haven’t cleared it out of yourself.” And furthermore they said, “We think when you were very small, you had a big scare and you haven’t got over it yet.” 12:31:25
But then the book opens. The first chapter opens with a painting that my wife did of me as an infant. This is from a photograph, looking at a camera with absolute terror in my face. And a pediatrician who came to see me when I was separated from my mother at a year age, she said she’d never seen such terror in the eyes of a human being as she saw in my little eyes. Now, these shamans picked that up like that. And what they said was, “We’re going to assign one of you to work with you alone, because we want to heal you.” So I had five private ceremonies with a shaman all to me and it ended beautifully. But when you talk about that early scare that I had, these people picked up on it instantaneously. And this maestro chanted to me over five nights, three or four hours, five hours. And by God, he cleared so much out of me, I couldn’t believe it at the end. 13:35:21
But the first chapter of the book begins with a reference to those early times when really I was a traumatized infant, under the conditions that you’ve mentioned.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think at some point we will be able to, and I’m not saying this needs to happen. Certainly, it doesn’t for the therapeutic effects to be seen. Do you think the kind of rationalist, physicalist, Western, scientific perspective will find some type of explanation for what you’re describing? If we assume for the time being that something is in fact happening. It’s not purely placebo effect. I mean, even if it is, that’s something, but do you think there will be a point at any juncture in the near future where we’ll have some explanatory capabilities?
Dr. Gabor Maté: What’s frustrating for me, and not just for me, by the way, is that we have so much science already to explain such experiences and many more amazing healing experiences. We actually have the Western science to prove it or to explain it. What’s frustrating is what’s been called the science-practice gap, where on the one hand, we have the science but the science hasn’t penetrated the medical practice consciousness. So there’s a gap between not only Western medicine and traditional understandings, but there’s even a gap between Western science and Western medical practice in so many ways.
In terms of my own experience, there are certain traumatic imprints that are ingrained in the emotional circuits of my brain, in the very basic survival mechanisms of my brain, in my lower parts of my brain. And these are neurological circuits embedded with a certain kind of experience and a certain kind of belief and a certain kind of reactive pattern. So the belief that I’m impenetrable and everybody else can heal, but I can lead other people to healing but I can’t get there myself. That itself is an imprint of trauma because an infant or a small child being traumatized, they think it’s going to go on forever. And then that experience of being in the moment and not seeing an end of it, then becomes a belief.
So then I take that belief into the ceremony and I sit there and I’m saying, “Do your worst. You can’t get through to this brain.” In other words, I’m sabotaging my own experience, not meaning to, but that’s how I’m imprinted. Now, these people don’t buy my story. They see through to the fear. In fact, they even intuit the experience that it must have been a very early scare that I had. So this guy just holds me like a father and he loves me and he chants to me. And it’s almost sometimes like a lullaby being sung to a baby. Well, guess what? A sense of safety arises in me. And when then the safety arises, my whole visceral body experience changes. My heart, my breathing, my intestines, my muscles, they’re all in the different state. Much more receptive.
This goes on for five nights. By the end of it, I come out a different person. Now, when I say I come out a different person, believe me. I travel home. And all of a sudden, that different person becomes a memory. I have to struggle again with a lot of the same old stuff, but I’m struggling with them from a much more informed perspective. And I know it’s no longer my absolute reality, which is a huge difference. It’s not that different. It’s not that hard to understand, really. Because we know that the brain can develop new circuits and new ways of understanding in response to new experiences.
Tim Ferriss: Was that five nights, just so I understand that, that was five consecutive nights of drinking each night yourself, or were you drinking on each night?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Five nights over 10 days. So we had a ceremony and then we had a day of rest when I would just meditate and do my yoga and walk the jungle, the rainforest path, and read my spiritual books and contemplate, and then back into ceremony. So, yeah, it was a 10-day private retweet is what I ended up having.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dr. Gabor Maté: And the rest of them worked with the rest of the group.
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say, it sounds like everybody won in that situation.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Everybody won and let me tell you an interesting aftermath. So afterwards, the shamans told me that when they knew that 24 healers, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists are coming from the West, they thought we’d have an easy job because they said, “We absorb a lot of trauma from other people as well, but we clear it out of ourselves. So we expected you would have done the same thing.” They said they’ve never worked with such a heavy bunch of people in their whole lives than these Western doctors. Because if we work with all these traumatized people all the time, we don’t even understand trauma, let alone do we know how to clear it out of ourselves. So they had a big job on their hands, the shamans, and those people that participated had a huge experience. And when they went back to their work, so many of them had changed completely.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think there will be a point, maybe you already can, where you can yourself do that self-care of clearing whatever you may absorb, so to speak, by, say, patients in a clinical practice?
Dr. Gabor Maté: I’m doing it now. I have to.
Tim Ferriss: What do you do?
Dr. Gabor Maté: I do meditation practice. Actually, when I learned from one of my colleagues, Dr. Daniel Siegel, who’s got this Wheel of Awareness that I’m practicing. I have a yoga practice that I do pretty much every day now. Every day I go swimming, I swim 2k every day or do some other kind of workout. And I pay a lot more attention to my own needs than I used to.
Tim Ferriss: Not the meditation, but rather the yoga. Is that still, I think last time we spoke, this is some time ago, so maybe it’s changed but Sadhguru-based, is it still that, or is it something else?
Dr. Gabor Maté: No, it’s his yoga. I don’t want to particularly tie it to his particular personality with which I have some issues, concerns. I just don’t like hero worship or guru worship of any kind. But yeah, the yoga I learnt through his course has been very helpful to me.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s dive into the new book. You’ve written many books. You’ve certainly, I would imagine, thought of many possible books you could write. Why spend multiple years on this one?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Tim, I hadn’t thought of multiple books that I could have written. This is the one that’s been calling me and yelling at me for the last 10, 12 years. And literally, it took 10 years of research. In fact, many times I thought I wasn’t up for it. I thought it was just too big. I thought this time, there’s an expression in Hungarian which goes, “Having struck your ax into a very big tree.” Like this time you’ve taken on too much, and many times, believe me. I even had the contract for the book five, six years ago and I gave the money back. I said, “I can’t do it. It’s too much for me.” But it just kept calling me and calling me and calling me.
