The Childhood Lie That’s Ruining All Of Our Lives: Gabor Mate (Transcript)

Full text of The Diary Of A CEO podcast titled ‘The Childhood Lie That’s Ruining All Of Our Lives.’ Gabor Mate is a multi-bestselling author and a world leading expert on trauma and how it effects us throughout our whole lives.

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STEVEN BARTLETT: I’m Stephen Bartlett and this is The Diary of a CEO. I hope nobody’s listening, but if you are, then please keep this to yourself.

“My dear little man. Only after many long months do I take it in hand, the pen, so that I may briefly sketch for you the unspeakable horrors of those times, the details of which I do not wish you to know.” Those are words that your mother wrote into her diary in the 1940s during the Holocaust.

GABOR MATE: She wrote those words in April 1945, three months after the Soviet army expelled the Nazis from Budapest, which is where we live. So she’s referring to the previous year and the beginning of that year, late 1944 and early 1945.

STEVEN BARTLETT: And in those diary entries, she’s addressing many of them to you directly as a baby.

GABOR MATE: She wrote the diary to me directly as if it was like an account of my life addressed to me.

STEVEN BARTLETT: You talk so much in all your books and much of your work about the importance of that early context. It’s really been the center point of all the writing that I’ve read recently. And I know because it’s so evident in everything that you’ve done that that’s been a key. Your own early context has been a key inspiration for why you’ve taken such an interest in these topics. What was your early context? What do I have to understand about your earliest years to understand you?

GABOR MATE: So it’s just a fact about human beings that the template that forms us will affect how we see the world, how we understand ourselves. How we relate to other people. And that really template is our earliest months, even in utero, already in a womb, we’re being affected by the environment. But certainly in the early years when our brain is being formed and our personality is taking shape. And so that forms our worldview.

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Now my worldview was, in my sense of self, was shaped by the fact that at two months of age, when I was two months of age, the German army occupied Hungary. Hungary was the last country in Eastern Europe where the Jewish population had not been exterminated. And that was our turn. The day after the German army marched into Budapest, which was March 19th, 1944, the day after my mother called the pediatrician to say, would you please come and see Gabor because he’s crying all the time. And the doctor said, of course I’ll come, but all my Jewish babies are crying.

And so the fact is that when mothers are stressed or in pain, the infant feels all that and takes it personally. And it becomes part of their template for how they view the world. So that’s when that year began in which my grandparents were killed in Auschwitz and my father was away in forced labor. And my mother and I barely survived. And it’s a story I’ve told many times, but that’s when my brain is developing and that’s when I’m forming my sense of myself.

And then my mother, to save my life, gives me to a stranger and I don’t see her for six weeks. The sense I get is that I’m not wanted and I’m being rejected and abandoned because I’m not good enough. That’s how my life began.

STEVEN BARTLETT: So your mother gives you away for five to six weeks in order to sort of save you from starvation in a ghetto that she was going to, right?

GABOR MATE: That’s right.

STEVEN BARTLETT: This is after your grandparents were killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis. How do you know, in hindsight, that that moment of those six weeks created that sense of abandonment in you?

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GABOR MATE: I wouldn’t say it’s just about that one moment. Children very much view themselves through their interactions with their parents. Now, first of all, I had no father because he was gone. I hadn’t seen him, except very briefly when I was a month old. But there was no father in the picture.

My mother was grief-stricken and terrorized and full of woe and worry about what’s going to happen to us and just the task of surviving each day. She’s not playful with me. She’s not smiling at me very much. She’s worried-looking. She’s stressed-looking. The infant takes everything personally. That’s just the nature of the infant. As infants, we’re narcissists. We think it’s all about us.

So when things are great, hey, we’re great. But when my mother’s unhappy, it’s because she doesn’t want me or I can’t make her happy or I’m inadequate. So that separation from my mother certainly set a template for some of my relationship interactions with my spouse decades later. But the sense of not being good enough and being responsible, that was inculcated in me throughout that whole first year of life. So much so that in this book, The Myth of Normal, I actually talk about an experience with the psychedelic mushrooms with a therapist. This was not that long ago, seven years ago maybe, when I’m at least 70 years old.

And I’m in this therapeutic session with the psilocybin, the medicine, and the therapist. And I know that I’m 70 years old, and I know this is a therapy session, and I know her name, and I know who I am in the world. But at the same time, I’m experiencing myself as a one-year-old baby, and she’s my mother. And I start crying. Tears come down to my face, and I say, ‘I’m so sorry I made your life so difficult.’

Now that was an unconscious memory of my sense of myself as a one-year-old, that I made my mother’s life so difficult. Because that’s the way the baby interprets it. So even if your mother loves you, which mine did infinitely, not that she always treated me the best way possible, but she did love me. And can you imagine what a great act of love even giving me to a stranger in the street would have been for her? But because of her own unhappiness, I can only conclude that I’m not good enough, and it’s my fault.

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STEVEN BARTLETT: At 70 years old, having that psilocybin experience, coming to that realization, or having that response to your therapist, where they take the role of your mother and you’re a one-year-old, how does somebody at 70 years old go about correcting that sort of interpretation you had of that traumatic early event?

GABOR MATE: Well, by bringing it up to the conscious level. Then when I notice that sense of guilt or responsibility in me, I say, oh, that’s what it’s about. So it’s a meaning.

See, trauma, as I define it, is not about what happens to us. It’s about what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. And trauma means wound. So the wound in this case is my sense of deficiency or not being good enough, not being worthy enough. Once I realize that, oh, this has got nothing to do with anything except this interpretation that I made of my own experience all those years ago, then when I notice it, I can no longer believe it. I don’t have to any longer be a subject to that interpretation of myself in the world.

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