Spoiler Warning: Contains Spoilers for Mad Men.
I recently finished watching Mad Men, one of my favorite shows. The story of Don Draper is the story of narcissism, set to the back drop of the 1960s. I find it easy to identify with him as my own journey was really only secondarily about gender, and first about healing from narcissism. I have never seen such a good portrait of narcissism, particularly from the point of view of the narcissist, as in this show.
The defining characteristic of narcissism from a psychological perspective is feeling that who you are is unacceptable in some way, then constructing a persona and totally identifying with that persona to the point of mistaking it for your complete self. This is due to feeling a great deal of shame around the real self and therefore wanting to bury it completely. It also has its roots in conditional love. A child that feels they cannot be loved unconditionally and can only be loved due to their achievements or certain traits can develop this dynamic. They build the false self in order to receive love. However, conditional love is not real love, it is only an approximation. The tragedy is that this conditional love can never completely nourish all the time. It is like eating a diet of junk food all the time, yes it might keep you alive, but will not allow for flourishing.
The classic portrayal of the narcissist is of an arrogant man who manipulates others and is abusive and self-centered. This is really just one type of narcissist. Narcissists come in lots of different flavors depending on the particular persona that is constructed. They can be quite self-effacing in fact. What is common is the creation and identification with a persona. I was never a classic narcissist, but the woman I was living as was a character I created, even if I wasn’t consciously aware of it.
Our ability to create a persona is not in and of itself a problem. Indeed it is vital to functioning in different social contexts and part of being a healthy person. A person might go to work and put on one persona in the workplace, and then a different persona with friends, and a third with family etc. The persona is a mask that enables one to take on a role and helps others to recognize that is your role. A doctor might adopt the persona of the doctor when in office, and then take it off when with friends. The mask is like a filter for the self-expression, certain aspects are emphasized and certain aspects are de-emphasized. A persona is not purely constructed, people have personas they resonate with more or less depending on their nature.
The difference between a healthy persona and a pathological one is if the person can take it off and put it on. A friend once observed that you can see this difference looking at superhero stories. The superhero dons their super persona in order to perform acts of heroism and then goes back to the mundane world where they have an ordinary identity and an ordinary life. They are part of the community and have friends, love and connection.
The supervillian is not part of the community and cannot take their mask off. They have no true friends, only subordinates or superiors. Both superhero and supervillian gain their powers in response to an extraordinary, often traumatic event. It is their response to the event that determines which way they go.
Returning to Mad Men and Don Draper: Don Draper was born Dick Whitman, to a poor family. He enlisted in the Korean War and eventually killed his CO, taking on his identity. He used his new background as an officer as part of his rise in social status, eventually becoming a powerful man in advertising. On the outside he is very successful, rich, handsome, powerful and a ladies’ man. However on the inside things are very different. He struggles with his past and his knowledge that on some level that he is fake. He drinks heavily, and bounces from unsatisifying relationship to unsatisfying relationship, always grasping for what is real. He has more and more success in his career, and makes more and more money. One point I get from the show is that while it very fun to watch Don Draper, and it might be fun to have a fling with Don Draper, it is terrible to actually be Don Draper.
The last season he almost totally breaks down. One day he goes into a meeting and just can’t take it any more. He gets in a car and just starts driving. He doesn’t know where he is going but just knows that he needs to get away from things. He confesses what he did to his CO to a group of veterans. He goes to a retreat center and has a moment of human connection. The next to last scene shows him in a group at the retreat center meditating when a smile crosses his face.
You might think he then leaves the advertising world forever, but he doesn’t. The last scene shows a classic coke commercial from the 70s, implying that he created it. That is because his advertising gift was part of his realness, that is the thing about the false self, it contains truth. It is not completely fake, rather it is the best the person can do. It is created as an attempt to avoid unbearable pain. It is the best attempt you can make at the time to be yourself. It is a lot like being a method actor, but being unable to let go of the role you are playing.
There are large cost to this. One of the main ones is that on some level you don’t really believe the persona is you, not completely, and so it requires validation to maintain it. Any challenge to the reality of the persona will bring back all of the toxic shame that led to the creation of the persona in the first place. People don’t have intense emotional reactions to being invalidated about traits they feel secure about, that is easy to brush off. If you mistake the persona for yourself, a threat to the persona is a threat to your very existence. So, there is this endless seeking of validation, which is sometimes called narcissistic supply and every time the persona is validated it feels good, but never enough. Every time the persona is not validated it feels so very painful.
The persona also prevents true unconditional love from reaching the heart, which is precisely what is needed for healing. This is what makes severe narcissism so difficult to treat in therapy. Narcissism is on a spectrum, so there is hope for some. However in some cases all we can do is help the person live the best they can under the constraints of the persona they have created, and maybe help them to not cause harm to others. If the persona they put forth is loved, that love doesn’t truly reach them, because again on some level the person knows it isn’t really them. ”If they really knew me, they wouldn’t actually love me”
Indeed, I think narcissism is the pathology of our age, not full-blown NPD, but a milder kind of narcissism that has become so prevalent that is almost the water we swim in, at least in 21st century America.
Some great things to read about narcissism:
The Last Psychiatrist talks a lot about narcissism and has a fascinating take on many issues.
Sam Vaknin who identifies as a narcissist, has a great site talking about his own experience and ideas about narcissism.