And then one day it just woke up and said, “Okay, I’m here. You’ve got to do it.” And that’s when the new title came to me. And that’s when I started working on it again. And so here it is. So it’s been a calling. It’s really been calling me. I can’t put in any other way. Nothing else has been calling me. This has been calling me. So that’s why I did it because I —
Tim Ferriss: How does that show up for you? Is it like insomnia, that it’s ideas that are coming to your mind? How does that calling, I’d just love to know how that actually shows up or manifests for you.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, excitement. Yeah. I want to do this. There’s a visceral knowledge that there’s something right about this. When I say there’s something right about it, I don’t mean that I’m correct about everything I say. I just mean right for me, that this is what I need to do. When I see a newspaper article or I see a new book title, right away, “Oh yeah. This speaks to us.” I’ve got to read that article. I have to read that book. So the world keeps feeding me information that demands to be metabolized and synthesized and written and spoken. And then over the last few years, as we’ve seen crisis upon crisis, it just occurs to me somebody’s going to write about how life in this system affects the health of human beings. So it’s visual excitement, it’s ideas, it’s information that just keeps pouring at me like a lava flow. And there’s just this, coupled with the fear that I’m not big enough to do this, so it’s a combination of a lot of things. But even that fear that I’m not big enough to do this is a sign to me of the importance of what I’m talking about. When I say the importance, I don’t mean to be grandiose. I mean the importance to me. If it was not important, I wouldn’t be so afraid of it. That’s what I mean.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe we can launch into a story. I have a few cues here, jumping off points in front of me. And tell me if this makes any sense as a direction to go. What I have in front of me is the story of how trauma can inflict and affect everyday life, story of landing in the airport. Would you like to grab that baton and run with it?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, sure. And this relates to what you were asking me about before in terms of my early history. So this is when I was 72, six years ago. I’d been on a speaking trip to Philadelphia. I’d spoken on addiction, the link that I draw between childhood trauma and addictions. You and I have talked about this. It was well received. On the way back Air Canada bumps me up the first class, so I couldn’t be more comfortable. I land at the airport. My wife is meant to pick me up and I get a text, as I land, saying, “I haven’t left home yet. Do you still want me to come?” And from feeling very comfortable and very pleased with myself, if I can put it that way, I go into a rage and I text back, “Never mind,” and I take the taxi home.
So imagine the indignity of having to take a taxi home. I arrive home. Now, here’s the deal. My wife’s an artist. When she’s in the studio painting, everything else disappears. I’ve only known this for over 50 years, you see. She has no bladder. She has no husband. She has no hunger. It’s just her and the art and that’s what happened. So what am I so upset about? When I come home, I don’t even talk to her. I just grunt to at her. I keep this up for a day and she finally says, “Knock it off already.” As I say, it’s a tribute to decades of progress that I could knock it off after 24 hours because in the past, I might have carried on for days like that.
Now what’s that all about? Well, my mother gave me to a stranger, as you mentioned earlier, and I didn’t see her for five or six weeks when I was a year old. She did this to save my life. When I saw her again, I didn’t even look at her for several days. And that’s what small children do on separation because the brain says that I was so hurt when you abandoned me, that I’ll never open myself up again to that kind of vulnerability. I won’t even look at you. Now, that imprint from a year old is what showed up when my wife said, “I’m not picking you up,” or at least, “I’ll be late picking you up.” All of a sudden, the woman on whom I’m relying for presence and support and love is unavailable. And what gets triggered is this childhood imprint of abandonment and rage and despair.
So this is how trauma shows up in our lives. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that, but it shows up in our relationships and how we feel about ourselves and how we interpret events, in how we react to things that happen in our worldview. So trauma is this sort of invisible dynamic that shapes so much of how we live our lives, but we tend not to be aware of it. And until we become aware of it, it can run our lives. It can run our personal lives. It can also run our politics in our culture.
Tim Ferriss: Let me come back to the rage for a second, because I would love to get your advice or at least hear of some of your learnings over the last decades. Because I recall from our first conversation that, in your forties, you’re a successful doctor, you’re a driven workaholic, you had challenges in your marriage, your kids were at least, based on my notes, afraid of you at points because of your rages.
Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: What have you learned about rage and anger? How do you relate to it or metabolize it? I ask as someone who has a long history of running on anger as maybe a corrosive fuel of sorts. So I would love to just hear you expand on that in any way that makes sense.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Sure. So there’s a great known scientist. His name was Jaak Panksepp, P-A-N-K-S-E-P-P, who tragically died a few years ago of cancer. He distinguished a number of brain systems that we share with other mammals. They include CARE, he capitalized these, so C-A-R-E, CARE, then something that he calls GRIEF and PANIC, then FEAR, LUST, SEEKING, PLAY, and RAGE. These are all brain systems that we have. They’re all necessary for mammalian life. They’re all necessary. By RAGE, he means the anger that arises when our boundaries are being transgressed. So if I were to infringe on your boundaries, either physically or emotionally, the healthy response for you is to mount an anger response. “No. Get out. Stay away.” That’s healthy. Healthy anger is in the moment. It protects your boundaries and then it’s gone. It’s not necessary anymore.
However, if your boundaries were infringed as a child, but you could not express, it doesn’t disappear. It gets suppressed. It becomes almost like a volcano that’s gurgling and bubbling inside you, but is had no expression. Now, why did you suppress it? Because if you’re being — well, you’re being very public about this, so I’m sure you’ll allow me to mention it, but some time after you and I talked, you actually publicly acknowledged that you’d been sexually abused as a child.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Now when that’s happening to a small child, the last thing you forward is to be angry because if you get rageful at the boundary invasion, you’re going to get hurt even more. So suppressing that rage becomes a survival mechanism. Nothing wrong with it. It’s the right thing to do. You don’t do it. Your brain will do it for you automatically as a way of preserving your life or your relative safety. But the rage doesn’t go away.
What happens then later on as an adult, something triggers you and all of a sudden, it just explodes out of you and you have no control over it. Now it’s no longer a response, a healthy response to the present moment, but it’s a response to the past. And just as my hurt and sense of abandonment and then rage was triggered by my wife not picking me up at the airport, so a person’s rage can be triggered by something relatively minor, but all of a sudden this lava flow just explodes out of you. The difference between healthy anger — and by the way, suppressing all of the anger is also unhealthy for you. We can talk about that. But just as healthy anger expresses itself, does its job and then it’s gone, rage, the way such as I’m describing, such as the way I used to experience it and probably as you experienced it, the more it explodes, the bigger it gets.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what happens to me. I’ve worked with certain therapists who have said, “Punch a pillow. Express the rage. Let it just pass through like the wind.” But that isn’t in fact what happens with me and I know I’m not the only one. It actually magnifies and intensifies and extends this feeling.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Exactly. Exactly, because it recruits more brain circuits into its service. So that’s the difference between healthy anger on the one hand, which is an essential boundary defense. And by of the way, so much parenting advice in this culture tells parents to force kids to suppress their anger. Really unhealthy advice. There’s healthy anger, then there’s that rage that you and I have both experienced. That, to work with that — look, if you’re going to punch a human being and there’s a pillow to punch instead, better to punch the pillow. No question about that. But as a technique of dealing with it, no, that’s not how you learn to process that rage because it needs to be processed.
