Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Troubling Theories of Gabor Maté

The instigator of this post has been sitting in various to-do piles for quite some time. The August 2012 issue of The Sun featured an article with Dr. Gabor Maté and I quickly realized that he was the guy I was trying to reference and remember when writing this post. Maté is the guy who posits that stress and poor emotional patterns are the direct cause of disease, including MS. He theorizes that specific emotional patterns and personalities are directly correlated to various diseases. As I mentioned previously, the so-called MS personality is mostly about repressing emotions. The interview can be read online here. Some quotes from the article:

"People who have a chronic illness of any kind - cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic neurological and skin disorders - often fit certain personality profiles. For example, they tend to pay a lot more attention to the needs of others than to their own. They get caught up in their job or their role as  caregiver rather than looking after themselves. They also tend to suppress the so-called negative emotions, such as sadness and anger. They try not to acknowledge these emotions even to themselves. And, finally, they tend to think they are responsible for how other people feel and to be terrified of disappointing others who are important to them. So an overwhelming sense of responsibility and self-suppression is what tends to characterize the chronically ill."
"Anger that is repressed can also turn inward. People who repress their anger can actually suppress their immune system, making it turn against itself. When that happens, you're going to get autoimmune disease. Anger and the immune system have the same purpose: to protect boundaries. The immune system does its job of attacking foreign particles, and anger does its job of keeping out human invasions."
Maté uses famed cellist Jacqueline Du Pré as a classic example of the MS type in some of his writings. He describes Du Pré as someone whose only emotional voice was through her cello - as a musician she was known for her passionate and exquisite skills of expression.

(On a related Du Pré note, I should sometime write about the rather disturbing film version of her story!)

Maté does make somewhat of a point to stress that he is not saying that patients are to blame for their diseases. Rather, he states that our emotional patterns are coping mechanisms that we don't choose, and are often "unconsciously transmitted, multigenerational dynamics." Well, even so, Maté makes me feel like crap and very much like I brought this on myself. However, the fact that I finally wrote this post and can now officially recycle the magazine does make me feel a little bit better. 

What do you think about the idea of an MS personality?

1 comment:

Gwen said...

It's interesting - in the first passage you quote, the direction of cause and effect could be interpreted the other way around for some of the correlations Mate has apparently found. That is, someone with a chronic illness could be "terrified of disappointing others who are important to them" because of this illness that leaves them unable to do certain things. But based on the second passage and what you say in your introduction, he seems to believe these illnesses are the effect, not the cause.

Causation is such a tricky thing. (I just had a brief lesson about arguing about cause and effect with my Beginning College Writing students, actually.) I'm pretty skeptical about Mate's conclusions, though. What actual evidence has he provided? There can certainly be consequences to repressing emotions, but it would take a lot to convince me that cancer, MS, etc. are caused even partially by emotional repression.

Theorizing like this can lead to great things, but it can also lead to unnecessary anguish and self-reproach. I hope you don't feel like crap for long about this far-fetched idea.