"When the Body Says No" by Gabor Maté
(Guest Post; Book Summary)

04 January 2023
A picture of a male person at a beach during sunset
By Ethan Nelson
Guest Writer at Samaṇa
This is a book summary of When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté.
I couldn’t ignore Gabor Maté any longer. It seems like everyone in the therapy and healing space are raving about him.

Overview of When the Body Says No

  • Most incurable diseases of the 21st century are caused by childhood trauma and stress
  • A few specific personality and characteristic traits lead to a much, much higher risk of disease. Things like: repression of anger, inability to express emotions, lack of personal boundaries
  • the most important thing you can do is overcome the ingrained patterns and behaviors that you hold - eating healthy and exercising just isn't enough
  • If you don't learn how to honor your needs by saying no, the body will say no for you by developing a physical disease.
A picture of a girl wearing wings flying at a blue sky
Children in a non-attuned relationship may feel loved but on a deeper level do not experience themselves as appreciated for who they really are.

Environment is Everything

Humans are inseparable from the environments that they grow up in. As infants we’re the most malleable organism of all. Most animals learn to walk within a week of being born and know how to survive on their own within year 1-2. Whereas humans take 18-25 years to survive on their own and just as long to develop enough emotional competence to meet their own needs.

If the environments are less than stellar in childhood, we may never learn how to relate to our emotions in a healthy way. Which in turn makes our physiological system susceptible to incurable diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Putting Your Needs First Is Crucial

The biggest correlate with disease later in life is the subjugation of one's own wants and needs in order to get approval/love. If you don't learn how to honor your needs by saying no, the body will say no for you by developing a physical disease.

Furthermore, the reason we often put other’s needs before our own is because we learned that this is the best way to receive love early in life.

Patterns Are Laid Down in Childhood

Obviously one's parents don't love them they will acquire some sort of trauma. But what I’m more interested is when a parent does love a child, but the child still acquires trauma. In his book, Mate explains this through the concept of subtle attunement. A child has all of these subtle needs that require a consistent emotional attunement. The key here is that stress blocks the emotional attunement necessary for healthy child development.
Children in a non-attuned relationship may feel loved but on a deeper level do not experience themselves as appreciated for who they really are. They learn to present only their acceptable side to the parent, repressing emotional responses the parent rejects and learning to reject themselves for even having such responses.
They will have this feeling that they're only loved if they behave a certain way and act a certain way. Now before we go any further it’s important to note that there is no one to blame here. Trauma is intergenerational. You received it from your parents, who received it from their parents, who received it from there parents. There is absolutely no one to blame, only responsibility to be taken.

Disease Is Based On Environment

Gabor continually asked "Why do some people who smoke cigarettes their whole life avoid lung cancer and others who barely smoke get it?" Of which he came to the conclusion that smoking and lung cancer don’t have a causal relationship. Smoking doesn't cause lung cancer, per se, just increases the chances of it.

Now the insight here is that disease is not a cause of the bacteria/toxic substance itself but more so to the vulnerability of the human body to that substance. And what causes this vulnerability? You guessed it, STRESS.

Stress makes the body vulnerable to disease, any disease. No matter how healthy you eat and how much you workout, if you’re stressed then your body will still be susceptible to disease.

The Difficulties With Putting Our Needs First

A lot of times we don't feel that we can take care of our needs because we're so concerned about the needs of others.
Guilt is a feeling that you've chosen to do something for yourself.

Harmful Self-Beliefs

There are a few beliefs that make emotional expression and honoring our needs so difficult. Feel into if any of these resonate with your experience.

  • I have to be strong
  • It's not okay to be weak and ask for support
  • I can handle anything
  • It's not okay to be angry
  • If I'm angry, I will be unlovable
  • I'm responsible for the whole world
  • Conflict is a sign of a bad relationship
  • I don't exist unless I do something
  • without productivity and success I can't justify my existence

There are also behaviors, feelings and actions that are a materialization of these beliefs. Do any of these resonate with you?

Harmful Character Traits

Furthermore, here are a few of the character traits that can lead to the same negative physiological long-term effects:

  • helplessness
  • fear of displeasing / conflict
  • nice guy personality / being people pleaser
  • not feeling safe
  • loneliness
  • absorbing other people's emotions
  • need for approval
  • feeling the need to live up to parental expectations
  • high emotional dependence which causes high stress when the relationship deteriorates
  • lack of emotional intimacy
  • being closed off to the world and to others

The Power of Negative Thinking

The world is full of so much fake positivity. Positive thinking is so often a way that we repress our emotional needs and just pretend like everything is okay. The reality is that facing the negative is an unavoidable aspect of reality.
Genuine positive thinking begins by including all our reality. It is guided by the confidence that we can trust ourselves to face the full truth, whatever that full truth may turn out to be.
Fake positive thinking is based on an unconscious belief that we are not strong enough to handle reality. True positive thinking is having the courage to face the harder and more gritty aspects of reality and to come out on the other side. It's this sense that no matter how hard life gets, we'll always be able to get through and come out on the other side.

And for this we must think negatively, dive into that which we hate and that which angers us.

Building Emotional Competence

On top of that, there a few skills that help to prevent long-term development of diseases. Those are the capacity to:

  • feel our emotions
  • express our emotions
  • asset our needs and maintain emotional boundaries
  • challenge the internalized beliefs we've been programmed with and fulfill genuine needs instead

This is what Gabor called Emotional Competence. Of which, another aspect is autonomy and responsibility. The most important part of the healing process is that we have a genuine "desire to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of our ingrained beliefs and patterns."


All in all, what I took away from this book is that overcoming stress and trauma is important. If we don’t engage in this difficult process of overcoming our toxic patterns that we picked up childhood, then we’re literally at higher chance for developing chronic illnesses.

The Samaṇa program helps acquiring emotional competence, teaches ways to relate more harmoniously to self & others, assists in expanding one's awareness, and brings it all together via embodying responsibility. You can find out more on our website.

Note: This article has first been published in our newsletter. If you'd like to receive such articles and our newsletter straight into your inbox, you can sign up via the "subscribe to our newsletter" on the bottom right-hand side.

If you are interested in learning more about beliefs & schemas, feel free to check out this article titled "What Are Self-Limiting Beliefs and Can They Hold You Back?".

If you enjoyed this guest post by Ethan,

you can head over to his Substack "Becoming Conscious" to read more of his writing.

The information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult a professional for guidance about a specific condition.