Tim Ferriss: How do you approach the processing? What is a more effective prescription or one possible way?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, if I was working with you, I would encourage you to fully experience the body experience of rage, what’s happening in your body. And you’ll find that it’s not just an idea in your head. It’s something that dominates your visual experience of yourself, your muscles, your breathing, your abdomen, your entire nervous system. And there’s ways of just helping you experience it.
Tim Ferriss: Experience it by raising the awareness of that somatic experience?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Of being with it. Now there’s a wonderful Buddhist lineage, spiritual teacher, meditation teacher called Tara Brach, who talks about RAIN, recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. So you recognize, oh, yeah, this is happening to me right now. Okay, I’m going to allow it. Not allow it in the sense of I’m going to act it out on somebody else, but I’m going to be with the experience and then investigate. Okay, what is this really all about? And then nurture that little person that had to suppress all that rage. It’s a nutshell view of it. But in other words, there’s ways of working with it through the body that doesn’t involve either suppressing it or acting it out, but in experiencing it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ll need to revisit Tara and RAIN. She’s been very helpful to me. I just want to give her credit where credit is due. And maybe I mentioned this in our first conversation as well, the Radical Acceptance, as a title, it turned me off. But a friend of mine who is a very skeptical neuroscience PhD, or has a PhD in neuroscience, I should say, who’s generally averse to anything that even rhymes with woo-woo, read this book and recommended it to me. I found it tremendously, tremendously helpful. It may be time for me to revisit it. And she also tells this apocryphal story that is in some ways linked to this conversation that we’re having.
She tells this apocryphal story of a sage who says, “There’s only one question that really matters and that is what are you unwilling to feel?” I’ve also had therapists ask me, “Do you experience clean anger?” And my instinctive answer is, “No, I don’t,” and I resist it because I view it as potentially destructive, especially the way that it can feed on itself and get amplified. I’m not at risk of throwing a chair throat window or punching someone, because I’ve become very good at suppression. But it’s not lost on me that there’s a cost to be exacted when you do that.
Dr. Gabor Maté: And I’ve just — by the way, I’ve read Radical Acceptance recently, as well. That’s why it’s in my mind. I’m also somebody that doesn’t do acceptance or surrender very well, so I resist those titles. But you know what? I found it very helpful and very compassionate actually. And from my perspective, from the point of view of the therapy that I teach my students, no part of us, no aspect of us is bad. So that rage of yours, it came along for a good reason. And the suppression of the rage, that came along for a good reason as well. And so the more we can investigate this and understand it, the more we can make friends with all aspects of ourselves, which I think is the key to healing.
By the way, radical acceptance doesn’t mean radical tolerance. It doesn’t mean that you put up with everything. It just means that you accept that this is the way it is right now. Now, where do we go from here? It’s not a question of, okay, I’m going to accept all the injustice and oppression and unfairness that’s in the world. No, it’s not about that at all.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a really, really good clarification. At least as I recall the book, I should revisit it, it’s very much focused also on self acceptance, meaning acceptance of the parts of us that we have disowned, including the emotions that we’re not willing to feel. Let me ask you about, and this is all related, I suppose everything’s related at the end of the day, but what happens when one seemingly non-negotiable need is pitted against another? So the example I want to ask you about, specifically, is attachment versus authenticity. So if I think about the reaction I had to my significant other this morning, which was similar to your taxi experience, on one hand, I wanted to be very direct in how I was feeling.
And then I hesitated in expressing that, which would’ve come with a tone of anger, almost certainly, because I wanted her acceptance and support, didn’t want to hurt her. And so I felt this inner conflict of needs that I couldn’t reconcile. And maybe that’s not the best example, but I would love for you to sort of help me and the listeners explore this a bit because I can’t imagine I’m the only one who experiences this type of thing.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, I don’t know, but I wasn’t there and I don’t know what happened, but my guess is that — you and I did this exercise once before that you very, I thought, rather bravely put on YouTube where we went through a certain experience of yours of you having been upset. The lesson from that exercise, and I imagine very often — or take my reaction at the airport and I imagine perhaps your reaction this morning, and I can’t say this for sure because I wasn’t there, but very often we don’t react to what happens. We react to an interpretation of what happens. Your partner did or didn’t say or do something and then you had a certain interpretation of that. And then you acted that interpretation. So I imagine that may have happened, but more generally speaking, so then you’re in this dilemma. If I fully express how I feel, I’m going to maybe hurt her and hurt the relationship or hurt them and hurt the relationship. But if I don’t, then I’m not being authentic. So what do I do? I mean, I think that’s the dilemma that you’re posing here.
It goes back to very early in childhood because we have these two needs that I’ve identified. One of them is for attachment. Attachment meaning our need for connection and closeness with another person, for the sake of being taken care of or for the sake of taking care of the other. So when I talked about these brain circuits of Dr. Panksepp, the CARE system is designed for you and I to take care of the vulnerable, or young or very old ones or sick ones. There’s a system in our brain with its own brain chemicals and its own circuits that are designed to help us care for one another. That’s essential for — no mammal would survive without that.
We also have a system for what he calls GRIEF and PANIC and that’s what we experience when we don’t get that care. We’re wired to attach, for the sake of survival, and no creature is more dependent, more vulnerable, more immature than a human infant compared to any other animal. So our dependence is absolute. So a need to attach is absolute. But we have another need as creatures and as human beings, which is to be authentic. Now, I don’t mean any kind of new age woo-woo concept by this. I mean knowing what we feel and being able to know how to act on what we feel. As you know, we evolved out there in nature. How long does any creature in nature survive, if they don’t know what their gut feelings are telling them?
Tim Ferriss: Not very long.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Not very long.
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Authenticity, which comes from the word auto for self, knowing ourselves and manifesting ourselves is an also essential need. That’s fine. But what happens if a child experiences the emotions that the environment says, “Uh-uh (negative). We won’t accept you with that.” That can happen through abuse, but it can also happen through well-meaning parents who read the parenting advice of a lot of experts, including some that I think you’ve had on your program, who will tell you that when a kid is angry, they should be made to sit by themselves.
Tim Ferriss: Wait, who did — let’s name some names here. Who are you talking about?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Jordan Peterson says that in his book, 12 Rules for Life.
Tim Ferriss: Ah.
Dr. Gabor Maté: That an angry child should be made to sit by themselves until he says they come back to normal. In other words, anger in a child is not normal and the message to the child, but he’s not the only one, and the message to the child is you’re not acceptable when you have that emotion. No. Not the child has a dilemma. I can be authentic, but then they’re going to exclude me. That’s going to threaten my attachment relationship. Or I can suppress my authenticity and then I’ll have the attachment. Now, what do you think gets sacrificed a hundred percent of the time?
