Don Draper, Superheroes and Narcissism

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:

Alice Miller is probably the most well known author on narcissism, in particular her book Drama of the Gifted Child is amazing.

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.

13 comments

  1. Great post. Don’t you think that a significant driver of the shame underlying the narcissism in “transgender” people is their gender non-conformity? Isn’t it true, then, that dropping the gender-conforming mask is as critical to healing from the narcissism as is dropping the transgender mask?

    1. Yes, although what matters is expressing the underlying aspects of self that are deemed gender non-conforming. This depends more on the internalized rules of gender than what is actually considered non-conforming by society.

      Narcissism is ultimately a response to rigidly internalized standards of some kind, that are enforced in a harsh punishing way, whether those standards relate to gender or not.

  2. I can identify with this recent post. As I continue to recover from and heal all the facets of my own life that has been destroyed by following this narcissistic path to a false gender; initially being called by Male pronouns was extremely painful. As I continue to heal mentally and physically; validation is also no longer important as I realize, one can only be what they were born and no amount of hormones or surgery will ever change that. I watch the Bruce Jenner transformation with equal amounts of repulsion, but also a complete understanding; for I was there too and believed in the path I was following. I wonder when he will wake from this false persona; but I know the stakes are too high for him to turn back now. I hope for the day when Trans people receive “real help;” and the surgeon’s knife, ONLY as an absolute last resort.

    Gregory

    1. Great post and i can identify with your feelings. I agree the stakes are too high for Bruce Jenner and it’s going to be very difficult for him to turn back even if he wanted too. For me once i got on hormones, it felt like there was no stopping.

  3. I’ve thought long and hard about this post because it was this very argument that I used to leep myself from transitioning. I usually joke that the distress from transitioning is 5% being different and 95% failing to meet conventional beauty standards. I think that is where the narcissistic edge comes in because not only do you need to express yourself honestly you also feel the need to be beautiful and just like a biological female. I find that there is im.ense freedom in accepting that by being trans you aren’t like biological females, you are a completely different type of woman. Not better or worse, just different. Though society will obviously mess with people’s ability to accept this and force them into boxes.

    I think for the most part there is some truth to what trans people are trying to express, moreso than they were trying to live as their assigned gender. I fnd it interesting that you mention mindfulness as a way to deal with gender related dysphoria because I came to uncover and accept my gender identity through zen meditation. Sometimes there are aspects of your self that you are repressing that do good if you express them. If make-up and clothes helps, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. I often also joke that transition is just wearing different configurations of cotton and polyester and shifting around my body hair. My zen priest once told me “Look! You’re going to have a persona regardless. Might as well have one that is closer to the truth.”

    1. Everyone I know that has transitioned and remained sane in the long term also recognizes their differences with cis folks, it doesn’t make them inferior just different.

      It is also true that even though the persona is a mask that can be taken on and off, there also are some personas that will resonate with a person more than others according to their particular nature, like you say.

  4. Narcissism is a topic close to my heart. I immediately looked up Alice Miller’s book when I saw your reference to it. I was in a gifted program in school, and as I got older I became quite uncomfortable with my privileged status and the condescending attitude I felt that many teachers had promoted.

    Of course I feel I also do have the “gift” that apparently Miller was talking about– I’ve come to understand my childhood in a similar way to what the book reviewers say she was describing; taking care of other people is incredibly fundamental to how I approach the world.

    On the other hand looking back, I can see a common thread where I’ve asserted my true self (or maybe it’s asserted itself…) And of course in adulthood I’ve had many more opportunities to do so and I think seized a good number.

    Cutting to the chase, my overall dissatisfaction with psychology is that we generally tend to overemphasize the individual even to the point of assuming emotional boundaries exist in ways that we’d like them to rather then dispassionately attempting to evaluate their reality.

    My impression, more and more, is the idea that “we are all one” is not just a helpful tool for personal growth but perhaps in fact a fundamental fact of life.

    Of course, that’s incredibly vague. I’m just very skeptical that we can define a “true self” in any objective sense, and the same goes for a “persona.” I do admit that they can be very powerful concepts for communication between people.

    Anyway I hope you’re catching my drift here 🙂

    Oh, I did like the last bit where you described narcissism as kind of like the water we swim in nowadays. I totally agree, which for me raises questions like: how do we separate our own narcissism from that of the world around us? Is that possible? Maybe in some perverse sense adopting a mask is actually the best way to relate genuinely to others who are themselves afraid to reveal their own faces or compelled to hide them?

