A mental health consultant for the hit AMC series probes the psychology of the flawed protagonist.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Don Draper was a survivor of childhood trauma.
But, when we first met Don, the protagonist of the acclaimed television series Mad Men, we met a man who had it all. He was at the pinnacle of his career, happily married to his gorgeous wife, Betty, father of two adorable children, and living in a big house in the one of the fanciest suburbs of Westchester. His haughty, arrogant, and aloof facade was easily mistaken for genuine confidence.
We soon found out, however, that Don was a man with flaws. An alcoholic, a womanizer, and an adulterer, he lied about things, not the least of which was his fake identity. These flaws, or “symptoms” as I think of them, were an indication that something in Don was unwell. Symptoms are often brilliant clues that let an individual know they have underlying yet blocked emotions, often from the past, that need attention and release.
Running from emotions
Don’s symptoms: his drinking, womanizing and cheating, served two main self-protective purposes:
1. To prevent contact with painful emotions from the past which push up for expression; and
2. To prevent contact with unmet longings for love and emotional safety.
Flashbacks gave us glimmers into Don’s childhood. Fraught with economic and emotional poverty, he was also physically and sexually abused. The most psychologically damaging part, however, was that he had no caring people at home. His suffering was met with indifference and even contempt. Children, whose suffering is met with indifference or worse, often develop traumatic shame.
What is traumatic shame?
When someone hurts us, we first react with anger and sadness. When those feelings are not responded to, we withdraw in self-defense. The vulnerable Self hides deep inside the mind, much like a turtle retreats into its shell. The sustained and visceral experience of disconnection from other people and from one’s own wants and needs defines traumatic shame.
The signs of shame are: believing we are flawed, defective, unworthy of love and happiness. Shame causes us to hide, isolate and withdraw from connection with others. Shame causes physical experiences that make us feel we are disappearing, disintegrating or sinking into a black hole with no bottom.
So what does Don do with all the internalized shame from his childhood?
People with shame are too ashamed and afraid to seek comfort from others. “Why bother?” Don might ask, “No one will be there for me any way.” But Don would only be partially right. No one was there for him as a child. That is true. Sadly, however, his trauma warns him to always expect rejection thus foreclosing an opportunity for love and emotional security in the future. It is no wonder people who suffer shame turn to coping strategies like drugs, alcohol, aggression and other self-destructive behaviors.
Don cannot bare being alone without being drunk. Without alcohol, the emotions and longings from the past get too close to the surface. He senses them deep in his soul and he has no skills, no education, and no person to help him handle such physically and emotionally overwhelming experiences. Numbing them was the best he could do.
Sex as a substitute for emotional comfort
Like so many survivors of attachment trauma, Don was too terrified to love and be loved. Yet humans have a universal need for holding and affection. Physical closeness from sex is the best way Don managed his conflict between the inborn need for closeness and his fear of closeness. By having sex with many different women, Don got his physical needs for affection met while maintaining the emotional distance he needed to feel safe.
By the last season of the series, Don finally figured out that masking and avoiding his shame was the wrong path. One particularly poignant moment happened in an earlier season when Don showed his children the home in which he grew up. The moment was loving, tender, and authentic. Revealing something true about his roots, taking off his prideful mask, was an important beginning to his recovery…the beginning of self-acceptance.
In the final season, Don’s life had fallen apart. He leaves New York City for a journey across the country. Will he find himself or kill himself? He ends up at Esalen, a renowned therapeutic retreat epitomizing values of love, acceptance, and connection. Don’s unconscious chose the perfect place for his nervous breakdown…a therapeutic community.
At Esalen, Don’s pain escalated. After calling Peggy to say an ominous goodbye, he hung up the phone and dropped to the floor. Suddenly, a woman appeared and invited him to come with her to a seminar. Frozen from pain, “I can’t move,” he told her, his struggle to go on palpable. “Sure you can,” she said, and tenderly escorted him to a group therapy session. There something transformational happened.
If one moment can change the brain for the worst, like in trauma, why can’t one moment heal the brain for the better?
Don listened intently as Leonard, a sad man in the therapy circle, described the pain of his aloneness and invisibility. A spark of life ignited in Don, he approached Leonard who was now sobbing. Don knelt down next to Leonard and they embraced sobbing in each other’s arms. Don’s despair finally witnessed by himself and others, he experiences relief. Don’s shame was transformed by connecting to others, allowing the deepest parts of himself to came out from hiding. (You can watch the scene after the post.)
Don did not end his life. He began it. Landing the Coke account and creating history’s greatest ad campaign, Don’s future looks bright. Mad Men showed us the conditions under which trauma and shame are born and what is needed for healing. Don, like all of us, needed to feel safe and accepted by at least one other person in order to heal. The past is finally experienced as over. Don’s ghosts, now memories, instead of tormenting him, remind him, and hopefully all of us, that we are all hurt from our childhoods, all flawed, all vulnerable and all beautifully human. We exist in connection and cease to exist without it.
Watch the scene “The Transformation and Healing of Don Draper”
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