Tim Ferriss: Authenticity.
Dr. Gabor Maté: The authenticity gets sacrificed and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out who the heck we are. That suppression of authenticity has severe mental and physical health implications from autoimmune disease to malignancy, to depression. Take for example something called depression. What does it mean to depress something? Literally, what does it mean?
Tim Ferriss: To push down.
Dr. Gabor Maté: To push it down. Depression is not this inherited brain disease. It’s a result of having to push oneself down, push down one’s emotions as a child.
Tim Ferriss: Now just to play devil’s advocate here, I mean, there can be, and there are, appear to be genetic markers that predispose someone. Again, it’s not predetermination, but there is, it would seem, a genetic component. It’s not purely in the absence of childhood events, something does not occur. Right? Would you say that is fair?
Dr. Gabor Maté: I’m going to give you an argument on that one. I mean, having written this book, I’ve just reviewed the literature. Nobody’s ever discovered a gene for any mental health condition. Nobody’s ever discovered any group of genes that caused any mental health condition. Nobody’s discovered any group of genes that if you have them, you’re going to get this disease. Nobody’s group has discovered any group of genes that if you don’t have them, you can’t get this condition. What people have discovered is there’s a large group of genes that the more that we have, the more likely you might have any number of mental health conditions from ADHD to depression, to psychosis, to whatever, but none of them code for the specific condition. So something is being inherited, yes, but what is being inherited? You take animals or human beings with those same set of genes and you give them different environments, they’ll turn out to be very different creatures. Some of them will be extremely functional if they were treated very well.
So what is being inherited then? Now this is contrary to the medical mantra. I’m telling you the science. What is being inherited are not diseases. What is being inherited is sensitivity. The more sensitive you are, and you and I talked about sensitivity the first time we met, but let’s just illustrate it. If I tap myself on the shoulder right now, I don’t know if I did this exercise last time, I don’t feel any pain at all. Do I? But what if my shoulder was bare and there was a burn there, so my nerve endings were close to the surface, which means I was thin skinned.? Now I touched myself with the same force. Now, what do I feel? Severe pain. So sensitivity, from the Latin word sincere, it just means to feel. The more sensitive you are genetically, the more you feel. The more you feel when things go wrong, the more pain you have. The more pain you have, the more you have to get defenses around that pain and all mental health conditions reflect some defense against pain.
In fact, so do many physical conditions. So what I’m saying is, yes, there’s some genetic component here, but that’s not a disease that’s being inherited. It’s sensitivity and therefore, vulnerability that’s being inherited. From there on, it depends purely on the environment.
Tim Ferriss: Sure. I mean, I think we’re largely on the same page. The point I just wanted to make is that there are predispositions. It’s not a binary transmission of a disease, although those may exist with things like Pompe disease and so on, if you have two recessive carriers.
But let me go back to attachment versus authenticity for one second, because in the case of this child who’s expressing, say, anger, and if there are people who would take the stance of the prescriptive move as to put that child in the corner until they come back to their senses. In that case, the child is going to choose attachment over authenticity and you condition the child to behave that way. How would you handle that situation, right?
Because I suppose if I wanted to stand in for some people listening and for myself, frankly, if you don’t help a child to learn to regulate themselves in some fashion, you just end up with someone who can’t function in society. Or if they’re encouraged to — indulge is a strong word, but embrace every impulse that they have with a strong emotion, they’ll probably in some way get exiled by their students and peers also. So how do you walk that tightrope? How do you suggest handling that type of circumstance?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Sure. So I agree with you. The intent of good parenting or good child-rearing is to help the development of self-regulation. Absolutely. The question is how to get there.
No, it’s not a question of everybody should behave exactly how they want to and to Hell with everybody else. It can’t be that. That’s permissiveness. That’s not healthy parenting either. But it also depends what age we’re talking about. For example, a two-year-old, they want another cookie before dinner, or they want a cookie before dinner. Now, if you’re doing your job as a parent, you’re going to frustrate them because you’re going to say, “No cookie before dinner.” No. What do we do as adults, as mature adults when we get frustrated? If we’re lucky, we know how to handle our frustration. But if you’re like me sometimes, you’ll start throwing a bit of a tantrum. So that’s what the two-year-old will do. They’ll throw a tantrum.
Nothing wrong with the two-year-old throwing a tantrum. That’s just what their brain is programmed to do when they’re frustrated. So you say, “Oh, you’re really angry. Aren’t you? You really want that cookie.” “Yeah.” “And you’re really mad at daddy because he won’t give you the cookie.” “Yeah.” That allows the child to move through the emotions and to know that emotions can come and go. How self-regulation happens is, as Dr. Dan Siegel points out, is that the immature circuits of the child’s brain use the mature circuits of the adult’s brain, of the nurturing adult’s brain, to help regulate it. So the way you help a child learn self — or not learn, but develop self-regulation is by being regulated yourself. So if you stay calm, you say, “You’re really angry, aren’t you?” that’ll help the child develop self-regulation because he’s downloading your circuits. But if you respond with punishment or hostility and giving him a message that he’s just not acceptable, you’re just frustrating him even more.
You might get compliant behavior, but you’re going to get somebody whose rage is being suppressed. And we’ve already talked about that. And you’re going to get somebody who’s going to get depressed because they’re pushing themselves down. A child who’s understood and held and loved, they’ll move through these emotions very quickly. Very quickly. And that’s how you learn self-regulation is that these emotions can arise and they’ll go and we don’t have to be attached to them and we don’t have to act them out. So self-regulation begins by the adult world being regulated and not reactive.
Tim Ferriss: That makes sense. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Let’s come back to The Myth of Normal. And if you look back at your many books — and maybe I’m just unique in this situation, but I don’t think I am. I’ll explain what I mean. When I look back at each of my books, there are chapters or elements or messages that I wish I’d maybe emphasized more or that I’m sad get skipped over or not given enough attention. In the new book, are there any chapters or concepts, anything at all that you really hope people do not miss? I know that’s perhaps a strange way to phrase it, but I’ll leave it there as a starting point.
Dr. Gabor Maté: No, that’s good. Thank you. Well, it’s almost like I felt I could just print the title, the title page, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, and just have people write their own books. Just have a bunch of empty pages. So I think the message is reinforced through the whole book. What we think is normal in our society from the point of view of human needs and human evolution is absolutely abnormal. And therefore, when we think of abnormalities in terms of illnesses and dysfunctions and diseases and so on, these are normal responses to abnormal circumstances. And the biggest loss you and I have already talked about. This is a society that from the very beginning, from in utero onwards, put stresses on human beings, that they lose contact with themselves.