    Personally, for what it’s worth, I think that these nesting russian dolls are finite. It’s just going to take many very delicate movements to open up the smaller ones. No doubt an extra pair of hands will help. But I really doubt we’re going to need to see our own reflections at any point in the process.

  5. I liked this post. Its not 100% clear to me where Narcissism specifically relates to trans gender though. While reading the post I was thinking:

    Young man cross dreams, he doesn’t understand the feeling (traumatic) and is ashamed and creates a persona that is overtly male. Then lives his life with this mask not being able to separate this from his real self.

    But then I was thinking this was more like someone created a female persona in response to some trauma in their life, masking their true self?

    1. Sometimes I think it is both the male persona and the female persona that are off from the true self in opposite directions. I think you can really see this with some of the mid-life MTF transitioners that were rugged, masculine ex-military types as men. The impulse to let go of that rigid, macho self is indeed a healthy one, but sometimes it is a movement to a different feminine self that is just unnatural in a different way. The problem is not figuring out whether the male self or the female self is the true self, the problem is that there is a split at all.

      1. “The problem is not figuring out whether the male self or the female self is the true self, the problem is that there is a split at all.”

        I think there is a way of reconciling oneself with an underlying consistency (which often we effectively can represent as a healthy collection of schemas), all the while problematizing not only maleness & femaleness, but the notion of a “true” or even single/unified self.

  6. I love myself as a man, I think that i look good and that I am ver smart and interesting.

    I want to be a woman because for me the woman have the power of seduction just because they have a pussy. So an average women would have more power that the best looking man on earth. Hence I feel somewhat inferior to women, not because of me but because I am a man.

    Many trans HATE themselves as men. I wonder if they are trans or just hate themselves and try to find the most extreme way to be somebody else = changing sex.

    I do not hate my body but I have no pride or happiness to use it like a normal man with a woman. I do nt like to be top. I am 100% bottom. I only had sex with women because I was in love and to keep the link. My sexual life in my fantasy is 100% as a woman with a man.

    Hence I want a pussy and a female body. I have no shame or guilt. For me it sounds very normal as it matches my fantasy.

    I this that I have a dysphoria and that it comes because I can not get rid of the sexual drive with a mal body as in my fantasy I am a woman.

    So I have no life as a man : I have not worked for 13 years, I live with parents, I have no goal, no target, all my energy goes into the fantasy (thinning how I could become a woman) or into fighting the fantasy (telling to myself that this is silly, that I am not trans but just a man with a fantasy…).

    I feel not alive, like a mild derealization and depersonalization that is almost chronic but not strong, I never fell happy, almost never feel positive emotion, the only moment when I feel alive is in bed with a hairy man who treats me as his wife !

    This dissociation is linked to the gender : I feel like that when I see women in nylon or when I see people having a normal life in a gender they love and when I tell to myself that I am not like them as I want to be a woman while I have a male body.

    I feel no panic, no real depression, no phobia, no shame with sex, I have no fear to tell that I may be trans and that I want to be a woman.

    I feel dysphoric most of time and even think it is normal and that al people are like that : irritation, anxiety, APATHY, bad energy, emptiness…

    All these things could be seen in a borderline state but I never used drugs, never smoked, never drunk, never did anything dangerous, I was virgin till 22, finished university without changing my mind, I am not impulsive but rather slow to act (I think much before doing anything and tend to procrastinate to death) and do not care if people do not love me, I like to be alone because I find most people boring and dumb but I am extraverted when I meet people (I like to talk to people and tell all my life so I have no fear of intimacy), so that doesn’t sound very borderline.

    I had sex with many men during 2 years of sexual experimentation (as a woman all the time) but never even sucked a dick without condom so you see that I am not impulsive and have a very good self control and that I stay in reality.

    Am I trans ? I don’t know. What is sure : I am not happy and would agree to die if I could sleep and not wake up tonight !

    I would also agree to wake up as a female in a woman’s life with MINE mind; so it means that I thin that I have a mind that can control a woman’s life and a female body. So may be that I have a gender that is WOMAN.

    My mother wanted a girl, I never left my parents and I am 42 !

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