And the essence of trauma is loss of contact with yourself, loss of connection to yourself. And that’s reinforced through parenting practices, the parenting advice people get. You and I already talked about that. It is reinforced in the school system where it’s all about competition and evaluation rather than relaxation and learning. We are judged all the time by our externals, like how we look, what we achieve, how smart we are, how fast we are. We’re not accepted for who we are with our flaws and our vulnerabilities. Society caters to those false needs so that for God’s sakes, people are botoxing themselves because they’ve learned that how they are is just not acceptable.
People are on Facebook presenting a false image of themselves because they believe that how they are and who they are is not good enough. We’re sold all these products and are manipulated into all these activities that are all attempts to fulfill some deep hunger in ourselves that is missing because we’ve lost our true selves. We are manipulated into buying products and eating foods that are actually toxically, addictively unhealthy. And this happens with the full awareness, even — not only the awareness, the employment of modern science as to how to get people hooked on cell phones or junk foods. Our politics reflects very traumatized people reaching the top, enacting policies that then create more trauma for large numbers of people. In other words, this is a society that for all its wealth, scientific ingenuity, incredible progress in science and medicine, has fundamentally got disconnected from the essence of what it means to be human beings.
And we suffer. There’s an article in The New Yorker about the alarming rise in childhood suicide, the mysterious rise in child — there’s nothing mysterious about it. Kids are stressed because of the conditions of this culture, all the lonely people, as the Beatles sang, all the lonely people. The number of people lonely has doubled in the last 30 years. Britain has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Loneliness kills. It’s as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of causing illness or potentiating illness and death. There’s so many ways in which this culture is abnormal, and it’s causing people to be not well.
And so that message, that’s the essential one that I hope people won’t miss. But I doubt that they will, if they read the book. And the big message is, Tim, is we don’t have to be that way. It’s not our true nature. We’ve been sold a bill of goods about what human nature is. Human nature is not like that. And precisely the reason there’s so much dysfunction is because we’ve got disconnected from our true nature. We don’t have to be. We can find our way back. We can embrace it. And we’ll be lot healthier, both as a group and as individuals.
Tim Ferriss: So what you’re saying reminds me of a quote no doubt you’ve heard, maybe even used it many times. This is from Krishnamurti. “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” And my next question relates to what to do, because I have noticed for myself, for instance, if I’m off in the mountains and the rivers or the jungle by myself for a period of time, I come back, I feel better attuned, I feel much more at ease. There are all of these positive effects, but at least in that form, is opting out of society.
Now, maybe that’s okay. But as I contemplate, part of my reason for asking about parenting and anger management or recognition and so on is because I’m contemplating starting a family soon. And that’s at least in the plans. And disappearing in the jungle for months at a time may or may not be compatible with that, at least in the early stages. So recognizing the problem, what are some of the things that people can do or what are questions they should be asking? How would you suggest they start looking at treatments or solutions?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the connection with nature. I do talk about a woman called Clara Hughes. Now Clara Hughes was the first person to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. She’s a Canadian and wonderful person. And after she retired from sports, she became a public speaker and was just stressing herself, fulfilling all these demands. And then she started to start walking. So every year for six months of the year, she just goes for walks. She walks. She’s walked from, I think, Northern Canada to Mexico, and she reconnects herself through that. Obviously, nobody can do that all the time. Clara doesn’t have children so she can afford to do that. But that doesn’t mean that the connection with nature needs to be dismissed.
So I would say for you, if that’s a powerful connection and a way for you to reconnect with yourself, for God’s sakes, keep doing it. You might not do it for as long and as intensively as you might before you have children, but keep it up because it’s an essential part of who you are. But beyond that, what keeps us disconnected from ourselves are the imprints of trauma. And I suggest ways of working that through. That’s not the only way. I’m certainly not unique in offering pathways to wholeness, as I call it, that part of the book. But people need to realize to what extent their tensions and their unhappiness and the dysfunctions, things that they don’t like about themselves, they all came along for a reason. At some point they had a function to play. Now they’re no longer are helpful. We can work them through. You got to get help, either through reading the right books and/or finding the right therapist and/or engaging in the right kind of spiritual practice or martial arts or something. But there’s always a way to work it through.
And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of communality of connection. We are wired to connect. And in a society that teaches us that our nature is to be aggressive and competitive and individualistic, and even suspicious of others, that goes against our nature. So we have to work our way through those false beliefs and come back to who we really are, which are connected beings really here to be both individuals, to both to be authentic, and to be attached at the same time, so that there shouldn’t be this tragic tension between attachment and authenticity. We can be both authentic and be connected. That’s what we have to strive for both as individuals, and I think also as a culture.
Tim Ferriss: When you think about wholeness and contending with these traumatic imprints, so you mentioned some, say parenting approaches that you disagree with. Are there any approaches or recommendations that you think do more harm than good with respect to contending with trauma or moving towards wholeness?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. Any parenting practice or educational practice that focuses on behavior rather than the child’s underlying emotional dynamics is going to be harmful because what we want out of child-rearing is at the end of it, there should be an autonomous human being, respectful of themselves and of others, who can be authentic and connected at the same time. That’s our goal. I don’t think anybody would disagree that that’s our goal for human beings. Now that’s a natural developmental process as long as we provide the right conditions for it.
But nothing in nature develops in the wrong context. So I could have an acorn in my hand and the nature of that acorn is to become an oak tree, but not if I leave it on my desk. It needs water and soil and sunlight and so on. A lot of parenting and educational practices focus not on the long-term goal and development, but on fixing the kids’ behaviors in the short-term. So we talk about kids are acting out. What do you do when a kid acts out? Well, look at this phrase, acting out. What does it mean to act something out? When I say acting out, when I say a kid is acting out, you will probably think of a kid who’s being oppositional or rude or disobedient or aggressive. But that’s not what the phrase means. Acting out means portraying behavior that which we haven’t got the words to say in language. So in a game of charades, where you’re not allowed to speak, what do you have to do? You have to act it out.
Tim Ferriss: Act it out.
Dr. Gabor Maté: If you landed in a country where nobody spoke your language and you have to portray hunger, you’d have to act it out. The kids are acting out their emotional needs. The question is, are we going to respond to the child or we going to try and suppress the behavior?
So much of what’s taught as parenting advice is designed to manipulate or shape or suppress kids’ behaviors rather than understanding the child. And by the way, this is also true of adults as well. We look at human beings and we don’t see what’s really driving them. We just either approve or disapprove of how they’re behaving. But we don’t make much of an effort. The legal system specializes in not understanding why people behave the way they behave, just in suppressing it, which is why in Canada, where indigenous people make up five percent of the population, they make up 30 percent of the jail population, and indigenous women make up 50 percent of the female jail population in this country. It’s an absolute scandal. Same in the US. The more oppressed you are, the more marginalized you are, the more you’ve been traumatized by history — and you know which groups those are in the United States — the more likely you’re going to end up in jail because the legal system doesn’t understand trauma, it doesn’t understand human development, and it confuses punishment with rehabilitation.
In terms of supporting healthy growth of human beings at any level, we need understanding of what’s driving this behavior. And it’s not a question of allowing bad behavior or permitting it or encouraging it, but it’s a question of what are we going to do about the phenomena of aggression or drug use, or in the case of children, rudeness or disobedience or anything else? What are we going to do about it? Are we going to try and just suppress the behavior? Then you end up where we are with millions of people in jail and lots of kids with learning difficulties and behavior problems and millions of kids being medicated, or we’re going to try and understand what’s happening? What’s driving it? What are the social cultural dynamics that are driving so much dysfunction? And it’s not that hard to perceive. We have the science. We have the research. We’re just not applying it.
Tim Ferriss: So let me hop in. There are a few things I want to mention that come to mind as you’re speaking, and then I’ll end it with a question. So the first is on the acting out point, how I’ve heard stories from a number of friends — and I don’t have kids. So anyone out there, don’t look to me for parenting advice. But with respect to baby sign, teaching children sign language before they actually have the physiological capability of speaking, that you reduce the amount of acting out, crying for attention, et cetera, when you enable them even with a handful literally of basic sign language symbols, right? Hungry, thirsty, potty, or whatever it might be. So that makes sense to me.
The second is — and I like the way that you deconstruct that phrase. The second as it relates to incarceration, there’s a documentary I saw a long time ago go called The Work. It’s called The Work. It came out in 2017. At the very least, everybody should watch the trailer. Will link to it in the show notes. And it relates to effectively trauma work within the prison system. And I say that in a monolithic sense, which might not be perfectly accurate, but within a prison in the United States, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing and brutal to watch.
And it highlights how difficult it is in the sense that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? Intervening early. But let’s look at the adult case. So coming back to this trauma imprint, if you were to take, say, 1,000 people from the population selected at random, and they all, as adults, pursued fixing their trauma, whatever they think of as that meaning, are there any approaches or techniques or paths that you think are risky, damaging, ill-advised? Is there anything you’d like to highlight in that department?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, specifically in prisons in the US, this work that you mentioned sounds wonderful. I know a couple of other approaches. There’s a film made about my work called The Wisdom of Trauma that actually people can watch online. And there’s a scene in it. I’m not involved, but there’s a woman called Fritzi Horstman. She’s wonderful. You might want to talk to her sometime. She works with these high-level offenders, and she’s got these large number of people in this prison yard standing in a circle, all men. And she says, “If you were hit regularly as a child, take a step forward.” Everybody takes a step in. “If your parents yelled at you a lot, take a step in. If you’re abused, take a step in. If you’ve witnessed violence in your family origin, take a step in.” And the circle just keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller as people keep stepping into the circle.
And so she does wonderful trauma work with prisoners, and the transformations are incredible that she witnesses and helps to facilitate. I know somebody else who works with something called the Prison Enneagram Project. You probably heard of the Enneagram. I’ve never studied it.
Tim Ferriss: I have. It’s come up with a number of CEOs, Tobi of Shopify and others who use the Enneagram. It’d be helpful if you wanted to just give a brief overview or explain.
Dr. Gabor Maté: I’ve never studied it though that much. I don’t have the patience for it, really. But it’s a —
Tim Ferriss: It’s a personality typing system that allows you to look at potential interactions of different people with different typing, and you can look at the pros and cons of those interactions. And it’s a lot more to it, but those are some of the basics.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. I think that’s about right. And also each Enneagram type has got its potential values, but also its hazards. So I know somebody who’s taken this work into prisons, and they do Enneagram work, and I witnessed it. And these guys are killers. They’ve killed.
It’s hard to say this, and it’s going to draw some maybe raised eyebrows or skepticism from some of your listeners. These guys are the loveliest people in the world, and they’re not pretending. They were sensitive kids, deeply traumatized. Nobody ever paid attention to them. Everybody hurt them. Very often, of course, minority status. Somebody hears them, allows them to work with — I quote one of them in the book, actually. And then he says, “If I ever get out of here, all I ever want to do is help people love themselves. Because when I committed that crime, I was totally disconnected from myself. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t respect myself,” he says, “so I couldn’t respect no one else either. And as I learned to respect myself, I now respect all human beings.” I witnessed him saying this. This is in San Quentin, actually.
And so the potential of rehabilitation and bringing people back to their human selves is enormous given the right circumstances. But we know how punitive and how traumatizing the prison experience is for a lot of people, because we equate punishment with rehabilitation. It’s not the same thing. So I’m not saying that we should allow murder or that we should encourage crime. What I’m saying is if we apply the light of understanding to what drives people, and we are actually interested in rehabilitating them so that the correctional system really becomes a system that corrects people rather than just punishes them, we could do so much with what we already know. And you know what? It wouldn’t cost more. It would cost less.
Tim Ferriss: For people interested, I just want to mention, I actually did some podcast interviews behind the line inside a maximum security prison in California at one point. Level four, maximum security prison, Kern Valley State Prison. So people can find that, 323, if they’re interested in getting a peek behind the lines, and I would agree with you.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Were you surprised by anything?
Tim Ferriss: I was surprised by a lot, because that is certainly not my native environment. I mean, on one hand, you had violent events on a constant basis. So there were real threats within the prison and everybody. Riot gear and so on had to be used. So you had tremendous potential for violence and then you also had tremendous potential with the right help, with the right support and resources. I was there volunteering with a group teaching entrepreneurial skills because without qualifications or transferable skills to outside civilian life —
Dr. Gabor Maté: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Then the recidivism rate, of course, is going to be very high. Also with a felony or felonies on your record, it complicates the entire situation. So it’s a very problematic, gnarly puzzle to solve, taking people from inside the system to then outside the system and reintroducing them. So that was the context within which I was there. But you were also able to have conversations with people who had done a tremendous job with support of rehabilitating themselves and really using introspection and cultivated self awareness to turn their lives around even within the confines of a maximum security prison. In some cases, people who were not eligible for parole, people who were still turning their lives around despite the fact that most likely they would be restricted to life behind bars until they died.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So everything about it was deeply impactful and I actually participated in an exercise that’s very similar to the one you described where people are stepping forward or stepping backward, depending on the things they’ve experienced. And when you start layering all of the abuses and the experiences these people have suffered through, I don’t want to say it’s inevitable. Coming back to maybe the genetic comparison, I think it’s not inevitable that these people end up in jail, but it sets the conditions such that it is much more likely, especially if they’re highly sensitive, as you mentioned. And it stuck with me. It was very emotional for me to witness, honestly, because it also — I grew up on Long Island and family kind of lower middle class, with friends who came from some very tough households. A lot of alcoholism, a lot of abuse, a lot of drugs. And some of my friends have not made it. Some have died of opiate overdoses and drunk driving accidents, et cetera, and other issues. Some are behind bars at this point also.
And so it’s also striking to me how with one or two different decisions, the trajectory of my life could have very easily gone in the direction that would’ve made it more likely that I would’ve ended up someplace very, very different. Let me ask you, if you could no longer write, you could no longer — I’ll stick with writing. No more writing, no more public speaking, but you are allowed to focus on clinical practice. And this comes to mind because of what this inmate you mentioned said about spending the rest of his life doing something. What type of clinical practice would you focus on?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, pretty much — by the way, I hope this rule against me speaking isn’t enacted very soon because I got this multi-country trip lined up that I really look forward to, but don’t tell anybody, okay?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dr. Gabor Maté: But I’m not supposed to —
Tim Ferriss: That’s accepted. Yeah. That’s accepted.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay. But it would be much the same as I’m doing now, except more one to one. It would be that you come to me with an issue and I would help you to see that there’s nothing wrong with you, with you, with who you are. The stuff happened in your life at a time when you couldn’t help it. And you made a kind of meaning out of that. Like I made the meaning that I couldn’t be helped. I couldn’t be healed. Or I made the meaning that I’m being abandoned. And you made a certain meaning out of that. And you’ve been living your life out of that meaning that you created at a time and you had no choice in the matter. And if you can get to be friends with all those aspects of you, that at that time helped you survive, but now are creating suffering for you and the people in your life, and if you can work your way back to getting to know yourself and accepting yourself, you’ll be just fine.
And whether your trauma shows up in a form of multiples sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis or malignancy — and by the way, there’s a lot of literature linking all these conditions to trauma. So I’m not just making this up. Or whether it shows up as rage or whether it shows up as depression or as ADHD or as anything else, whether it shows up in difficulty with intimacy, in problems forming relationships, no matter how your problems manifest, there’s a reason why they’re there. Those reasons can be understood, dealt with, worked through, and you can find your way back to yourself.
So that would be my clinical practice almost no matter what people presented with. I say almost no matter what, because I don’t want to be categorical about it. You’re right. There are some diseases that are genetic. One runs in my family. It’s called muscular dystrophy. If you have the gene, you’re going to have the disease. My mother had it, my aunt had it, and they died with it. But that’s very rare, very rare. For the most part, people were dealing with the impacts of life experience in a culture that undermines our connection to ourselves and to other people. And that’s what we have to realize and correct.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Gabor, I know we could go and go and go and go. I feel like that’s a powerful place to start to maybe come to a close, but I want to also open the floor to anything else that you might want to mention. Anything you might want to add, or if apart from closing comments, you might have any request of my audience or suggestions to the audience. Certainly the new book is The Myth of Normal. I recommend people check it out. I’ve seen you through documentaries, but also in interactions in action, so to speak. And I really respect you as a clinician and a practitioner, not just a theoretician. And so I wanted to say that publicly. I’m aware of how much you’ve rolled up your sleeves and worked with very difficult cases of addiction and trauma, in some of the highest density areas in North America, certainly with respect to all of these kind of intersecting health challenges. So I wanted to say that, but are there any other comments you’d like to add before we bring this to a close?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, I’ll tell you personally, that writing this book has been the biggest challenge in my life. At certain times, I didn’t know if I would finish it or it would finish me first. Literally, I went through panic at certain times. I even became so desperate then that I called a therapist and I had a therapy session once a week for several months in the middle of writing the book, which is a good thing. At least I was smart enough to reach out for help. It was hard because I took on such a big subject, which is the whole of this culture and how that pertains to us as individuals and as groups.
But what kept me going was this voice inside me that says, “I don’t say you need to do this, but you’re called to do this. And you wouldn’t be being true to yourself if you didn’t fulfill the calling.” Now, that voice in one version or another, it doesn’t have to do with book writing or any other project like that, but that voice of who we are and what we can be in this world, that’s inside all of us. And there’s such cacophony. There’s such noise generated by this culture. The radio, the TV, the internet is yelling at you 24-7, and we’re being pulled away from ourselves in so many ways. But the Bible talks about the small, still voice that’s inside of us. And the noise around us generated by this culture makes that voice almost impossible to hear, but I’m sure you’ve had the experience yourself and a lot of people have. It’s in there. If you can just listen to it.
So that was my biggest takeaway from writing this book is, and I’m so glad I did it. And in the end, I’m just so happy with what I’ve been able to set down on paper — by the way, with the brilliant help of my son, Daniel, I couldn’t have done this on my own and if I can pitch forward a bit. The next book Daniel and I are writing is called Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Adult Children and their Parents. Maybe in a few years when that’s done, that’s a workshop that we do. And maybe in a few years, I can come back and talk to you again when that book comes out. But anyway, the long and short of it is, that the lesson that I derived it is that it’s not easy to listen to that voice, but it’s A, essential and B, so rewarding, and that voice is inside all of us.
Tim Ferriss: So I have to follow up because this is touching a nerve for me right now, because I’ve been sort of sitting in the silence for about a year and a half now. I’ve not committed to any large projects. Do you have any advice for attuning to or sensitizing to picking out that small, still voice? Because I would love to maybe have a more acute ability to observe that. Not that I’m totally deaf, dumb, and blind, but do you have any recommendations?
Dr. Gabor Maté: I do, but are you willing for a bit of an experiment right now?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man, here we go again. Okay. I end up being the piñata, but I’ll go with it. Yes. I’m open to it.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay. All that’s going to happen — it’s just an experiment and it may or may not work. And it’s really okay if it doesn’t. So there’s no — I’m not going to feel like a failure if it doesn’t work and you won’t be getting a failing grade if nothing comes up. It’s just an experiment. Right?
Tim Ferriss: Right. Let’s try it.
Dr. Gabor Maté: So you say you’ve been kind of observing some degree of silence and not committing to long term projects. It’s very wise because something inside you needs to work itself out and you’re giving it space. And so I’m just going to ask you to be silent for a moment within yourself. And then I’m going to ask you a question. I’m going to snap my fingers, ask a question. When I snap my fingers, just say the first thing that comes to your mind, if anything does. And if nothing does, that’s really okay. But whatever you do, don’t try and think about it.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Dr. Gabor Maté: So don’t try and figure out the right answer. There’s no right answer. So we’re just going to see if anything comes up or not. So I might ask two questions. So just silence for a moment. Okay. You’re paying attention to what’s happening inside you, your chest, your belly, your head. You’re just being present with yourself. I’m going to ask you, what’s calling you?
Tim Ferriss: Animals. Animal communication.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: It’s the first thing that comes up.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay. Well, I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure you do.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay. Well, so, great. By the way, animals have a lot to tell us, don’t they?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dr. Gabor Maté: It’s not true that I don’t know what you know about. I know people that work with horses. I don’t know exactly what you mean, but I know there’s a lot there. Okay. So if that comes up for you, then the second question would be, what’s stopping you?
Tim Ferriss: I think what’s stopping me is I don’t know how to — I can pursue it. I am actually going to be pursuing that in the next month, especially because I got a sort of a very promising lead involving some indigenous animal trackers.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: So that’s a whole separate story, but I am unsure of how to — because I’m sort of on the periphery of this interest. And the interest, I think, is very much an attraction to nonverbal forms of communication. So that could be humans, but I just find the kind of pure, unadulterated, naturally selected manifestation of that is seen so clearly in animals.
Dr. Gabor Maté: And what about that appeals to you? There’s something about that appeals to you? What’s the appeal there for you? In a word.
Tim Ferriss: The appeal is — yeah. In a word. Give me a second. I’ll have to do a little search function for a word.
Dr. Gabor Maté: You know what comes up for me is —
Tim Ferriss: What comes up for you?
Dr. Gabor Maté: Purity.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s getting — I think for me it would be very close. I was going to say, I mean, it’s cheating. It’s not a word, but other means of knowing.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay. Then knowing, Okay. Knowing that —
Tim Ferriss: Other means of knowing.
Dr. Gabor Maté: No, but forget the other means. Forget the other means. It’s knowing. And you don’t want that knowing happening through the intellect.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I don’t want it going through a bunch of filters and abstractions and concepts. I think it just gets so clumsy.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. So look, Tim, it sounds to me like, you’ve got a beautiful calling, which is pure knowing, and you even have a pathway that you’ve envisioned, which is through animal communication. I think you’re on your way. I don’t think there’s a big mystery here.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’m going to borrow that confidence if I may. I’ll kind of fake it until I make it here with that. I’m excited. Thank you for doing the exercise, which, hopefully people, maybe they had a chance to try themselves. I’m excited about it. I think there’s part of me that is trying to force it into this maybe false construct of a job, if that makes any sense. And just bear with me as I try to walk through this. Right now, I do the podcast. I love doing the podcast. It’s basically —, they’re interviews, but I’m also very self-indulgent with turning them into my own therapy sessions. So thanks for playing along.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: And I do, there’s part of me that really enjoys a commitment to all-consuming projects, because I find it so much easier to say no to the noise and to the temptations and the shiny objects when I have a clear focus that consumes much of my days or all of my days. And maybe it’s just premature, but I’ve been trying to figure out, all right, well, how does this interest actually translate to something that I can spend that amount of time on? And the answer is not forthcoming. So I think for that reason, I’ve hesitated in taking the plunge.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Well, if I may say, you’re trying to bargain with your authenticity here. And it seems to me, you’re trying to justify it somehow. Like, for me to be authentic and pursue this calling, I have to somehow translate it into some monetarized or professionally acceptable or respectable endeavor. I don’t imagine that financially you’re constrained to do that.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no. Yeah, it’s not the finances. It’s more like, how do I make it something — I don’t want it to be a disrespected hobby, if that makes sense. It’s something I feel very drawn to respect.
Dr. Gabor Maté: So I’m sorry to interrupt, but are you then worried what other people will think about it?
Tim Ferriss: No. No, I’m not, actually. I’m worried that I won’t have enough to chew on for it to sustain me for a period of time. I just won’t have, I won’t be able to sink my teeth into it enough to spend what I would view as a critical mass of time to reach some point of expertise, but no, that’s all internal. It doesn’t have anything to do with what other people think.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Okay, great. So you want to be able to respect it enough inside yourself. Well, look, what’s the worst case scenario here? See, it sounds to me very, to me when I hear you speak about it, then you said a few words, you said animal communication, you said knowing, pure knowing I would call it. To me, that’s very inspiring that you’d be called by that. It really is from the outside. Just to tell you how I respond to it. That’s — boy, this guy’s really got something here is what I’m thinking. And what’s the worst case scenario is that you take the next step, with this indigenous possibility that you mentioned, and you’ll see, won’t you? Do you have to figure it out all in advance or can you just take the next step and trust the process?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, the answer is I can trust the process. It makes me think of, I can’t remember who said it, but they’re like somebody described writing a novel as driving across the country in the dark with only headlights to guide you. It’s like you can get there, you can make it from one side to the other, but you can only see a hundred feet in front of you at any given point in time. So I think I probably just need to sort of take that and run with it. So thank you. Thank you. I’m going to be — I already have a couple of things on the calendar in the next two months that I’m really excited about. So I think I just need to stop dipping my toe in the water. And really —
Dr. Gabor Maté: I would say one final thing is that any self — see the mind that we develop as kids in response to trauma, doesn’t trust their authenticity very much for a good reason, because authenticity will get us into trouble. So I would suggest that quite possibly some of this self-questioning and hesitation and the data around it, is still a bit of an echo where you are programmed to question your authenticity, because what you’re talking about sounds very authentic to me.
Tim Ferriss: It could be. That wouldn’t surprise me. Yeah. I think that’s as good a theory as any for me to recognize as valid at this point. So thanks for the encouragement. I appreciate it.
Dr. Gabor Maté: I’m just reflecting what I’m seeing. That’s all.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thank you for the reflection.
Dr. Gabor Maté: I look forward to learning how that goes for you, one way or the other, actually.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, me too. Me too. Well Gabor, thank you so much for the time. It’s nice to see you again.
Dr. Gabor Maté: You too.
Tim Ferriss: It doesn’t feel that long ago that we sat face to face in Austin, but it’s been quite a while. Remarkably. And you have been busy. I’m very excited about the new book and for people who would like to check it out, I encourage they check it out. The new book is The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. You can find more information on the book at drgabormate.com. That’s D-R. drgabormate.com. And you can find Gabor on Twitter at D-R, drgabormate and then on Instagram, gabormatemd.
Tim Ferriss: We’ve covered a lot of ground. And I really appreciate you being such an open book, and also maybe helping me to turn a few pages in the process. So much appreciated.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for making the time.
Dr. Gabor Maté: Thank you, Tim. It’s a pleasure. Take care. Okay.
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